Publishing Under Pressure

Publishing, Under Pressure

Publishing Under Pressure

The books business has had a difficult year.

Book bans are sweeping schools and libraries. A failed corporate acquisition resulted in an antitrust trial and an executive shake-up. Strife over low wages has sparked labor actions.

This is a moment of upheaval for the book publishing industry, a multibillion-dollar business with extraordinary cultural power and influence in the United States.

The industry is also facing other headwinds. After a boom in sales during the pandemic, some high-profile books underperformed this year. Michelle Obama’s most recent book, “The Light We Carry,” had less than one quarter of the first-week print sales of her 2018 memoir, “Becoming.” Publishers are worried that 2023 will be a bumpy year, with fears of a recession ahead.

In today’s newsletter, I’ll explain three issues that are causing angst in the publishing industry: free speech, labor and corporate consolidation.

Which books should children read? It’s a question that has sent parents complaining to meetings of school boards and public library councils in recent months.

Many were mobilized by conservative groups who say they are defending the rights of parents. These organizations succeeded in persuading school boards and libraries to remove specific books, said my colleague Elizabeth A. Harris, who covers publishing.

Their most frequent targets are books with plots on race or gender, or stories with L.G.B.T.Q. characters. They have even gone after books with acknowledged cultural and historical significance: In Tennessee, a county school board removed “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, and refused to reinstate it despite a national uproar.

The efforts of these conservative groups have very real implications. For millions of American families, especially those with lower incomes, books are usually borrowed, rarely bought. If a book is not available in a school or library, children simply lose access to them.

In some cities, parents and administrators have pushed back. A school board in Downers Grove, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, rejected calls recently to remove a memoir on gender identity from its libraries.

But the conservative groups are becoming more organized and better funded, Elizabeth said. They have sophisticated operations in place on the state and local levels and show no sign of slowing their efforts.

“It’s happening all over the place, and it’s very alarming for publishers and the larger book world,” she told me.

Publishers are also facing opposition from within their own ranks. Employees have been restless and angry on the topics of both wages and diversity in a business that has historically doled out low pay to its editors, publicists, marketers and other workers, while requiring them to live in the astronomically expensive New York City area.

A younger generation of employees is challenging the industry’s longstanding assumption that newcomers will work long hours for lower wages. They have begun demanding that executives build a more diverse work force, and raise its pay. A unionized group of HarperCollins employees went on strike in November, arguing that the minimum starting salary should be raised to $50,000, from $45,000.

More than one month later, the strike hasn’t stopped HarperCollins from publishing books. But the action has gained support. Padma Lakshmi, the author and chef, hosted the National Book Awards last month with a union button on her dress that striking employees had given her outside the gala.

Back in 2013, I was covering the publishing industry during the merger of Penguin and Random House, a jaw-dropping move that created the most dominant book publisher in the world. A charming Random House executive, Markus Dohle, was tapped to lead the newly merged company as its C.E.O., and his rise in the industry seemed unstoppable.

Much has changed since then. Dohle fought for the acquisition of Simon & Schuster, another major publisher. The Justice Department sued to stop the merger, arguing that it would have stifled competition and hurt authors. After a trial in August, a judge ruled in the government’s favor to block the deal, a blow to Dohle. He resigned this month as chief executive.

Does this mean that consolidation, which has ruled the publishing industry for so long — and is a complaint of authors, who are left with fewer choices when they are looking to be published — will pause? Perhaps. Hachette and HarperCollins, two major publishers, have also expressed interest in buying Simon & Schuster.

One outcome seems clear: Publishers are going to think carefully before they consider a merger that will come under government scrutiny. The Biden administration has demonstrated that it is not afraid of the challenge.

Related: The books most frequently targeted by conservative groups have been by or about Black or L.G.B.T.Q. people.

Jason Andrew for The New York Times
  • Members of the far-right Proud Boys group go on trial today, accused of playing a central role in the Capitol attack.

  • The Jan. 6 committee is expected to approve its final report and vote on issuing criminal and civil referrals against Donald Trump.

  • Trump faces a consequential week — another House committee could decide to release his tax returns.

  • George Santos, a Republican from New York recently elected to Congress, seems to have fictionalized parts of the résumé that he sold to voters.

Gail Collins and Bret Stephens predict Trump will never go to jail.

Selective amnesia — about slavery, the treatment of Indigenous people and more — is core to the American experience. Lydia Polgreen wonders whether we’ll forget Jan. 6, too.

Students at the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center on Staten Island.James Estrin/The New York Times

Kaleidoscope of faiths: New York City is one of the world’s most spiritually diverse places.

Barbie’s Dreamhouses: Explore how they’ve changed across the decades.

Metropolitan Diary: They ate Mexican street corn, took off their shoes and ran in the surf. (Vote for the best Metropolitan Diary of 2022.)

Quiz time: How well do you recognize the notable faces that defined 2022?

Lives Lived: Philip Pearlstein reclaimed the naked body for painting with nudes that shocked modernist critics. He died at 98.

A historic outing: Nikola Jokić, a two-time N.B.A. M.V.P., put up 40 points and 27 rebounds in the Nuggets’ win over the Hornets last night.

A final play: The Raiders stunned the Patriots with a hilarious, game-winning defensive touchdown.

Sunday Night Football: The Giants beat the Commanders, a win with major playoff implications.

Lionel Messi with his Argentina teammates in Qatar yesterday.Julian Finney/Getty Images

A wild championship: Argentina won the tournament on a penalty kick shootout over France in one of the most thrilling World Cup finals in history.

Lionel Messi: He scored two goals to earn the one prize that had eluded him and further cemented his status as “the greatest player to have played the game,” The Times’s Rory Smith writes.

Hat trick: Kylian Mbappé, France’s star, scored three goals during play — a feat not seen in a final match in over half a century.

The other winner: Qatar got the visibility it wanted in the awards ceremony.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the hero of the first “Avatar,” is back in the sequel.20th Century Studios

It may be hard to recall now, but when “Avatar” came out in 2009, it was a bona fide blockbuster. It brought in more than $2.8 billion at the worldwide box office, becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time. The long-awaited sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” premiered this weekend, and it’s a hit in its own right.

But is it any good? In his review, A.O. Scott writes that the new film hits some familiar beats but once again dazzles with inventive visuals. The whole thing carries an air of nostalgia, he writes: “Even the anticipation of seeing something genuinely new at the multiplex feels like an artifact of an earlier time, before streaming and the Marvel Universe took over.”

Underwater innovation: See how the movie created its amazing water effects.

Yossy Arefi for The New York Times

Make this smoky and bright charred scallion dip for hosting.

Annie Ernaux, this year’s Nobel laureate for literature, revisits her life in a wistful, quietly elegiac documentary.

In the novel “Lucy by the Sea,” Elizabeth Strout asks: What happens when ex-spouses quarantine together?

The pangrams from yesterday’s Spelling Bee were argonaut, guarantor and orangutan. Here is today’s puzzle.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Brother of Cain (four letters).

And here’s today’s Wordle. After, use our bot to get better.

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow.

P.S. Apollo 17, the last NASA mission in which humans walked on the moon, returned to Earth 50 years ago today.

Here’s today’s front page.

The Daily” is about the World Cup.

Matthew Cullen, Lauren Hard, Lauren Jackson, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at themorning@nytimes.com.

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