Cancel Culture in Publishing: An Explainer

Cancel culture, also known as call-out culture, is the term used to call attention to alleged offensive infractions made by a person – usually cultural behemoths – and largely aims to remove them from their positions of fame and stature. Musicians can get canceled. Movie stars can get canceled. TV stars, politicians, activists – almost anyone in the spotlight can get canceled if they say or do things perceived to be offensive. 

In publishing, cancel culture has the same goal as in other industries, but unfolds differently.

What is “cancel culture” in publishing?

The cancel culture trend in publishing is more prevalent in the young adult genre than any other genre at this time. In the publishing world, cancel culture is when Y.A. Twitter – an online community of authors, pre-publication reviewers, and readers – bully a writer online until he or she cancel their work themselves if it is perceived to be offensive. It is a process that pressures particularly young and/or emerging writers to self-cancel their books by withdrawing it from being published. In other industries, subjects or works that are being called out don’t self-cancel, they are usually forced out by the public through boycotts and removal from their positions of cultural prominence. 

Why are we talking about it now?

A higher rate of Y.A. writers has self-canceled books in the past few months than in previous years, and according to Nora Pelizzari of the National Coalition Against Censorship, this is a major concern. 

A month ago emerging young-adult fiction writer Kosoko Jackson felt forced to withdraw the publication of his debut novel “A Place for Wolves.” Some Twitter critics who read early copies of the book denounced Jackson’s treatment of the Kosovo War and his portrayal of Muslims in his story. His critics attacked him and his book online as being racist and insensitive. 

Two weeks before Jackson’s attack, Amélie Wen Zhao, another emerging young-adult fiction writer also felt forced to stop publication of her debut novel “Blood Heir” after she too was attacked by Twitter critics. Her book was also accused of being racist. 

Right before Jackson and Zhao, there was newcomer Laurie Forest whose book “The Black Witch” was accused of being a “white-savior tale.”

Before Frost there was Keira Drake writer of “The Continent,” and E.E. Charlton-Trujillo writer of “When We Was Fierce,” who were also attacked by the groundswell of Twitter critics who pressured them to either postpone their book’s release or cancel it entirely.

And the list goes on. 

Is it different from censorship? 

Cancel culture in publishing is a form of censorship driven by a small section of the public – primarily Y.A. Twitter – to suppress or prohibit books from being published.

The figures behind cancel culture campaigns do not usually succeed in getting books banned or challenged enough for the general public outside of that community to not want these books in schools, or libraries or public bookshelves as with Jay Asher’s “Thirteen Reasons Why” or Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (which were both made into award-winning series.)

Pelizzari sees this wave of cancel culture as censorship coming from those with the largest online platforms that believe everyone should agree with them or should not be allowed to speak at all. 

 

“Encouraging people to self-censor to the point where they retreat from speaking in public, publishing their work, from sharing their ideas only leads to a place where ideas are homogenous,” said Pelizzari. 

How is affecting the industry?

Cancel culture is having a stronger impact in the Y.A. genre than any other genre in the book world. It is also having more of an impact on younger, emerging writers who are concerned about their nascent careers.

“No one wants to be called out. I imagine it is incredibly stressful and horrific to have a bunch of people tweeting and subtweeting about something problematic you’ve put out there,” said Liselle Sambury who admitted to signing her third book after shelving the first two which were problematic. 

Pelizzari believes there will be long term effects on publishers as well who may what to purchase manuscripts from writers whose work may not be popular with Y.A. Twitter. The few people with a large following online are removing the decision-making process from the wider audience by not allowing the book to succeed or fail in the marketplace of ideas when they selectively share elements of a book they dislike. Publishers may not want to take that risk. 

“The way the pattern of book cancelations is unfolding concerns us because it does point towards increasing self-censorship amongst editors and publishers when deciding whether or not to take on books that could potentially cause controversy,” said Pelizzari

For now, publishers are publicly standing by their young authors’ decision to cancel their books, vowing to move forward with publishing when they are ready as Delacorte Press did with Zhao.

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