“And we couldn’t advertise for it, there were no reviews for it, many bookstores refused to carry it, many libraries boycotted it. The idea that a book like this that has 2,194 citations, that has blurbs from doctors and scientists, even a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, can just be censored in every conceivable way because the general narrative is one that is distasteful to powerful people or to a certain segment of the public is terrible. It’s certainly against the spirit of the US constitution, the principles that the United States has been built on.”
Lyons is sanguine, however, that this trend may not continue – largely because it doesn’t work. “It’s so transparent that there’s this censorship campaign going on – people aren’t stupid. And so the book wound up selling 800,000 copies in something like 10 weeks.”
In 2020 Vanity Fair published an excoriating article on Skyhorse – describing it as a “Publishing House of Horrors” – and attacking not just its books but its working practices. Ex-staffers were rounded up to complain about overwork; about ruthless behavior towards workers who complained or tried to organize the unionization of the workforce; and about slow responses to staff members’ complaints of racism or sexism or harassment by colleagues or Skyhorse authors. Have you acknowledged there were areas in which the company needed to improve?
“Yeah, that’s a tough question. I do think that in some cases they cited former employees, which I thought was…” He pauses. “I think that the idea that the way that I run a publishing company required people to work harder than they would want to work at certain points, when I’m trying to rush a book out or that sort of thing – that, I think , was something that caused me to think through part of the process by which we do instant books. I’d certainly still ask people at Skyhorse to work really hard, but I would compensate them extra for that work, and I would want to be clear that they wanted to do it.”
What about the implication in the Vanity Fair article that Skyhorse has a strong editorial line on some issues – being anti-vaccination and pro-Trump, for example?
“You know, I enjoyed the whole process of the back and forth with the people at Vanity Fair but ultimately I thought it was sad,” says Lyons. “It was sad they obviously believed that we were publishing books that shouldn’t be published .
“They knew very well we published the case against vaccine mandate and the case for vaccine mandate, and we published the case for masks and the case against masks, and we published the case for impeaching Trump and the case against impeaching Trump – so it’s very clear that we were and that we are open to debate, and they just cherry-picked books because they thought it was important to attack a company that they disagreed with. and so I was glad that I had that experience because it taught me some valuable things.”
Such as? “I learned how little power that tactic has, in the sense that after that article we actually got more proposals rather than fewer, because to a lot of people reading it, it was transparent what was happening. All forms of censorship have unintended consequences, and it’s those unintended consequences that should convince people that a better tactic is to have a more even-handed response. To look at both sides of an argument.”