The Free Press

Illustration by Monsieur Collage

Illustration by Monsieur Collage for The Free Press

The Fight for the Future of Publishing

Ideological fanatics and fear have crippled the major houses. But new book publishers are rising up to take the risks they won’t.

By Alex Perez
November 28, 2023

On September 19, 2022, Elle Griffin, a freelance writer in Salt Lake City, published the first installment of her new fantasy novel, Oblivion, on Substack, under the title “We will create a more beautiful world.”

Since then, Griffin, who has written for Esquire and Forbes, has picked up a few hundred paid subscribers. She’s now earning more than $30,000 annually from her writing—more than she’s ever made.

By contrast, if she’d gone the traditional route and landed an agent and a major publisher, Griffin said, the best she could have hoped for would have been a $10,000 advance, and she would have been lucky to sell 1,000 copies—meaning no extra money.

Plus, serializing the novel on her newsletter means she can include her 11,000-plus subscribers in the creative process.

Oblivion

Elle Griffin is self-publishing her novel Oblivion on Substack.

“They can comment on each chapter,” Griffin told me. “I’m crowdsourcing my wisdom from them.”

Griffin is not alone. Other authors now on Substack include Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club; Junot Diaz, who has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; and the award-winning short story writer George Saunders.

But this story is not about Substack, the self-publishing platform that also hosts The Free Press.

It’s about a parallel publishing space that has risen up while the legacy publishing houses in New York have been declining thanks to a combination of threats that are both external (the internet; the upending of print) and internal (new progressive staffers; sensitivity readers; etc.). A publishing space in which writers, known and unknown, can make more than they’ve ever made traditionally. A space where there are not only self-publishing platforms but tons of small, private presses across the country—like Heresy Press and Zando Projects and Zibby Books, the latter created by the podcaster Zibby Owens—that have maximal creativity. One in which there are no politics or committees or sensitivity readers—and no activist mobs on Goodreads or Twitter (now X) who can frighten your editor into canceling a contract or a book tour.

This is a world I know a little bit about.

I’m a Cuban American former baseball player from Miami who turned to the writing life after I couldn’t hit a fastball anymore.

After I left baseball and started writing stories, I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and I aspired to join that rarefied literary world. But at a certain point it became impossible to reconcile that place with my own—and the stories I wanted to tell about where I came from.

I live in a working-class Miami neighborhood, where Spanish is predominantly spoken. My friends, first-generation Americans and recent immigrants, are just trying to make it here. They have no idea what professors at writers’ workshops or editors in New York think of them.

Unlike the literary elite, I actually see how working-class people of color—at least, those in my world—live and struggle. In many ways, I am still one of them. They’re not victims concerned with academic tropes like “whiteness,” nor are they oppressed by “structures” and “systemic” hatreds secretly making it impossible for them to get ahead. They’re complicated, and to simplify their “narrative” is to simplify them.

“The freedom to write what you want. . . without it going through any ideological filter—that is a massive advantage of self-publishing,” said Tim Urban, who released What’s Our Problem? in February.

But again and again, those in the New York literary universe explained to me that it was my job to tell stories that furthered The Narrative—their narrative. It didn’t matter, in their view, that the stories they were publishing were detached from reality—or, in some cases, turning reality upside down. What mattered was educating the masses, the idiots outside New York.

The frustration I experienced, along with that of so many other writers, is helping fuel the emergence of this new, parallel publishing space.

“The freedom to write what you want to write without it going through any ideological filter—that is a massive advantage of self-publishing,” Tim Urban, the blogger and illustrator behind the site Wait But Why and the successful author of the recently self-published book What’s Our Problem: A Self-Help Book for Societies, told The Free Press.

John Pistelli, an English professor in Minneapolis who is self-publishing his novel on his Substack, added: “Online platforms and independent presses can pick up what the major publishers have put down.”

The Old World
The disruption of the so-called Big Five who make up the publishing industry—Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and HarperCollins—has been a long time coming. For two decades, their collective revenue, which was $25.7 billion in 2020, has been basically flat. Then, in 2022, that figure declined by 6.5 percent.

Editors who spoke with The Free Press attributed that drop to people emerging from the Covid lockdowns and socializing more than reading.

But that’s not the whole story.

For years, there has been a growing politicization inside the industry, which editors describe as a slowly percolating illiberalism that makes it difficult to publish books by authors who don’t adhere to the new dogma. Out of fear of losing their jobs and friends, these editors (we spoke with ten across these publishing houses) insisted upon speaking anonymously.

“It’s so much harder to publish controversial books than it was when Judith Regan published Rush Limbaugh back in the day,” said an editor at a major publishing house, referring to Regan’s time as a Simon & Schuster editor in the early nineties, when she acquired a book by the conservative radio host.

