The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Random House Cancels Historian's Book Contract For Not Writing About Black Historians

Richard Cohen added 18,000 words on Black historians, but his contract was still cancelled.


Professors make their living by writing. Sure, they teach and perform service. But the most important way that scholars advance their career is through the printed word. If professors cannot publish, their careers will be brief. Publication, however, is not a unilateral affair. Rather, authors must work with journals, book publishers, and other outlets. Specifically, professors must convince editors that a given work is worthy of publication. Different outlets use different criteria to determine publication. Some academic journals employ peer review, and consider whether an article will make a contribution to the literature. Popular presses are concerned about ideas, but also want to sell books. Even after a publication offer is made, running through the editorial gauntlet is not a pleasant process. Editors often make unreasonable demands on both style and substance. Still, virtually all editors will defer to the author on a foundational issue: what topics are worthy of discussion, and what topics can be omitted. When a journal makes an offer of publication, the journal is expressing some level of trust in the author, based on his or her expertise.

This lengthy background brings us to another troubling cancellation story. Richard Cohen is a prominent author. He has spent nearly a decade writing a new book, The History Makers. The manuscript stretched more than 750 pages. Random House of America gave Cohen a $350,000 contract. (That number is about 100 times more than my payment from Cambridge University Press). Alas, Random House has now cancelled the contract. Why? According to the U.K. Guardian, Cohen did not write enough about black historians:

Richard Cohen was told by his publisher to produce new chapters and expand others after failing to sufficiently acknowledge the roles of black people and African Americans.

"It was to do with the publisher's sensitivities," says Cohen, who previously wrote the highly praised Chasing The Sun and How to Write Like Tolstoy. "I was then asked to write more, and have done about another 18,000 words." Now, despite the rewrite, publication of the book in the US has been cancelled, according to sources in New York.

In the past, Cohen would have written his book, and other historians would have written critical reviews for his failure to write about black history. Then, people could decide the value of Cohen's book. But now, the publisher preemptively canceled the book to avoid this sort of criticism. If Cohen's manuscript didn't meet Random House's editorial standards, the proposal could have been denied. Today, there is an additional diversity requirement.

Last week, I observed that law review editors may start asking editors to cite more diverse authors. This trend will grow, more and more. Unless author are willing to walk away form publication offers, they will be cudgeled into submission. The freedom of thought will be constrained in ways that are not publicly visible.