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Censorship for Dummies 

John Wiley & Sons New Jersey, 2004

Wednesday, Jul 21 2004
To watch the dictators and political operatives and religious zealots go at it, censorship might seem like a tough business. The so-called experts create the impression you have to burn books, pass censorial laws, or openly express a ruthless disdain for humankind's impulse to express itself to succeed at the information-suppression game.

But censorship doesn't have to be left to the experts, or even people with a full quotient of smarts.

Thanks to a recently created, easy-to-follow series of examples, censorship can be as easy as stroking one's beard (see Cistercian Transcendentalism for Dummies, Wiley Publishing, New York) or being president of the United States (see Dumbness for Dummies, Wiley Publishing, New York).

The examples are actual, real-life ones, played out during the past couple of months in the empire of John Wiley & Sons, the New York publishing giant responsible for the "for Dummies" series of self-help guides. The company recently drove an editor at its San Francisco-based Jossey-Bass imprint to resign in protest over the firm's reversal of a decision to publish a book critical of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Wal-Mart is one of America's most important booksellers. The book was ultimately picked up by San Francisco's Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc. (which was, ironically enough, founded in 1992 by a Jossey-Bass editorial director who'd been fired for protesting corporate meddling by the publisher's parent company).

The imbroglio left Jossey-Bass without an esteemed editor. Its staff was left angry and demoralized. The fiasco gave a crosstown rival the marketing coup of a book with an anti-corporate-interference back story. It created a buzz in the San Francisco publishing world that John Wiley & Sons had undermined its editorial staff and censored itself out of fear of America's largest retailer. And the affair has the potential to turn the New York-based publishing house into a poster child for the cultural tyranny of the world's largest retailer.

Sounds like the kind of censorship mess only an idiot would create. Naturally, then, this John Wiley & Sons production should be called Censorship for Dummies.

Part 1: Gearing Up to Censor!

As initially envisioned on the Jossey-Bass roster, the canceled book that's now the talk of the S.F. publishing world -- which had the tentative title The Great American Job Scam -- was to have helped launch a series of left-leaning books that might piggyback on the success of liberal authors such as Al Franken and Molly Ivins.

It was to be "a collection of horror stories of companies that don't do good things when they get economic-development subsidies," says author Greg LeRoy, who runs a Washington nonprofit group called Good Jobs First, which writes reports on how corporations misuse economic-development handouts. Job Scam would be an update of a self-published book LeRoy wrote 10 years ago called No More Candy Store, and it would explain how communities fought this kind of corporate freeloading, with, LeRoy says, a full chapter devoted to Wal-Mart. For an idea of the chapter's potential tone, LeRoy directed me to his group's latest report, "Shopping for Subsidies: How Wal-Mart Uses Taxpayer Money to Finance Its Never Ending Growth."

Johanna Vondeling, then an editor at Jossey-Bass, was excited about the book. She negotiated an oral agreement with the author. And Jossey-Bass drew up contracts, people familiar with the situation told me. The book was poised to nestle among already successful left-friendly Wiley-published books such as the Karl Rove profile Bush's Brain.

Part 2: Corporate Meddling Explained!

Wal-Mart has managed during recent years to leverage its sales might and gain renown as an American cultural arbiter, simply by choosing which magazines and music it will sell. This gatekeeping has narrowed the mainstream for entertainment and made it more politically conservative. The company sells more music than any other firm, is a huge magazine seller, and is moving toward first place in book sales -- all to unfortunate effect: Lance Armstrong's girlfriend, a popular musician named Sheryl Crow, recently lost 10 percent of an album's potential sales when Wal-Mart declined to carry it because of a lyric that accused the chain of selling guns to children. As Wal-Mart continues to add several hundred stores to its 1,300-strong chain every year, it is also nearing the book-sales lead held by Amazon and Barnes & Noble. As such, Wal-Mart, whose narrow cultural sensibility doesn't like things that aren't Christian, wholesome, rightward-leaning, and pro-Wal-Mart, now threatens Americans' reading lists.

Just ask people working at, or who formerly worked at, Jossey-Bass.

Though Johanna Vondeling had been given the go-ahead to cut (if not to finalize) a deal for the book, the Wal-Mart chapter raised antennas among the sales force at corporate headquarters in New Jersey. People at the San Francisco Jossey-Bass imprint came to believe that at least one senior member of John Wiley & Sons management voiced the opinion that the book might hinder the parent company's relationship with the retailing giant.

"Wal-Mart is known to be punitive. It's not a huge client [of Wiley & Sons]. But because they're so big, they're important," says one person familiar with the situation. "It's an example of what I would call internal censorship."

Wiley's corporate communications director, Susan Spilka, downplays the role the company's sales relationship with Wal-Mart played in Wiley's ultimate decision to rescind approval of The Great American Job Scam. All the same, she can't deny that the company fretted about Wal-Mart's potentially negative reaction to the book.

"It was mentioned. I'm not going to say it wasn't mentioned," Spilka says. But, she adds, "it had more to do with the positioning of the book and the inexperience of the author."

Vondeling's superiors told her to withdraw the Jossey-Bass offer to LeRoy. Workers at the 130-employee imprint came to believe Wiley feared Wal-Mart so much it was willing to undermine the credibility of its own editors. Soon, the Wiley/Wal-Mart Affaire was the talk of San Francisco's cozy publishing world.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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