The new dogma, industry insiders told me, is two-pronged: books should advance the narrative that people of color are victims of white supremacy; and nonblack and non-Latino authors should avoid characters who are black and Latino—even if their characters toe the officially approved narrative. (White authors who write about black or Latino people oppressed by white people have been accused of exploiting their characters’ trauma.)

“It began, really, in 2010, 2012,” the award-winning author Lionel Shriver, best known for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, told The Free Press. “It’s just been getting worse, and there are a lot of characters or plot turns in my own earlier books that, especially if I didn’t have this pretty solid relationship with a mainstream publisher, would get me into trouble or would be called out, and I’d be told to change them, or if I were just starting out I would be rejected because of them.”

Apropos of Nothing

After Woody Allen’s memoir was dropped by Grand Central Publishing in 2020, it was picked up by independent publisher Arcade—and became a NYT bestseller.

One of the biggest flashpoints in the politicization of the publishing industry arrived in early 2020 with publication of Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt.

Cummins’ novel—about a Mexican woman and her son who cross the U.S. border to escape violent cartels—won a seven-figure advance and was hailed by celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to Stephen King. But Cummins, being half-white and half-Puerto Rican, ran into trouble with Latino activists who accused her of appropriating Latino struggle. After protests erupted outside her publisher, the Macmillan imprint Flatiron, Cummins’ national book tour was canceled, and the publisher apologized for how the novel had been marketed. (Despite the controversy, American Dirt went on to sell more than three million copies. Cummins declined to comment for this article, saying she is busy working on her next book.)

At the same time, publishing houses started canceling books by established but “problematic” white male authors including Woody Allen, whose memoir was dropped by Grand Central Publishing, a Hachette imprint, in March 2020.

Then, in late May 2020, George Floyd was murdered.

In an immediate attempt to appear committed to combating racism, the major publishing houses rushed to hire and promote editors of color. Several editors described the hiring and promotion frenzy of 2020 and 2021 as “excessive” or “obviously political,” and they identified several key diversity hires who alienated longtime editors, agents, and writers.

These included Dana Canedy, who had spent most of her career at The New York Times doing “corporate communications,” according to her LinkedIn profile, before being named publisher of Simon & Schuster’s flagship imprint; Phoebe Robinson, a stand-up comedian who now runs the Penguin imprint Tiny Reparations Books; and Adenike Olanrewaju, who was a publicist at Penguin and The New York Times, where she was also a newsroom contributor, before being named executive editor of HarperCollins. Since joining the house in late 2021, Olanrewaju has secured one deal, according to Publishers Marketplace.

Neither Robinson nor Olanrewaju replied to requests for comment. Canedy, who left her position in July 2022 after two years at Simon & Schuster, told The Free Press that any claims she was “unqualified” for the job “are cheap shots likely made by an incredibly small number of unnamed sources who do not deserve my energy.”

Human Resources departments at the Big Five were mostly behind the drive to hire and promote unqualified job applicants without any guidance, an editor at a major publishing house told me. The editor added that it was not uncommon, in late 2020 and 2021, to encounter new editors and editorial assistants who were out of their depth—“young people without previous publishing experience who struggled to write a professional email.”

Someone Who Isn't Me

Someone Who Isn’t Me, by the punk-rock musician Geoff Rickly, was published by Rose Books in July and is now in its fourth printing—a big feat for a first-time novelist and press.

At the same time, the new generation of junior editors and editorial assistants—steeped in the progressive identitarianism of the campus—were making their voices heard inside those companies.

“Most of the people who we hired were literature majors,” another editor at a major publishing house told The Free Press. “They come in having read a lot more bell hooks and Jacques Derrida than even The Atlantic, not realizing they’re pretty radical.”

After the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020, many publishing staffers were “like, ‘Ben Shapiro is definitely a Nazi,’ and there was no point in trying to explain to people that Ben Shapiro”—a conservative Jewish commentator—“is definitely not a Nazi,” the editor said.

Another editor said: “People were scared. People were afraid to lose their jobs. Still are.”

In addition to the new editors, a gradual feminization of publishing has made the industry less adventurous, Lionel Shriver said. “The problem is the editors, almost all of whom are women,” she said. “Women err on the side of trying to please, they tend more to be communitarians and risk averse and therefore, I think, the female takeover of publishing has made it cautious and bland.”

‘A New Generation of Ideological Fanatics’
With the new editors came new books by mostly untested, “diverse” writers whose stories featured characters struggling to overcome the shackles of whiteness or the patriarchy.

These include Rasheed Newson’s My Government Means to Kill Me, which was published in 2022 and has been described by its publisher, Flatiron, as “an exhilarating, fast-paced coming-of-age story” about a gay, black man.

Nadxieli Nieto, an editor who joined Flatiron in the wake of the American Dirt fiasco, bought the book for $250,000. So far, according to the sales tracker BookScan, it has sold nearly 4,500 copies—not nearly enough to cover the advance. (BookScan, the book industry site from which sales-copy figures come, does not include digital book sales.)

