It was one thing to be a radical thinker, challenging most of the prevailing social notions of the day, and going head-to-head with a dominant and doctrinaire church. But as writer Harrison Salisbury told a group of fellow scribes here not long ago, "August Strindberg was able to beat the rap with the church, and with the rigid Swedish society of his time, but he was never able to beat the rap with his publisher."
Protest as the playwright might--and Strindberg did--"they kept deleting parts of his works that they found offensive."
Which made the late Swedish playwright a rather sterling example of the problems and issues these members of the Authors Guild of America, and others, had gathered to discuss: Pressures that impel publishers to withdraw books; the effects of such actions on authors, bookstores and readers; respective rights and obligations of authors and publishers; First Amendment considerations, and "procedures that might involve the aborting of controversial books."
On the surface, Salisbury said, "These issues do seem disparate," but in fact, "They really are interconnected and almost certainly do hover around the relationship of the author to his publisher, and the relationship of that author and that publisher to the society around them."
Outright censorship, certainly, is one thing. But "at the moment we are not discussing official censorship," Salisbury said. "But the pressures that come through unofficial channels, though very often they are quasi-official, may in fact become official." Indeed, Authors Guild lawyer Irwin Karp agreed: "It may be that you are better off being suppressed by the government than by the publisher. At least with the government you can go to court right away."
Speaking not as an official representative of Simon & Schuster (of which he is editor in chief), but as an author and editor, Michael Korda said, "I would take the view myself that the withdrawal of a book is one of the most serious things that can happen to a book or to an author."
In the '60s, Korda could readily recall "tremendous pressures (to withdraw)." For example, "there was a book by Jerry Rubin called 'Burn It Now,' which recommended that high school students should burn down their schools--the validity of which I question now in 1985 but which in the 1960s seemed like a new and exciting idea." Many consumers, however, apparently did not share this notion and urged the publisher to delete the incendiary volume from its inventory. "We did not withdraw," Korda said, "though many bookstores did not stock the book."
Tale of Children's Book
Then, Korda remembered, there was "an enormously successful children's book," the title of which his memory had managed to suppress. The book showed adults in their workaday lives, only instead of depicting people, animals were shown in place of grown-ups.
"For reasons that are obscure to me," Korda said, "the policeman was a pig." Presumably, "the author was apparently living in Nirvana, Ill., and was not aware that if you called a cop a pig, you got a night stick on your nose, if you were lucky."
And as a result of this little kiddies' book, Korda said, "We had pickets, we had bookstores urging us to withdraw. It ended up costing us a fortune." Years later, he said, "it's possible to laugh at it, but it wasn't possible to laugh at it then."
In any case, Korda said, "What is interesting about both of these cases is that in hindsight, both seem trivial and ludicrous. When the really serious things do happen, when we published 'All the Presidents' Men' and had our telephones tapped, when we published Seymour Hersh's book about Kissinger, and had Kissinger descend on us," the situation seemed vastly less monumental.
"So the biggest problems," Korda said, "have come in retrospect over books that were decisions that were merely inept." Rubin's book and the ill-fated children's book, he said, "cost us more than Watergate."
Not that Korda was in any way trying to minimize the seriousness of the withdrawal issue. One conspicuous example was entirely too prominent in most of his listeners' minds--the case of "Poor Little Rich Girl," author C. David Heymann's spicy biography of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. Shortly before Christmas in 1983, a dispute erupted over the validity of portions of the book, and its publisher, Random House, hastily ordered its recall.
A Publishing Collision With 'Worlds'
And "many decades ago," said Macmillan Publishing Co. President Jeremiah Kaplan, his own publishing house yielded to pressure from academic circles and yanked in "Worlds in Collision," a book that contradicted "many of the widely held astronomical theories of the time." The sad reality, Kaplan said, was that "most of the business" of Macmillan was in textbooks, so the company buckled to outside demands. Still, Kaplan said, the incident was "viewed within the company as what was a cowardly act."
