The prospect of a Trump memoir is already filling publishing workers with dread — and could lead to revolt

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Juliana Kaplan
·11 min read
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donald trump book signing
Donald Trump signs copies of his book, "Crippled America: How to Make Our Country Great Again," at Trump Tower on November 3, 2015, in New York. Greg Allen/Invision/AP
  • Rumors around a Donald Trump presidential memoir, and which publishing house will buy it, are swirling.

  • But many workers in publishing hope such a book won't be acquired.

  • We spoke with 10 publishing workers, from lower-level employees to industry veterans, to understand how a Trump book would play out internally, and how its profits would likely be too hard to turn down.

  • Lower-level employees often have no say in the books they work on, and those we spoke to worry about having to work on a book from Trump because of the platform it could give to what they consider "harmful" views.

  • Publishing has dealt with its own reckoning this year as a largely white and progressive industry that often relies on conservative best-sellers, with the entry-level employees who do the majority of promotion among its most diverse and progressive.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

A presidential memoir has the publishing industry abuzz, and it's not former President Barack Obama's hefty new tome.

The Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump is exploring writing a "score-settling memoir" once he departs office, following the typical postpresidential route of selling an extremely well-compensated book.

There's certainly precedent for books in the Trump pantheon; he's already had his name on a suite of books, and the marketplace for Trump tell-alls and inner circle books has been booming.

His son, Donald Trump Jr., topped the bestseller list (with some caveats) with his 2019 book "Triggered," published by conservative Hachette imprint Center Street. Trump Jr. self-published his most recent book.

But, while the president-to-presidential-memoir pipeline is a tradition, Trump is no typical president.

During his time in office, Trump emboldened groups like the Proud Boys. And in the aftermath of the election, he's repeatedly and falsely claimed that he "won," alleging widespread voting fraud without evidence. 

Presidential memoirs are often a huge boon for publishers, and the major publishing houses — Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster — often snap up presidential memoirs. To acquire one is often a "career high" for publishers and editors, according to Publishers Weekly. Obama's memoir just broke first-day-sales records, selling 890,000 copies. He and Michelle struck a joint book deal in 2017 for $65 million.

The historically New York-centric publishing business is full of workers who lean left politically, but the "best-kept secret in publishing is that so much of the industry is supported by conservative authors," an editor at a Big Five publishing house told Business Insider.

And while Trump could decide to self-publish, as his son recently did, precedent suggests one of the "Big Five" will bag a book deal with him, putting them on a collision course with their New York-based, left-leaning staff. That "Big Five" looks set to constrict into a Big Four, as the owner of Penguin Random House has agreed to acquire Simon & Schuster.

Business Insider spoke with 10 publishing workers and industry veterans about the brewing tensions over Trump's potential memoir. All the lower-level workers spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fears over retribution in a competitive and low-paid industry. Their identities are known to Business Insider.

A potential Trump memoir poses a big reward to whoever publishes it, along with a potentially large risk, executives and agents said.

The White House declined a request to comment on the record.

Presidential memoirs are a big business

The market for political books has been especially strong in 2020. The bestselling book on Amazon for the year is Mary Trump's tell-all; Barack Obama's newly released memoir comes in at fifth, and John Bolton's look inside the White House comes in at eighth. Other top sellers include books by prominent conservatives, such as Candace Owens' "Blackout," Sean Hannity's "Live Free or Die," and Sarah Huckabee Sanders' "Speaking for Myself."

Then there's Donald Trump. The president seems especially well positioned to see strong demand for a memoir, given more than 73 million Americans voted for him in the election, and his raucous rallies have been a recurring theme for the past four years plus. 

Dana Canedy, the publisher and senior vice president of Simon & Schuster, told The New York Times that she would "take a meeting on the book."

Given the largely progressive leanings of lower-level workers in publishing, though, the Trump-book scenario could mean a left-wing army of assistants, interns, and editors would be selling the book, sending out the emails, and writing the catalogue copy. 

Overwhelmingly, the publishing rank and file said they hoped a Trump memoir would not get published, citing the likely toxic nature of the content. 

Some of the lower-level workers we spoke to said they'd try to push back if their publisher took the book; others said they would fear speaking up, but would try to opt out of promoting it.

donald trump art of the deal
Trump holds up his book "The Art of the Deal" during a presidential campaign stop in November 2015. Eric Schultz/AP

While working on books they worry are harmful, publishing employees fear for their jobs

"This has been a recurring theme for as long as I've worked in books," one worker at Macmillan told Business Insider, saying that at a previous publishing job it felt "terrible" to sell books from conservative pundits.

"Nobody ever really asks in the room, 'Is this a good idea?'" the worker said. "Because the answer is always going to be yes from the publisher side, because they're major cash cows."

If you lose your job in publishing, there are 25 people waiting at the door to take your spot.

A worker at Penguin Random House said that acquiring and working on these books was a "big sticking point" for employees, but that hasn't inhibited publishers from buying them, at least in their experience. That worker said they constantly hear from higher-ups about the need to publish "both sides." If a publishing house is going to acquire the Obama memoirs, for instance, those should be balanced out so that it's not just a "left" publisher.