Similarly, in 2022, Flatiron bought Elliot Page’s book—a memoir that revolves around the actor’s gender transition—for more than $3 million. So far, it has sold south of 68,000 copies, according to BookScan.

In 2021, Dial Press, a Random House imprint, bought Lucky Red—described as “a genre-bending queer feminist Western. . . following a young woman’s transformation from forlorn orphan to successful prostitute to revenge-seeking gunfighter”—for more than $500,000. So far, it’s sold about 3,500 copies.

In February, independent publishing house Zibby Books made its debut with Alisha Fernandez Miranda’s memoir My What If Year, which CNN International called the “the next Eat, Pray, Love.”

Then there’s Carolyn Ferrell’s Dear Miss Metropolitan, described by The New York Times as “a story of three young girls, Black and biracial, who are kidnapped and thrown into the basement of a decaying house in Queens.” Ferrell’s book was acquired in a “significant deal” (a.k.a. more than $250K), but has so far sold 3,163 copies since it was published in 2021.

“The rule of thumb,” one editor said about book advances, “is that if you paid $7 per book sold, you paid the right amount.” The editor added: “You can pay $1 million for something and have it be a bestseller and still lose hundreds of thousands of dollars,” even if you sell tens of thousands of books.

All the while, according to some prominent writers and editors, these publishing houses appeared to be discriminating against white male writers. In June 2022, best-selling author James Patterson called the difficulty white male authors were facing “just another form of racism.” After a backlash, he quickly apologized and said: “I absolutely do not believe that racism is practiced against white writers. Please know that I strongly support a diversity of voices being heard—in literature, in Hollywood, everywhere.” But one month later, acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates made a similar point. In a tweet, she wrote: “a friend who is a literary agent told me that he cannot even get editors to read first novels by young white male writers, no matter how good; they are just not interested.”

A senior editor at one of the major publishing houses echoed these thoughts, telling The Free Press: “We flat-out decided we weren’t going to look at certain white male authors, because we didn’t want to be seen as acquiring that stuff.”

When asked whether editors openly acknowledged that they were discriminating against writers because of their skin color, this editor replied: “I don’t think it was worded quite as blatantly as that. It was worded more like, ‘Is this the right time to be championing authors of more traditional backgrounds?’ Often, the language was a bit opaque.”

Adam Bellow, who spent many years at HarperCollins and St. Martin’s Press, a Macmillan imprint, before moving to Post Hill Press, a conservative publishing company in Nashville, acknowledged “generational change” is a fact of life.

“It just so happens that, in this case, the new generation is a generation of ideological fanatics,” Bellow said.

These “fanatics” have led the industry to lose sight of its market, he added.

“People within the business who want to work on books that fall outside of the boundaries of what’s publicly treated as acceptable have to be willing to deal with interpersonal discomfort, being treated as marginal, or looked on with suspicion by their colleagues,” an editor at a major publishing house told me.

The New World Emerges
The new publishing dogma wasn’t just pushing out white male writers. Consider Alberto Gullaba Jr.

Gullaba was en route to becoming a big-shot novelist. He’d graduated from the writing program at the University of California, Irvine, and he’d written a novel, University Thugs, about a black college student with a criminal past. He had an agent, and they were about to go to market.

That was when Gullaba’s agent asked for a short autobiographical letter that he would include with the book submission. The agent asked Gullaba to include his race.

“I said my parents were from the Philippines, and we got on the phone quick,” Gullaba told me. His agent had assumed the writer was black, like his protagonist.

That’s when all the energy fizzled. “The fall blitz was canceled,” Gullaba said, referring to his agent’s plan to submit the novel to a bunch of imprints and, presumably, stoke a bidding war. “ ‘Let’s wait until the winter,’ ” Gullaba said his agent told him. “ ‘Let’s hunt down the right editor.’ And then we kept less and less in contact.” Eventually, they fell out of touch.

University Thugs

Alberto Gullaba Jr., the author of University Thugs—about a black college student with a criminal past—said he lost his agent when he revealed he wasn’t black but Filipino. After self-publishing in 2021, he says the book is now sparking TV buzz.

In September 2021, Gullaba self-published his novel under the pen name Free Chef. It has since sold about 1,000 copies—unimpressive if he’d had a huge publishing house behind him, but great for a little known, self-published author. He’s now hearing from the television people. “Several Hollywood and New York-based production companies,” he said in an email. “Super big companies, A-list, award-winning outfits. It’s crazy.”

Eighteen months after Gullaba self-published, Bernard Schweizer, a former English professor, launched a brand-new publishing house in January 2023. Called Heresy Press, Schweizer gave it a mission statement of embracing “freedom, honesty, openness, dissent, and real diversity in all of its manifestations. . . . We discourage authors from descending into self-censorship, we don’t blink at alleged acts of cultural appropriation, and we won’t pander to the presumed sensitivities of hypothetical readers.”

