Saying No to Distributing a Controversial Title, a Publisher Attempts a Tightrope Act

When the small, independent publisher Post Hill Press said on Thursday that it would release a book by one of the Louisville police officers who shot Breonna Taylor, the outrage practically burned down the internet. It took less than 12 hours for Simon & Schuster to announce that it would not distribute the book.

The company’s swift, extraordinary move is the latest example of how big publishers are trying to draw a line in the sand over the books and authors they will take on, while navigating competing and increasingly heated financial and social pressures.

For years, mainstream publishers have struck a delicate balance when taking on books by authors on the right. Most of the major houses have dedicated imprints for conservative writers and politicians, and pride themselves on publishing across the ideological spectrum. But the polarization that intensified during the Trump era has made that stance more challenging to maintain.

Earlier this year, Simon & Schuster was criticized by many on the right for canceling a book deal it had in place with Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who questioned the results of the presidential election and was blamed for helping to incite the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. This month, the same publisher announced that it had acquired two books by former Vice President Mike Pence, which drew ire from the left.

The officer who Post Hill signed, Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, was one of the police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Ms. Taylor last year. An F.B.I. ballistics report found that Sergeant Mattingly fired at least one of the six shots that struck Ms. Taylor, though his was not the lethal bullet.

A spokeswoman for Post Hill said it still plans to publish Sergeant Mattingly’s book, “The Fight for Truth: The Inside Story Behind the Breonna Taylor Tragedy.”

“His story is important and it deserves to be heard by the public at large,” Kelsey Merritt, a publicist for the company, said in a statement. “We feel strongly that an open dialogue is essential to shining a light on the challenging issues our country is facing.”

But without a distributor, getting the book to readers — whether they’re shopping at local bookstores or on Amazon — will be a challenge.

Many small publishers lack the infrastructure and money to distribute books on their own, a process that requires warehouses, trucks and collections departments. Bigger companies like Penguin Random House, Hachette and Simon & Schuster offer such services to smaller ones, and their fees are typically 20 to 30 percent of sales. They charge extra to collect unsold copies, so they end up making money even when a book does badly.

“The distributor is in a no-lose situation,” said Dennis Johnson, a co-publisher of Melville House, an independent house based in Brooklyn. “They make money off a publisher coming and going.”

Contracts don’t usually allow distributors to pick and choose which titles they ship, and it is extremely rare for a company to decline to distribute a book because it objects to its content. A spokesman for Simon & Schuster said the company had never done it before. Like many small presses, Post Hill doesn’t have its own distribution facilities, and after the outcry, it is unlikely that another distributor will wade into the controversy to take on the book.

After Simon & Schuster decided it would not publish Mr. Hawley, however, the senator did not have trouble getting another book deal. He signed with Regnery Publishing, a conservative publisher — which happens to be one of Simon & Schuster’s distribution clients.

Thomas Spence, the president and publisher of Regnery, said he and his team looked at their distribution contract carefully when they signed Mr. Hawley. It does not affirmatively say that Simon & Schuster must distribute everything Regnery publishes, Mr. Spence said, but it does not give Simon & Schuster the right to refuse.

After Simon & Schuster canceled Mr. Hawley’s deal, Mr. Spence said, “it did make me and other conservative publishers wonder: What’s the next shoe to drop here? Might the contagion spread to the distribution side?”

Mr. Spence said that Simon & Schuster had told his company on Friday that the decision to cancel Mr. Mattingly’s book was a one-off move.

“They gave us their assurances that this was not going to be a general problem,” he said. “I just hope that’s true.”

With its decision not to distribute Sergeant Mattingly’s forthcoming book, Simon & Schuster seems to be acknowledging that a distributor bears some ethical responsibility for the books it ships, a line that it had not previously crossed.

In a letter sent to employees on Friday, Jonathan Karp, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster, apologized for “the distress and disruption” caused by the controversy. He stressed that the company would continue to publish a broad ideological range of books and would not make a practice of rejecting particular titles as a distributor.

“Although all of us involved in this decision shared an immediate and strong consensus about not wanting any role whatsoever in the distribution of this particular book, we are mindful of the unsustainable precedent of rendering our judgment on the thousands of titles from independent publishers whose books we distribute to our accounts, but whose acquisitions we do not control,” Mr. Karp wrote. Simon & Schuster declined to comment further.

Post Hill, based in Brentwood, Tenn., specializes in conservative political books and Christian titles, as well as books about business, self-help and pop culture. The company was founded in 2013 and has become an outlet for voices on the right; some of its best-selling authors include prominent conservatives like Dan Bongino, Laura Loomer and Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida. Earlier this year, Post Hill acquired books by Jim Jordan, the Ohio congressman and Trump supporter, and Dr. Ronny Jackson, a Texas congressman and Trump’s former medical adviser. It has also taken on books attacking some favorite targets of conservatives, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, former President Barack Obama and Hunter Biden.

News that Post Hill was publishing Sergeant Mattingly’s book was reported earlier by the Courier Journal in Louisville, Ky., on Thursday. On Twitter, authors including Roxane Gay, Celeste Ng and Don Winslow excoriated Simon & Schuster for its involvement.

“This is absolutely disgusting, and @simonschuster (why is it ALWAYS S&S?) should be ashamed of itself,” Ms. Ng wrote.

Publishers have increasingly had to contend with revolt from their own workers in addition to public outcry. Earlier this year, employees at major publishing houses circulated an open letter calling on companies to reject submissions by former members of the Trump administration and by those who incited or supported the violence of Jan. 6, arguing that such authors “should not be enriched through the coffers of publishing.”

As of mid-April, the letter had been signed by more than 630 publishing professionals. Among the signatories were editorial assistants and sales associates at Simon & Schuster.

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