Censorship for Dummies

John Wiley & Sons New Jersey, 2004

"It was mentioned. I'm not going to say it wasn't mentioned," Spilka says. But, she adds, "it had more to do with the positioning of the book and the inexperience of the author."

Vondeling's superiors told her to withdraw the Jossey-Bass offer to LeRoy. Workers at the 130-employee imprint came to believe Wiley feared Wal-Mart so much it was willing to undermine the credibility of its own editors. Soon, the Wiley/Wal-Mart Affaire was the talk of San Francisco's cozy publishing world.

Spilka, the Wiley flack, contends the decision to give San Francisco editors authority to make an offer on the book, then to tell them to withdraw the offer, was the result of a "collaborative" process and dismisses as unfounded concerns about Wal-Mart retaliation against the publisher. "We have a collaborative publishing process that involves editorial, sales, and marketing people in considering proposals," Spilka says. "On this title there were some very interesting elements to it, and that's why it stayed in the pipeline for as long as it did. There were also numerous concerns about it voiced by different people, including the sales staff. Those concerns were about a number of issues."

Curious about the sales end of this "collaboration," I phoned Wiley Vice President for Sales Dean Karrel and asked him to discuss any concerns he might or might not have had about the Wal-Mart problem.

"What you have received is highly confidential information regarding the business decisions of our company," an apparently rattled Karrel said, before changing tack a little. "You don't have any information, do you Matt? Someone is actually lying, and I don't appreciate it. You'll be contacted by our attorneys. You haven't done any research about the value that we place on authors, have you Matt? That's certainly not public information. It's sad you would want to embarrass one of our authors. And I'm sorry somebody gave you the wrong information."

Now that Karrel has explained himself, I can't believe he'd ever try to influence decisions in a way that would restrict information about corporate misdeeds.

Part 3: Creating a Buzz!

When word came down from New Jersey that the offer on the book had to be pulled, Vondeling was incensed. How can an editor do her job, staffers around the Jossey-Bass office began saying, if she develops a reputation for going back on her word with authors? During a tense meeting with Jossey-Bass management, Vondeling resigned in protest.

"This is unethical behavior. You just don't make a verbal offer for a book and take it back. It's just not done. Publishers don't do that," one person familiar with the situation says. "Of course this is upsetting to Johanna. It's upsetting to everyone at Jossey-Bass."

As an act of staff protest, Jossey-Bass employees voted to give Vondeling the company's twice-yearly "Authenticity Award," a touchy-feely tradition in keeping with the imprint's status as a once-independent S.F. boutique publisher.

"There was a buzz -- 'Be sure to vote for Johanna for Authenticity,'" another source says. "It's a little statuette that's along a fish motif. You get some gift certificates."

Though Vondeling acknowledges that she left Jossey-Bass following a dispute over a book criticizing Wal-Mart, she declines to discuss the events in detail.

Part 4: Picking Up the Pieces!

As it happens, stories of Jossey-Bass executives leaving after protests over corporate meddling by an East Coast parent aren't new in San Francisco. Before it was bought by Wiley, Jossey-Bass was owned by Maxwell Communications, run by Robert Maxwell. In 1991 the eccentric British media tycoon mandated that his book divisions reduce staff by 10 percent.

"I was required to lay eight people off. There was no rationale to do that. Profits for the year were up by 46 percent," says Steven Piersanti, who was Jossey-Bass editorial director at the time. "I declined to do it and was fired for refusing."

Piersanti soon began getting calls from authors. An acquaintance who had a printing company contacted him. Another, with a direct-mail business, called, as did another with a warehousing operation. They all wanted to keep a guy like Piersanti in the San Francisco publishing business. They said they'd pitch in if he wanted to start an independent publishing house.

"There was kind of an outpouring over the next few months of people offering to help start up a new publishing house," Piersanti recalls. "It was amazing. We were partly trying to create a different view of a publishing company. We focused on books that were leading-edge, challenging the convention in the business world, with new ideas about leadership, organizational change, careers, and work."

And for 12 years Piersanti has made a go of running the resulting independent Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc. with a small staff of 17, putting out leftish titles such as When Corporations Rule the Worldand Divine Right of Capital. Not long ago Piersanti heard from a friend who's still an editor at Jossey-Bass, telling him about the availability of The Great American Job Scam."He had the material sent to me. This is right down our line. This is the sort of thing we love to publish. We immediately got interested in it. I talked to the author, recommended it to our editorial committee," Piersanti says.

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