Heresy’s board includes the novelist Joyce Carol Oates, the writer Meghan Daum, and New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In the past year, Schweizer told me, he’s been flooded with submissions.

“I got so many out-of-the-ballpark great stories and manuscripts that I realized the magnitude of the problem even more so,” he said.

Also in January of this year, Chelsea Hodson, a writer who formerly taught at Bennington College in Vermont, started her own imprint—Rose Books.

“I left Brooklyn as well as a job in academia to live in a small Arizona town and reimagine what my life could be outside of an institutional setting,” Hodson, whose essay collection Tonight I’m Someone Else was published in 2018 by Henry Holt, told me.

Rose Books’ first title, Someone Who Isn’t Me, by the punk-rock musician Geoff Rickly, was released in July and is in its fourth printing—a big feat for a first-time novelist and press. Up next: Christopher Norris’s The Holy Day. (Hodson said she’s planning to announce additional new titles in 2024.)

In February, Zibby Books made its debut, publishing Alisha Fernandez Miranda’s memoir My What If Year, which CNN International called the “the next Eat, Pray, Love.” That same month, Tim Urban published What’s Our Problem. Urban declined to share how many copies had been sold or how much revenue he had brought in, saying only, “I’m happy with the results.”

He noted that the major publishing houses provide important, costly “concierge” services: copy editing, page design, marketing, audiobook and e-book production. “But it’s not rocket science,” he said.

The big thing, Urban said, is the freedom to write and think critically. When it came time to pitch his book, he said, “I was running into issues. I was being told that this is going to cause too many problems. You have to soften the language. You can’t criticize certain sacred figures like Ibram Kendi”—the black writer whose Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University drew millions in donations until publicly imploding in September. “But that was the whole point of the book, that we have to be more courageous.”

And then there are the independent or right-leaning publishing houses like Post Hill Press and Skyhorse Publishing that have popped up over the past decade or two—and are now seeing an uptick in business.

Case in point: soon after Grand Central Publishing canceled its contract with Woody Allen, the Skyhorse imprint Arcade picked up his book. Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing, went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

“A lot more liberals and leftists who are at odds with the reigning ideology and can’t be published by conventional houses have sought us out instead,” said Bellow of Post Hill Press.

Meanwhile, there are signs that executives at the Big Five are changing course, however tentatively. Sources said there seems to be a growing awareness of, or fatigue with, the excesses of a progressive-identitarian orthodoxy that grossly distort complex, three-dimensional characters. It’s a sign of change that new feature film American Fiction can even make a joke of this identity obsession in publishing. The movie, starring Jeffrey Wright, tells the story of a long-suffering black author who finally finds success when he writes a book that cynically leans into negative stereotypes about black people.

One editor at a major publishing house told me that many of the top execs who run their own imprints have been pushing back against the new ideology. “The people who run those companies know what makes money, and really devote their time to getting more of that, and it couldn’t be more separate from the woke stuff.”

Another editor, also at the Big Five, agreed with that. “It’s people listening to market forces and realizing that what happens on social media isn’t necessarily real life.”

As for Me
When woke took over and I found myself self-deporting from the literary world, I considered dropping out of the writing game altogether. But something about my upbringing, where I was from—and even my days as a jock—didn’t let me quit. My family left everything behind to make it to America, so it would be an insult to them if I just took my ball and went home, afraid and defeated by the literary gatekeepers.

So, at the onset of Covid, after years of stewing in silence, I started dabbling in political commentary and literary criticism for journalism outlets and more recently on my own Substack, saying what I’d been thinking about—what so many had been thinking about—for years. The literary ecosystem was broken. Talented writers, from all backgrounds, had either been banished or quit.

I found a large readership immediately as one of the lone dissenting voices pushing back against the anti-art craziness that had overtaken the publishing industry. I’m still one of the lone voices willing to speak out publicly. Writers are still that afraid.

Then, in September 2022, literary magazine Hobart published an interview with me, in which I took the publishing world to task. It went viral. Most of Hobart’s editors resigned in protest. But something else happened, too—Iowa classmates I hadn’t heard from in years reached out in solidarity. Famous writers contacted me. Writers at glossy magazines got in touch. They still are.

I get why the established writers who haven’t flocked to the independent publishing world can’t speak publicly. I get why they feel compelled to nod along with the herd while secretly signaling their support for those who won’t play along. But eventually, if they want the traditional literary world to return to some semblance of normalcy, they will have to speak up. In the meantime, alternative voices will continue to take their place.

Alex Perez is a cultural critic and fiction writer living in Miami. Follow him on Twitter (now X) @Perez_Writes.