Stop Rejoicing in Natasha Tynes' Downfall

Yes, she seems like an awful person. But her publisher could be setting a bad precedent.

Last week, Natasha Tynes complained about a public transit employee eating on a train. Of course, that’s not all she did, or I wouldn’t be writing this installment of the newsletter about her. She also took a picture of that employee with her smartphone, then posted it to Twitter, and tagged the woman’s employers, wanting to know what they intended to do about it. And, for a while, it looked like the Washington, D.C., public transit authority was going to take Tynes’ complaint seriously.

The social media world, however, had other ideas, and by the end of the day, Tynes was not only reviled as a racist, the publishing house that was working with her book publisher announced that it was going to refuse to distribute her novel—and they were recommending that her publisher drop her as well. In fact, her publisher announced that they were postponing her novel, which was supposed to come out next month, and looking into how they could just cancel it outright.

Now, let’s be clear before we go any further into this: Natasha Tynes did a really shitty thing, and she deserves our scorn and opprobrium. That’s… I mean, I gather there are some people out there who dispute this, but they’re wrong. So: No defending Natasha Tynes for attempting to publicly shame a woman and possibly get her fired.

That said, as somebody who has participated in publishing contracts both as an author and as an employee of a publishing house, I don’t think that cancelling publication is necessarily the finest move her publisher could make in these circumstances.

Don’t get me wrong: The part of me that’s been on the publishing side of this fence knows exactly how Tynes’ editor must have felt as the news spread and the one-star reviews of her unpublished novel accumulated on Goodreads. Every book you decide to publish is a gamble, and no matter how confident I felt about a novel’s artistic merits, I would still wake up in the middle of the night panicking about the possibility that it wouldn’t get enough reviews, or it wouldn’t get reviewed in the right outlets, or that something else would go wrong.

And it’s almost inevitable that something will go wrong. But it’s almost always something beyond your control or the author’s control. You’ve got a good novel, you’ve given it the best marketing push you can, and something happens out there, and you just have to deal with it as best you can. Sometimes you can overcome it, sometimes you can’t.

Natasha Tynes’ editor, on the other hand, woke up to a problem of the author’s own creation. (And I’m assuming, because Tynes’ publisher, California Coldblood, is based in Los Angeles, that problem had swelled to epic proportions by the time her editor actually woke up.) So, even past the objective disgust one might feel regarding Tynes’ behavior, that editor is now dealing with an overwhelming sense that the author has fucked things up for everybody.

Not to mention that now Rare Bird Books, was calling or emailing or whatever, saying they didn’t want to be associated with the novel, and they seriously thought California Coldblood should just cut Tynes loose.

(The initial reporting on this was a bit confusing, but from what I’ve been able to suss out, California Coldblood is a small publishing house that works with Rare Bird Books, a slightly less small publishing house, so it can get its books distributed through Rare Bird’s usual distributor, Publishers Group West, a name anyone familiar with the bookselling world will recognize.)

As a former editor, I understand this. I sympathize with this. If it had happened to me, my former boss would probably have called me at home even before I showed up for work that morning, yelling at me to find some way to get rid of the book and the author and, New York being an at-will employment state, I would spend a few days wondering if I’d still have a job at the end of the month.

So I totally get wanting to sever ties with Natasha Tynes for doing a shitty thing that threatens to negate all the hard work that’s been put into gaining her novel whatever level of financial success California Coldblood could have hoped for it.

As a writer, though, I have some issues with how this is happening.

I don’t know what kind of deal California Coldblood has with Rare Bird Books, so I can’t speak at all to whether Rare Bird is allowed to pick and choose the California Coldblood books it will agree to distribute. I do raise my eyebrow a bit at Rare Bird exerting pressure on a smaller book publisher, one that relies on Rare Bird for its financial viability, and telling it how it should conduct its business affairs. But, hey, that’s capitalism.

I also don’t know what kind of deal California Coldblood has with Natasha Tynes, but I have seen enough book contracts to be reflexively skeptical of the premise that a publisher could terminate a book contract on the basis of something the author did “out in the real world,” so to speak.

Yes, publishers sometimes include a “morals clause” in the contract they offer writers, and apparently that’s happening more and more these days. As a parallel example, it was reported earlier this year that Condé Nast is renewing its contracts with contributing writers to assert its right to “terminate the agreement if the writer ‘becomes the subject of public disrepute, contempt, complaints or scandals.’” I don’t know if California Coldblood’s boilerplate contract includes a similar clause. I do know that’s one of the first clauses which, if it were included in the boilerplate, a good agent would move to strike. I know it’s a clause that I’d insist be struck from the contract on my agent’s first counter-offer.

