Most people won’t have heard of Tony Lyons. Indeed, the US publisher has built an independent press – Skyhorse Publishing – that to some degree delights in defying the mainstream.
Skyhorse’s basic business model is to pick up backlisted books and profitably reissue them. Back to Basics, a book that “will help you dye your own wool with plant pigments, graft trees, raise chickens, craft a hutch table with hand tools, and make treats such as blueberry peach jam and cheddar cheese”, is one that perennially helps to keeps the company’s lights on.
But that’s not why Lyons agrees to talk during a walk around Central Park’s reservoir. We’re here, fighting the bitter wind, to discuss those in his stable of authors from whom bigger publishing houses have distanced themselves, for reasons ranging from allegations of sexual harassment to claims of misinformation.
Skyhorse’s recent slate of published works include the Woody Allen memoir Apropos of Nothing, dropped by Hachette imprint Grand Central Publishing after a staff walkout, a Philip Roth biography, withdrawn by WW Norton after a series of allegations about its author Blake Bailey, and a posthumous collection of essays by Norman Mailer that the author’s longtime publisher Random House declined.
Another of Skyhorse’s controversial authors is the anti-vaccine crusader Robert F Kennedy. His book The Real Anthony Fauci, which questions the White House health advisor’s links to the pharmaceutical industry, has sold 750,000 copies in eight weeks and has a #1 rating on Amazon.
Last weekend, Kennedy fronted an anti-vaccine rally in Washington DC, which the official memorial of Auschwitz said was a sign of “moral and intellectual decay”, after Kennedy compared US vaccine mandates to laws in Hitler’s Germany.
Some of these titles have been held up as evidence that publishers are wilting under internal or external pressures.
“I’ve seen it with the Roth biography, with Allen and with Kennedy,” says Lyons. “All you hear is the takedown of the author and no analysis of the book itself. Or the analysis gets obscured by the discussion of the author.”
On Apropos of Nothing, he says “whether you like Allen or not, it’s an interesting book and he’s had an interesting and culturally significant life. That should have been addressed. And that’s true for any of these books, even if you have a concern about the author or their perspective.”
Naturally, there are economic reasons for not publishing certain titles as well as moral ones. Books and authors accompanied by controversy may no longer make financial sense for big publishing houses, but can do for niche players such as Skyhorse, which has around 20 editors .
The publisher hasn’t always been the house of last resort. It began life in 2006 with outdoorsy titles (Lyons’ father Nick is a well-known author of fly-fishing books). Its transformation is in part due to Lyons’ assertion that: “there’s some audacity to the idea that all the main issues are clear.”
He says he gives a pass to staff working on titles to which they object. “I don’t begrudge people for anything they believe. But at the same time I’m not willing to make my decisions on what to publish based on what other people would like me to publish, whomever they are,” Lyons says.
Whether that’s opportunism, a sound business decision, principle, or perhaps all three, is up for debate. It’s true that Skyhorse doesn’t always take an ideological stance: it has, for example, published two books simultaneously that argue for and against wearing masks.
There was also Disloyal, a memoir by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen; Plague of Corruption, co-authored by Covid conspiracy slinger Dr Judy Mikovits; and The Lake Wobegon Virus by Garrison Keillor, who was fired by Minnesota Public Radio over allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
Skyhorse itself has not been immune from internal criticism. Two years ago, Vanity Fair published a profile of the publisher, quoting alleged former employees who wrote of harassment, burnout, and the company’s emphasis on quantity over quality. “You’ll have the potential to meet good people as you miserably ride together in cattle class on this dystopian cruise ship,” one said.
Certainly, a commitment to publishing a high volume of books while keeping a relatively small staff meant that by the end of the company’s third year, revenue had already hit $5 million. And Lyons concedes it is inexpensive to pick up titles that, in many cases, have already been paid for before the previous publisher washed its hands of it. After passing up Mailer’s collection, Random House said it had waived any reprint fees.
“The question is, should we even care about what anybody does in their private life or should we care about what they create?” says Lyons. “If you go down the path of let’s investigate people and care less about what they said or wrote, then I think you can get to de-platforming too much.”
The argument, of course, is readily political, and any discussion of it inevitably slips into that realm. “De-platforming Trump seemed a natural, historic breakthrough, because you didn’t have to wake up and worry about what he’s tweeting,” Lyons acknowledges. “But if Twitter can de-platform a president, it becomes a question of access to information, and of who – a private company, an algorithm or a government body – decides that it’s dangerous.”
The invocation of free speech protections is sometimes a defence for positions that are already badly flawed. But free speech does not necessarily require a book deal, and Skyhorse has been described by critics as “a libertarianism of convenience”.
Publishers, Lyons counters, have a responsibility to seek out new and interesting voices, “but that doesn’t mean you have to destroy the past, or the desire of people to hear those (old) voices.”
“I feel strongly it’s important for arguments to be made, for there to be a free-flow of ideas and have the stronger arguments win,” he adds. The alternative, “is we decide it’s too dangerous to allow a whole range of people and perspectives to be heard by a public that isn’t smart enough to know what’s true and what isn’t.”
Lyons goes further, voicing that permitting a plurality of views, however obnoxious to some, is fundamental to a functioning society. “Maybe the role of publishers is to bring people closer,” he says. “To encourage them to read things they disagree with, that make them angry, but ultimately to learn things that help them bridge the gap to what they thought they hated but may find some nuance in.”