Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You kind of trust the author to write the sort of book you signed up for. But sometimes you get surprised. And sometimes circumstances change and what looked like a perfectly decent project becomes “indecent” because the world’s conversation has moved on. What do you do when you get a manuscript that you cannot approve of? You can suggest changes, but sometimes the trouble is too fundamental for that to be an option.

Now of course any publisher has the right not to publish any book they don’t want to. Usually nobody is aware of this refusal taking place — the publisher just doesn’t make an offer for a book of a type they don’t want to be seen as supporting. However, it occasionally comes to pass that a contract for a book does exist, and when it’s finally written the publisher wants to back out for one reason or another. Depending on the terms of the contract a publisher may have to have very good and specific reasons for refusing to publish a manuscript, but the contract language is probably a bit too vague to cover lots of instances. The commonest excuses are that the manuscript has been delivered later than specified in the contract, or is much longer than the book contracted. In the absence of contractual outs the publisher can probably find arguments to justify publishing most “unacceptable” manuscripts. At the most anodyne level imagine that you decide to abandon your publishing program in computational linguistics. Professor X delivers his computational linguistics manuscript a year later, there being no delivery date specified in the contract. It may actually be in the author’s best interest to have a more committed publisher take on the book, and probably some sort of separation can be arranged. But if Prof. X wants to enforce the terms of his contract, the publisher would no doubt find no great difficulty in publishing the book; or just printing it and “making it available”. Computational linguistics is (no doubt unless you are a linguist) a relatively uncontroversial subject area: when you get into politics and social hot-button topics, the temperature rises.

The Passive Voice certainly makes it sound like HarperCollins acted prejudicially in the case of a sci-fi novel, CTRL ALT Revolt!, which involves the controversial topic of abortion. I think Nick Cole’s post shows an author desperately seeking reasons why what he wrote didn’t please. The author’s complaint is that the publishers “were attempting to effectively ban a book because they felt the ideas and concepts I was writing about were dangerous and more importantly, not in keeping with their philosophical ideals”. Despite the Passive Guy’s habitual animus against New York publishers, there appears to be no reason to think HarperCollins rejected the novel simply because it incorporated something about abortion. (We do only get to see one side of the argument of course.) Does it not remain possible that the book wasn’t as good as Mr Cole’s previous one? Indeed his claim that his use of abortion is merely “a very small background justification for global homicide” sounds like a conclusion way beyond what AI-enabled robots watching one woman on a reality TV show would ever come up with: they’re meant to be intelligent after all! One suspects that the book was rejected not because of its attitude towards abortion, but because abortion was an insufficient motivator for the entire action. Now he’s published it himself one could judge for oneself.

In any case, what law (beyond the author’s contract: and that can be settled by money) can be said to force HarperCollins to publish books which are “not in keeping with their philosophical ideals”?

Simon & Schuster must of course have known how much Milo Yiannopoulos’s book would or would not be “in keeping with their philosophical ideals” when they contracted it. It was their conservative imprint which signed it up after all. Yet after they saw the manuscript they decided to back out. Despite Mr Yiannopoulos’ legal threats he has apparently decided to self-publish his book Dangerous. Prior restraint ain’t what it used to be, now the author can just do it himself. Despite reports of slow sales, Milo Inc.’s CEO Alexander Macris claims “We printed 105,000 books and every single one has been ordered.” Nevertheless Mr Yiannopoulos has filed suit against S&S: oral arguments are scheduled to start 8 October unless the publisher’s lawyers succeed in dodging the bullet.

Cambridge University Press’ current problems in China are of a slightly different nature — here it’s not the publisher who’s objecting to the content, but a foreign government, but the debates caused by the event are likely to be fairly similar to earlier instances where books were withdrawn because of political or legal circumstances. I wrote a couple of years ago about Karen Dawisha’s book, Putin’s Kleptocracy dropped by CUP for fear of libel implications. I suppose fear of expensive law suits is less dramatic than fear of polonium poisoning, but surely a publisher must have the right to decide whether they want to expose themselves to any kind of risk. Libel laws are less plaintiff-friendly in USA, and as far as I know Simon & Schuster have not suffered from publishing Professor Dawisha’s book. (Nor has presumably the author, nor the potential audience for the book. The only sufferer is the original publisher, who presumably will never be getting another manuscript from this author and no doubt many of her friends.)

An earlier Cambridge case, the withdrawal in 1996 of Anastasia Karakasidou’s Fields of Wheat, because of warnings from the British Embassy that staff might be in danger, drew a snotty note from Misha Glenny in the London Review of Books. The same parenthetical comment at the end of the previous paragraph no doubt applies in this instance too. But, Mr Glenny, and other barrackers, if you were warned that writing this or that might put your employees at risk . . . — oh, but of course, you don’t have any employees to worry about, do you? Consider how the commentariat would instantly change their tune if, disregarding such a warning, a publisher had gone ahead and an employee had been killed, maimed, injured — the sanctimony would be overwhelming.

In earlier times, in the 1970s, Cambridge University Press did refuse to withdraw Stanford Shaw’s History of the Ottoman Empire, despite bomb threats because of its treatment of Armenian history. A bomb did explode, without injuring anyone, on Professor Shaw’s doorstep. Staff were just told to be vigilant and careful.

At an even earlier time, as a carefree junior editor in 1972 or 1973, I pooh-poohed the subeditor’s query as to whether it was a problem that a linguistics text used as example sentences often employing names from the Kennedy White House. Only first names were used, but cumulatively readers might well have thought “Camelot”. The sort of thing was “John earned a bad name for himself by swearing a lot.”, “Walt gave Ted the finger”. The book was printed, and after it arrived in USA was promptly withdrawn and pulped. I still have a copy, and still cannot see the problem. (It is true that W. W. Rostow was at that time a best-selling author for CUP in USA — was he maybe the one giving the finger?) The book was subsequently published by Indiana University Press; whether names were revised or not I don’t know. To my unrepentant mind an excess of caution was applied in this instance.

Why is it that these people insist of maintaining that publishers have some sort of moral obligation to publish books which they don’t want to? Publishers are free agents and can decide to do whatever they want. If you are making investments, you get to chose what you invest in. You may not personally like romance novels or want to publish them (even though they apparently sell like hot cakes) but Mills and Boon have every right to publish as many as they want. Nobody should (or does) think of criticizing them for not publishing exposés of the administration of the National Health Service, or analyses of Korean diplomacy.

In the absence of a contractual restriction, publisher whim, while not perhaps the greatest business strategy, cannot be disregarded. After all, if you are going to invest your money to fund the printing of the book, you surely ought not to be forced to do something you’d rather not, whether your reasons are good or bad. I can already hear the purists screaming about social responsibility and so on. Publishers may indeed claim some sort of social virtue when it suits them to do so, but when all’s said and done there’s no law enforcing it. Publishers are free to allocate their capital wherever they choose to.