From J.K. Rowling to Josh Hawley, writers with unpopular beliefs are under siege. Now Amazon is on the battlefield

Publishers once wanted conservative books because they make money, but they’re pulling back at the first whiff of controversy

Editor’s note: The death of Rush Limbaugh, the growth of Newsmax and charges of censorship by Amazon and other book sellers are among the forces shaking up conservative media companies. In this three-part series, the Deseret News examines the challenges facing radio, television and book publishing, and how those challenges might affect the companies and you: the reader, listener and viewer.

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley lost a book deal. “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling lost fans. And now, even as a prospective merger of two large publishing houses in the U.S. is rattling the industry, Amazon is deleting content it deems offensive from the world’s largest platform for book sales.

In this tumultuous landscape, can conservative authors still continue to speak freely and sell books?

Yes, publishers say, but they may have to change the way they do business in a culture newly cognizant of the power to “cancel” people with unpopular opinions.

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“We don’t let it directly determine what we publish, but the fact is, with every book, there is always fear that the book is going to be pulled. The authors feel very vulnerable,” said David Bernstein, publisher of Bombardier Books, a conservative imprint of Post Hill Press.

Conservative fears were realized this month when the book “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment,” by Catholic scholar Ryan T. Anderson, vanished from the Amazon website three years after it was published.

Four Republican senators, including Utah’s Mike Lee, called the action “political censorship,” saying in a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos that “Amazon has openly signaled to conservative Americans that their views are not welcome on its platforms.”

But the controversy over Anderson’s book is only the latest action troubling conservative writers and publishers. Others include the cancellation of a forthcoming Hawley book critical of technology companies by Simon & Schuster, protests against a new book by Canadian psychologist and author Jordan Peterson, and an open letter signed by people in the publishing industry who say no one affiliated with former President Donald Trump’s administration should get a book contract.

Thomas Spence, president and publisher of the conservative Regnery Publishing, poses for a portrait while working at home during the pandemic in McLean, Va., on March 3, 2021. | Carol Guzy, for the Deseret News

The tremors shaking book publishing usually go undetected by the public, since the average reader only pays attention to the book, its content and the author, not the company that publishes a book, said Thomas Spence, who became president and publisher of Regnery Publishing a year ago.

Regnery, founded in 1947, has published books by Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Malkin and Dennis Prager, among other conservatives well acquainted with controversy. Regnery’s success was a major reason that the largest publishing houses in the U.S. established their own conservative imprints, publishing insiders say.

But the outcry against authors who express unpopular beliefs is growing louder in the environment known as cancel culture, and some writers are warning that recent events will effectively muzzle conservatives. The backlash to Amazon’s decision, however, suggests that the outlook for conservative publishing is still bright. Here’s why.

Silver lining

Anderson’s book, described by author Rod Dreher as a “well-written, scientifically informed critique of gender ideology by a leading Catholic public intellectual,” is still for sale on the website of the publisher, Encounter Books, as well as on the Barnes & Noble website and other places online.

Anderson, who recently became president of the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., told Dreher, writing for The American Conservative, that he has sold “a couple of thousand books” in the past week, adding this is “unheard of for a three-year-old book.”

He noted that Amazon’s action came at the same time Congress was considering the Equality Act and suggested that Amazon’s action has a silver lining, which is “this could be (the) further catalyst that’ll interrupt the libertarian slumber of many conservatives and prompt them to think critically about what, for example, the natural law says about both the justification of and limits to economic liberties.”

The House has passed the Equality Act, but religious freedom concerns remain

Author Abigail Shrier is not as optimistic. Shrier, a journalist whose book “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” has been removed twice from the Target website, wrote that the Amazon case is dangerous because of the outsized influence the company wields in publishing.

“As a direct result of Amazon’s action, many outstanding books will now go unwritten; they will not be commissioned whenever Amazon’s distribution is the slightest bit in doubt. As I write this, authors are being dropped by agents or politely refused representation, based on what the agents now know Amazon will not carry,” Shrier wrote.

Shrier’s book, however, is still listed on Amazon, as is “God and the Transgender Debate,” an examination of what the Bible has to say about gender by Southern Baptist theologian Andrew T. Walker.

So is a take on Anderson’s book, “Let Harry Become Sally,” an e-book by Kelly R. Novak that Amazon billed last week as a “#1 best seller.”

Amazon has not given a specific reason for removing Anderson’s book, saying only that the company reserves the right to delist content that violates its standards.

In an email, Anderson said this could be a moment that determines how the company will operate going forward. “If Amazon hears from enough people, perhaps that will lead it to reconsider its decision — and not just on me, but also preventing future de-platforming. If Amazon gets away with this, it’ll likely lead to more de-platforming in the future.”

‘First whiff of controversy’

While Anderson can only speculate about the reasons his book is no longer on Amazon, Hawley, the Missouri senator, knows why Simon & Schuster canceled his book contract because the company put out a statement. Without giving specifics, the publisher said that Hawley, a Trump supporter who was the first senator to say he would challenge the 2020 election results, had a role in the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

“As a publisher it will always be our mission to amplify a variety of voices and viewpoints; at the same time, we take seriously our larger public responsibility as citizens, and cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom,” the statement said.