If there is a clause like that in Natasha Tynes’ contract with California Coldblood, then it sucks to be Natasha Tynes—more the fool her, because in my opinion she never should have signed that contract in the first place, if that was one of the terms.

But what if it wasn’t?

Here’s what I do know: Natasha Tynes wrote a novel that the editorial department at California Coldblood thought was good enough to publish, she was offered a contract to get that novel published, and that contract was signed by both parties. That creates a contractual obligation, and although I’m not a lawyer, I don’t think one should be able to abandon a contractual obligation just because one has discovered that the other party is an asshole.

“Wait a minute, Ron,” you might say. “Weren’t you happy when Simon & Schuster cancelled Milo Yiannopoulos’s book deal in 2017?” Yes, yes I was, because Milo Yiannopoulos is a shitty person who deserves the downward spiral his life has become. However, Yiannopoulos didn’t lose his book deal because Simon & Schuster thought he was a shitty person. Simon & Schuster was absolutely prepared to collect a bunch of money by publishing a book by a shitty person—provided it was a book that could sell enough copies to bring in that money. What Milo’s editor discovered when he turned in his manuscript, though, is that Milo isn’t just a shitty person, he’s a shitty writer—and, to the minds of everyone at Simon & Schuster, unwilling or unable to do the work that would make him a not-shitty writer. That’s why the book deal was cancelled.

Because one of the clauses that will never get dropped from a publishing contract is the one where the publisher can end the deal if the writer doesn’t deliver something that is, in the publisher’s considered opinion, actually publishable.

Natasha Tynes’ novel wasn’t unpublishable; in fact, it was only about a month from publication. (In fact, copies were starting to leave, or on the verge of leaving, the warehouse, according to the publisher’s public statement.) California Coldblood just decided it didn’t want to do business with Tynes anymore, in part because Rare Bird Books decided it didn’t want to distribute her book, which threatened to make the novel an albatross around California Coldblood’s neck. But also, going by its public statement, because California Coldblood had come to disdain Natasha Tynes for the same reason a substantial portion of the social media audience had come to disdain her—because she had done a very shitty thing, very publicly.

Commercial book publishing is, I suppose, a sustained deferral to mob opinion, in the sense that publishers like to publish books they think people will buy. As I said earlier, hey, that’s capitalism. And I don’t have any problem with book publishers considering a book by a writer who’s done shitty things in public, deciding there’s no way enough people would buy it to make publishing it worthwhile, and declining to offer a contract on the basis of that lack of commercial viability.

Once there’s a contract, though, that contract should be honored, even if a publisher has to scramble to minimize the financial losses doing so is likely to incur. Even if you find yourself stuck with a novel by an author that everybody hates… no matter how good the reason they hate her might be, and even if you’ve come to agree with them.

If California Coldblood is taking steps to terminate its publishing contract with Natasha Tynes because there’s actually a clause in the contract that says she was obligated not to become an object of scorn and ridicule before the book came out, then it’s her own fault for entering into that contract. If, however, California Coldblood is attempting to get out of publishing a novel it’s contractually obligated to publish because a bunch of people are yelling at them and they don’t know how they’re supposed to make money on that book anymore (and they don’t much like Natasha anymore either), that’s not a good thing for writers.

Writers need to be able to count on their publishers. They need to be able to know, when they enter into a contract with a book publisher, that the contract represents a serious commitment to publishing their book, and that the publisher will live up to its end of the commitment. If the winds of public opinion are enough to topple that commitment, after it’s been entered into, that sends a dangerous signal.

Is the schadenfreude many of us feel about Natasha Tynes potentially losing her book deal worth undermining the author-publisher relationship? I honestly don’t think so. And I don’t think I’m having an “overreaction” to “a unique set of circumstances.” (But then again, I wouldn’t, would I?) Because the mob is able to get one book deal cancelled, it’ll be able to get more book deals cancelled… and, eventually, the mob will come for someone whose failure doesn’t tickle some dark corner of my heart.

So, unless it turns out Natasha Tynes was foolish enough to agree to some sort of “morals clause,” I hope California Coldblood discovers, as “we further discuss appropriate next steps to officially cancel the book’s publication,” that they can’t make their Natasha Tynes problem go away that easily. I hope it comes at significant cost—not because I want the company to lose money on her and her book, but because I don’t want other publishers, facing similar situations in the future, to think abandoning their authors is their best option.

(PS: Yes, basic subscribers, you’re getting a bonus newsletter! Ordinarily, you wouldn’t be seeing an email from me until around the end of the month, but I felt like this particular topic was worth writing about for everyone, while it was still fresh on everyone’s minds.)