But, the Penguin worker argued, when "you decide to publish books from people who lied and did irreparable harm to our country," it makes the publisher complicit in those acts, and that's different from merely nodding to both sides.

There are other power dynamics at work besides partisanship. Publishing is a notoriously competitive industry, with low-paying entry-level roles. The Penguin employee said that assistant workers who would be assigned to a high-paying Trump book might be making a salary somewhere in the $30,000 range and may have been in a lower-level job for years.

Like many other industries, publishing faced a reckoning this year. In June, workers called out from work for a "day of action" in solidarity with protests over racial equity and police brutality. The publishing industry belatedly began to confront its lack of diversity.

A 2019 survey from Lee & Low Books found that the industry was 75% white. And entry-level workers — the ones who have the least control over the work they're assigned but are among the most involved in pushing books on a daily basis — were the most diverse group in terms of race, sexual orientation, and disability status.

The Macmillan employee said that with the "many issues of equity and access" in publishing, it's disheartening to see major houses consider buying books from figures like Trump, who issued an executive order against some diversity training. But lower-level employees risk losing their positions or moving up if they push back on books.

The Penguin employee said they'd previously received pushback for speaking out against titles they disagree with. "If you lose your job in publishing, there are 25 people waiting at the door to take your spot," they said.

Tanya McKinnon, an agent, emphasized that publishing was a business, but there's context to consider.

"Certainly all of the major houses are bottom-line-driven, and that means that they have books by people that we are not necessarily ideologically aligned with," she said. "In a world that values facts and truth, I think that creates the context for robust debate."

But, in a world where truth is "maligned," she said, "it becomes a much more dangerous proposition in terms of how some voices are elevated above others."

Milo Yiannopoulos
Milo Yiannopoulos in New York in 2017. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

An industry that's faced its share of reckonings

Even before the protests this summer, publishing workers used collective action to push back on more controversial and damaging books. In 2017, employees and authors spoke out against Simon & Schuster publishing a book by right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos.

The book was ultimately canceled after positive remarks Yiannopoulos made about sex between "younger boys" and grown men were widely circulated.

In March, Hachette Book Group canceled Woody Allen's memoir after an unprecedented walkout by employees. That book ended up getting published by Skyhorse Publishing, which several publishing workers cited as a possible home for a Trump memoir.

Where the line gets fuzzy for me is, at what point are these perspectives or these books inciting violence, danger, xenophobia, racism?

Tony Lyons, the president and publisher of Skyhorse, said in a statement to Business Insider that the house "believes in publishing stories by important political figures, regardless of whether they are Democrats, Republicans, or third-party candidates. We often publish books on both sides of an issue, with starkly opposing points of view."

Skyhorse believes in freedom of speech and taking "a strong stance against cancel culture," he said, adding that as a small, privately owned publisher, it can make creative offers that can be more lucrative for authors than the big corporate publishers can afford to make. Simon & Schuster declined to comment.

Several publishing workers indicated that they anticipated there would be some form of collective action if the Trump memoir was acquired. But it's obviously unclear what effect, if any, that would have.

Kate McKean, vice president at agency Morhaim Literary, predicted an outcry on Twitter and in the media, but also wondered if there would be a bubble effect if people did speak out: "Are we all just talking to ourselves on Twitter?"

simon and schuster
The Simon & Schuster office in New York. Google Street View

Publishing a Trump memoir could leave lasting brand damage

David Unger directs the publishing certificate program at the City College of New York, which aims to equip students — especially from underrepresented backgrounds — with the skills and knowledge to enter the industry.

"There are many things I wouldn't do for money, but there are publishing houses that believe the bottom line is more important than their civic responsibilities," he told Business Insider by email. "I don't believe publishers should be giving a platform to an unscrupulous president who lacks any sort of moral compass."

Carol Taylor, the editorial director of McKinnon Literary, said that, in the long term, publishing a book like Trump's "might end up damaging the publisher brand and identity," even if it makes money in the short term. (Taylor is also a former Random House book editor.)

Several publishing workers said they saw publishing Trump's memoir as a line in the sand that a larger house may not want to cross.

"I mean, there's one thing to say, 'Here's a Fox News pundit publishing a book that represents what they think and what they say on TV and things like that," McKean said. "And then there's a book by Donald Trump that would likely be full of lies, which makes me nervous to say, because does that put me at risk to say that?"

But Unger said he also didn't "believe that they should publish books by his many enablers." And publishing has already proved its track record of committing to conservative pundits. So while Trump may be a sticking point, the memoir could elicit a moment of greater reflection.

"I do believe in a marketplace of ideas and publishing a diversity of perspectives," one editor at a Big Five house told Business Insider. "Where the line gets fuzzy for me is, at what point are these perspectives or these books inciting violence, danger, xenophobia, racism?"

This editor suggested that publishing such books could put the people working on them in danger, or make them feel unsafe.

If Trump were to bypass the big publishing houses by self-publishing, that would put the fears of some liberal publishing staff at ease, but the agency assistant said they believed the writing was already on the wall.

"I think that the publishing industry has already shown their hand. I would be shocked if nobody bought this book. It's just a matter of how they're going to spin it."

Do you have stories from inside publishing you want to tell? Email jkaplan@businessinsider.com.

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