If you were a certain kind of distinctly Trumpy public figure — say Donald Trump Jr. or Corey Lewandowski — looking to sell a book over the last four years, there were surprisingly few options. The Big Five publishing companies in New York, and even their dedicated conservative imprints, had become squeamish about the genre known as MAGA books, with its divisive politics and relaxed approach to facts. And small conservative publishers probably couldn’t afford you.
So if, like the younger Mr. Trump in 2018, you found yourself rejected by most New York publishers, there was one last stop: a corner cubicle in the fifth-floor offices of the Hachette Book Group in Midtown Manhattan. There, Kate Hartson, the editorial director of the conservative Center Street imprint, was the one mainstream editor who would buy what no one else would — and make a tidy profit for her employer.
Ms. Hartson, a fit 67-year-old who evvel ran a small press specializing in dogs, had all the trappings of a liberal book editor, including an apartment on the Upper East Side and a place in Hampton Bays. But she also seemed to be that rarest of figures in New York media: a true believer in Donald J. Trump, people who worked with her said. She published “Triggered” by Donald Trump Jr., Mr. Lewandowski’s “Trump: America First: The President Succeeds Against All Odds” and the work of other Trump die-hards like the Fox News host Jeanine Pirro and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker.
But Hachette, like The New York Times and other media companies, has been torn in recent years between the politics of its staff and its historic commitment to publishing conservative speech. Its liberal proprietors, of course, always abhorred the conservative content while cashing the checks. At Hachette, this meant employees having their salaries paid by Donald Trump Jr. while objecting to publishing liberals who had fallen out of favor, like Woody Allen or J.K. Rowling.
Ms. Hartson’s list was a somewhat more direct attack on her colleagues’ politics. The last book she bought was the forthcoming “Wokenomics: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam.” And so last month, even as Ms. Hartson was riding high with the best-selling political book on Amazon, “Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy,” Hachette fired her.
The official reasons for Ms. Hartson’s termination, two people familiar with it said, were mundane. But she told associates that she believed she’d been fired for her politics. In a Zoom meeting with employees on Jan. 26, the chief executive of Hachette Book Group, Michael Pietsch, and Daisy Hutton, the executive who oversees Center Street, didn’t mention Ms. Hartson. But they reassured employees that they had learned the lessons of the Capitol siege of Jan. 6: no hate speech, no incitement to violence, no false narratives. And they’ve separately made clear to both editors and agents that they’re shifting back toward think tank conservatives, and away from fire-breathing politicians. (Ms. Hartson didn’t respond to questions about her views and her firing.)
“The conservative movement is in a state of flux, and the next few years will be a particularly rich time for conversation about the future of conservatism in America,” Ms. Hutton, who is based in Nashville and whose background is primarily in Christian publishing, said in an email. “Center Street will continue to publish thoughtful, provocative, lively and informative books that contribute meaningfully to the shaping of that conversation.”
Hachette is hardly the only mainstream publisher steering away from MAGA books. Simon & Schuster invoked its “morals” clause to cancel the publication of a book by Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, after he objected to the results of the November election and cheered the protests right before violence broke out. Simon & Schuster, two sources familiar with its plans said, will also stop publishing the right-wing activist Candace Owens.
These tensions are, in part, about free speech. An older generation of publishing executives had long argued that they had a responsibility to publish voices they disagreed with as part of their function in a democracy. Thomas Spence, the president of the conservative publisher Regnery, said he regarded the shift by the Big Five (soon to be four, when Penguin Random House completes its acquisition of Simon & Schuster) as a “form of blacklisting.”
But when that word was used in 1950s Hollywood, the movie studios could silence a writer, director or actor because they exercised near total control over production and distribution. The New York publishers don’t have that power anymore. High-profile authors provide more marketing on social media than any publisher can dream of, and the largely values-neutral Amazon is the main distribution channel for most books. Donald Trump Jr. self-published his second book.
In the new media world, many publishing employees see their companies not as powerful gatekeepers but as workplaces and consider these political questions to be labor issues, not speech issues. They don’t feel any obligation to help authors who they believe they are hostile, in particular, to their ethnic or sexual identities. They’re part of a trend across the publishing industry that became visible in 2017 when employees and writers pushed Simon & Schuster to cancel a book by the far-right writer Milo Yiannopoulos, said Dennis Johnson, a founder of the left-leaning publishing company Melville House. “The current state of politics, just like it’s riven the country, is doing the same to publishing,” he said.
Others went further, including 10 Hachette employees who were among the 591 signers of an open letter last month arguing that any “participant” in the Trump administration and anyone who incited or supported the violence of Jan. 6 “should not be enriched through the coffers of publishing.”
Two Hachette employees said the growing pressure on Mr. Pietsch had been inspired by internal uprisings elsewhere in the media industry, and particularly by the success of employees at The New York Times in forcing out the opinion editor James Bennet for publishing an Op-Ed by Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican of Arkansas, “Send In the Troops” amid last summer’s unrest over racial injustice. (The Times again found itself at the center of the media industry’s self-examination last week, with the resignation of a top science reporter who had used a racist word while chaperoning teenagers on a $5,490 Times “student journey” to Peru.)
The New York publishers’ newfound scruples mean two things in practice. First, that publishers like Regnery, the newly founded Bombardier Books and small nonprofit presses will have their pick of the MAGA litter.
“As much as I regret what’s happening in the Big Five publishers as a conservative, the self-destruction of our competition is probably good for Regnery,” Mr. Spence said.
But the big publishers’ shift may have an impact on the writers’ incomes. MAGA writers will largely be left out of the bidding wars that make writing books so attractive to many political figures. None of the right-wing presses can compete with the well-capitalized multinationals on fat six- and seven-figure advances (much less the eight-figures that former President Trump will probably demand — though, as my colleagues Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter wrote, the ultimate MAGA author may be too toxic for the publishing industry).
“There was price inflation in the conservative book market,” said Adam Bellow, who founded the Broadside imprint at HarperCollins and now runs Bombardier. He said he compensated for the inability to bid high by splitting sales 50-50 with MAGA stars, including the right-wing media figure Dan Bongino and Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican who was a leading Trump acolyte. “We are already getting a lot of these books, partly because the big houses are saying no and partly because no self-respecting conservative should want to be published in a house where people hate them,” Mr. Bellow said.
Ultimately, that’s one thing Ms. Hartson, at Hachette, had going for her: Right-wing authors knew she wasn’t privately sneering. She even contributed to the campaign of one of her writers, Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, who said in an email that he “never witnessed or considered her to be an ideologue of the right or the left, just a compassionate and hard-working editor.” Now, publishers drawing the line on Jan. 6 also appear to be leaving themselves space to defy many of their employees and publish the work of Trump administration officials who acknowledge the reality that he lost the election. A former Trump adviser, Kellyanne Conway, is in talks with major publishers and expects a sizable advance, a person involved in the conversations said. The same person said that former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are also working on books and anticipating large advances from New York publishers.