As uncommon as actual withdrawal may be, however, its threat continues to loom large in the lives of publishers and authors alike. "In my experience," Kaplan said, "the pressures are nearly always from minority groups." In Chicago, Kaplan said, a Macmillan book called "Black Bourgeoisie" evoked "enormous pressure to withdraw" from the black community, but "we did not." And a "widely detested book" by Victor Lasky, "John F. Kennedy: The Man and the Myth," was actually withdrawn for one month immediately after the President's death, Kaplan said, "but then was put back on sale."
George J. W. Goodman, better known perhaps by his nom de plume, Adam Smith, observed that "publishers are always, it seems to me, a little ambivalent"; at least in nonfiction publishing, "they think, why get themselves out on a limb?" As a consequence, Goodman suggested, publishers may "over-lawyer" a manuscript, subjecting it to such scrutiny and potential objections as to tear its insides out. Goodman recalled, for instance, the case of his own book, "Supermoney," where lawyers for his publishers studied the manuscript and pronounced that "we find pages 12 to 281 libelous."
But compromise is possible, Goodman said, as was evidenced by the case of "Splash of Color," a book about Braniff Airlines that contained what Goodman called "a paragraph about American Airlines that they didn't like." After many meetings of many minds, "American Airlines offered to pay the cost of ripping up the first 25,000 copies if the author agreed to redo the offending paragraphs. He did. They did. And everyone went away happy."
As Korda pointed out, "There is no more expensive decision in publishing than to pulp 25,000 copies."
Nonetheless, Korda said, "The ultimate indignity is not a lawsuit or its threat. The real threat is something that would cause an injunction that would cause us to withdraw a book."
Kitty Kelley, well-known for her celebrity biographies, said that "mercifully," she had been spared the pain either of libel threats or withdrawal threats. But in working for 3 1/2 years on her current project, a biography of Frank Sinatra, Kelley related how she had run into yet another obstacle to publication: a pre-publication lawsuit on the part of her subject. Said Kelley, steaming over the "very expensive and intimidating year and three months" consumed by Frank Sinatra's legal maneuvers against her: "I think it's outrageous to bring a lawsuit against someone who hasn't written a word."
Supported by Her Publisher
Throughout the process, Kelley said, "My publisher, Bantam, stood behind me, thank God." Ultimately the Sinatra lawsuit was dropped, but one result of her experience is that "I now expect my publisher to stand behind me 100%. In return, I will get my publisher every single piece of verification I can."
Pressures not to publish, in short, can come from myriad sources: "For example," Salisbury said, "pressures from the Catholic Church." Oh no, Korda said, laughing: In his experience, such pressure came "only from Protestants," such as the time a Protestant minister blasted the late Max Schuster as a "filthy smut peddler" for publishing a "lighthearted spoof of a boarding school that takes up prostitution."
As to the question of government influence, particularly claims of security violations, "to my mind," Salisbury said, the most outrageous example of this and of a publishing firm caving in to it occurred on the eve of World War II, "when the very distinguished publishing firm of Harper & Row was about to publish a biography of Stalin by Leon Trotsky." The book, Salisbury said, was bound and ready for publication, when "the publisher was asked by the government, possibly even by Roosevelt himself" to withhold publication because "Russia was now an ally--and they (the publisher) did."
Or, Salisbury went on, there is the matter of the withdrawal of books that may occur when a publishing house is acquired by new owners. Karp, for one, remembered three books scheduled to be published by Dodd, Mead that were summarily dropped after Dodd, Mead was acquired by Thomas Nelson.
"In that setting," Karp said, "it raises a very important question, which is that when a publishing entity is taken over, is the buyer ethically entitled to the right of suppression?
"I happen to think not."
Still, the questions tend to pale, Salisbury said, when viewed in a global light. "There are countries," he said, "where these controversies do not arise, because the government decides what will be said anywhere, whether on the cover of a matchbook, or between the covers of a book."
Finally, Salisbury said, "I think people will agree that we have a lot of freedom in this country, and"--he smiled--"not enough people buy books, and in the end they are missing a lot."