Hawley’s book deal was canceled the day after the riot. The next week, more than 250 authors, editors, agents and other workers in publishing signed an open letter that said no companies should publish work by anyone who “incited, suborned, instigated or otherwise supported” the riot, or who was a “participant” in the Trump administration. The number of signers is now approaching 600.

But within two weeks, Hawley had another publisher in Regnery, and Spence explained the decision in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, in which he said cancel culture is more appropriately described as “blacklisting.”

Thomas Spence, president and publisher of the conservative Regnery Publishing, works at home during the pandemic in McLean, Va., on March 3, 2021. | Carol Guzy, for the Deseret News

“Not so long ago, publishing professionals would have been horrified to be accused of it. Today they compete to see who can proclaim his blacklist with the fiercest invective,” Spence wrote.

So far, Amazon hasn’t been inclined to cancel Hawley’s book; it’s accepting pre-orders for “The Tyranny of Big Tech” and gives a release date of May 4.

Spence said he’d been following Hawley’s career — knew he was a Yale Law School graduate and was a former Supreme Court clerk — and had thought it would be nice to have a book from him before this one essentially landed in his lap.  “A lot of people have sent me emails saying, ‘Oh, you’re so courageous, thanks for taking a stand and taking this book,’ and I have to blush. I think I did the right thing, but I don’t know that it was particularly courageous in this case,” he said. 

“Getting canceled by Simon & Schuster has raised the profile of the book a lot,” he added.

That has happened before, said Bernstein of Bombardier Books. When Simon & Schuster canceled a book by Milo Yiannopoulos in 2017, the far-right commentator self-published “Dangerous” and sold “upwards of 100,000 copies,” Bernstein said.

Donald Trump Jr. also self-published his second book, “Liberal Privilege.”

Bernstein said that conservative imprints — such as Center Street at Hachette Book Group or Sentinel at Penguin — are “ghettos” within the largest publishing houses, which he said skew young and liberal. “The problem with conservative books within the large publishing houses is that they’re not going to support you if there is any controversy. The first whiff of controversy, Josh Hawley gets his book canceled. The first whiff of controversy, (Florida GOP Congressman) Matt Gaetz gets his book canceled. The editors get fired or get shifted around. Or the imprint gets closed. All of these things are happening at an increasing pace right now.”

The New York Times recently reported that longtime editor Kate Hartson, editorial director at Center Street, had been let go and that Hartson told colleagues she thought her termination was because of her political beliefs. She had published books by Donald Trump Jr., Newt Gingrich, radio host Michael Savage and Rand Paul, among others.  Her most recent book was reported to be “Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy,” by Andy Ngo.

‘Controversy is good’

Not every objection to an author results in a book being canceled. When Penguin Random House Canada announced that it was publishing Jordan Peterson’s “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life,” the company had to hold a town-hall style meeting for employees who were upset about the decision. It was published anyway. (In the U.S., the book was released March 2 under Penguin’s Portfolio imprint.)

And some authors, like J.K. Rowling, have the benefit of being too successful to be truly canceled, Bernstein said. “Her position in publishing is kind of untouchable. When you make up that much of a company’s bottom line — she’s like a line item of her own on their balance sheet — no company is going to release her and give up that revenue.”

For many conservative authors, however, the fear of being “de-platformed” is real, whether it be on a sales platform or social media.

“Frankly, the number of books that get pulled off of Amazon is infinitesimal, but these stories get magnified and people are rightly concerned, because the number of people being de-platformed on Twitter started off being very small, too,” Bernstein said.

Small conservative imprints such as Bombardier may benefit from the current environment if authors seek publishers who share their views. But so may Regnery, whose namesake, the late Henry Regnery, published “Memoirs of a Dissident Publisher” in 1979.

Thomas Spence, president and publisher of the conservative Regnery Publishing, poses for a portrait with a copy of Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” while working at home during the pandemic in McLean, Va., on March 3, 2021. | Carol Guzy, for the Deseret News

Spence, who said his views were shaped by the First Things essay “Why the News Make Us Dumb” by C. John Sommerville and “The Conservative Mind” by Russell Kirk, welcomes the business, although he realizes that this may be a particularly vulnerable moment for conservative publishers.

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“Certain big players in the publishing world have the power to make our business very difficult if they want to. That’s Amazon and Google, all the people targeted by Josh Hawley’s book, and maybe I’m stupid to be publishing a book punching them in the nose,” Spence said.

“If we couldn’t sell our books on Amazon, that would be a pretty serious blow. We sell most of our books on Amazon. What they have done on rare occasions is make it more difficult for people to find our books.” He cited Shrier’s book, which Regnery published. The company wanted to buy ads that would make the book more prominent in searches, but Spence said that Amazon would not let them buy ads for that book.

Spence is also cognizant of the power of Facebook and Twitter, and that social media platforms could also take action to block promotion of one of his authors or books.

“There’s a lot of potential hazards on the road ahead,” he said. “But it’s also good times for Regnery, because there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Controversy is good.”

Thomas Spence, president and publisher of the conservative Regnery Publishing, poses for a portrait while working at home during the pandemic in McLean, Va., on March 3, 2021. | Carol Guzy, for the Deseret News
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