Last week, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Threshold Editions, the conservative imprint of publishing giant Simon & Schuster, advanced Milo Yiannopoulos $250,000 for his forthcoming book, Dangerous, which will focus, broadly, on the topic of “free speech.” The news was met with sharp rebuke on social media, while headlines and articles alternatively described the Breitbart editor as a “right-wing” troll, a leader of the “racist, misogynist…alt-right,” an “anti-immigration, anti-Muslim” writer, and, most consistently, a “provocateur.”
All of these descriptions are true: Yiannopoulos has built his career off of harassment, most recently taking as his targets Adelaide Kramer, a trans student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and comedian Leslie Jones. His brand of brash bigotry has made him a darling of alt-right circles who eagerly take up his bidding, sending hateful, racially-charged messages to actresses like Jones and, of course, hacking her website. And yet, Yiannopoulos is consistently referred to as a provocateur, as though his commitment to harassment is simply impishly enjoyable performance. But as Laurie Penny argued in her thoughtful essay, “I’m With the Banned,” Yiannopoulos is hardly a provocateur but rather something less refined, a word perhaps that we haven’t yet coined that more accurately describes the “various sub-species of troll in this well-catered goblin market.”
Though Yiannopoulos’s hateful antics got him kicked off Twitter, the book publishing industry seems to view his polemical routine as a good bet. Or, at least a good enough bet: Threshold advanced him $250,000 on the book, a sum higher than the average advanced to a first time nonfiction writer, but lower than most of his counterparts. Former Minnesota Governor and failed presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, for example, received a $340,000 advance for his 2010 dud Courage to Stand.
“That he would parlay his notoriety into some sort of book deal is an unsavory, if inevitable, prospect,” Alexandra Schwartz wrote at the New Yorker. Some were surprised that Simon & Schuster, an ostensibly respectable publisher, would stoop low enough to offer Yiannopoulos, with his history of harassment, a platform to explore ideas now unwelcome on platforms like Twitter. But given the history of the conservative book publishing industry, it’s hardly surprising that they would welcome Yiannopoulos into the fold. Yiannopoulos is both the offspring and natural heir of the conservative publishing industry, a market that’s always valued angry bombast over substance.
Upset with Threshold’s decision, many called for a boycott of Simon & Schuster. Others disagreed with a boycott, arguing that it would only be punishing writers who had nothing to do with Threshold’s decision. And that’s true. As Constance Grady pointed out in Vox, imprints like Threshold act like “fiefdoms” within the Big Five publishing houses. As such, Threshold is editorially independent from Simon & Schuster. To be clear, despite what Yiannopolous intimated, Grady notes:
[…] He doesn’t have a book deal with Simon & Schuster, the prestigious imprint that publishes people like Bret Easton Ellis, Dave Eggers, and Hillary Clinton. He has a book deal with Simon & Schuster, the publishing house that includes such imprints as Enliven (New Age books) and Jeter Publishing, the official publishing imprint of New York Yankee Derek Jeter.
Specifically, Yiannopoulos has a book deal with Threshold Editions, the designated right-wing imprint for Simon & Schuster.
Simon & Schuster (the publishing house) reaffirmed its commitment to publishing Dangerous in a December 30 statement: “We have always published books by a wide range of authors with greatly varying, and frequently controversial opinions.” The publisher then asked readers to “withhold judgment until they have had a chance to read the actual contents of the book.”
Simon & Schuster’s statement was mired in a particular kind of unabashed irony: have an open mind and buy the book, the publisher encouraged, as though taking a page from Yiannopoulus’s own absurdly wrong interpretation of liberal tolerance (a favorite phrase of Yiannopoulus and his ilk who use the phrase as a bludgeon with little concern over its purpose or empathetic values). The almost ridiculous suggestion that readers “withhold judgment” on a book penned by someone with Yiannopolous’s reputation aside, “buy the book” is the most important takeaway. A controversial book is, after all, good for business. After the announcement, Yiannopolous’s book shot up to the top place on Amazon’s best-seller list. Even a week later, the rough life cycle of a social media controversy, his book sits at number 29, wedged between the Dalai Lama and Paul Kalanithi’s universally praised memoir, When Breathe Becomes Air.