During a panel this morning at Book Expo America, the annual publishing conference that opened yesterday, three leading CEOs discussed trends and challenges in the book business — mostly financial but also political. It was one of the first times Macmillan’s John Sargent has spoken publicly about the scathing memo he sent to his staff after President Trump demanded that imprint Henry Holt stop publication of Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s juicy behind-the-scenes account of chaos at the White House.
Sargent, who wore a gray Y-shirt and khakis to the panel (in contrast to Simon & Schuster head Carolyn Reidy’s business jacket and Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle’s sharp suit), has a blunt Montana twang and a history of righteous defiance. Eight years ago he stood up to strongman tactics from Amazon over e-book prices, and in his January response to Trump, he wrote to his employees that the right to publish “is an underlying principle of our democracy. We cannot stand silent. We will not allow any president to achieve by intimidation what our Constitution precludes him or her from achieving in court.”
At the panel, Sargent recalled being at a conference in Phoenix when he heard about Trump’s 11-page cease-and-desist letter. His first response was giddiness. “I thought, ‘Holy cow, we are going to sell a shitload of books!’” But gradually, “I realized this is actually quite serious. This is prior restraint.” He consulted with the National Coalition on Censorship for the relevant court precedents. (His memo includes citations from Supreme Court Justices Hugo Black, William Brennan, and Warren Burger.)
Sargent left the legal response to Macmillan attorneys, but he wanted to craft a memo to employees that would double as a public stand. “I knew people would see it,” he said, “because well, first of all, we’re gonna leak it.” So he sat down at his kitchen table knowing that, toward the end, “You want one line that the press will pick up. And basically, how do you say essentially ‘F you’ to the president of the United States?”
Sargent’s wife was the one who talked sense to him about his closing line: “She said, ‘John, you can’t say ‘go fish’ Mr. President.” So he let stand a more formal closer: “As citizens we must demand that President Trump understand and abide by the First Amendment of our Constitution.”
He concluded his recollection by the thanking the president “for giving us a chance to talk about it — and to sell a few copies.” He said it was Macmillan president Don Weisberg who decided, not without risk, to move the publication of Fire and Fury up four days to capitalize on the controversy, “and it was a good decision.”