Thomas Nelson is ceasing publication of David Barton's influential albeit controversial book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. NPR reports that the Nashville-based publisher has "lost confidence" in the book.
"When the concerns came in, from multiple people, and that had weight too, we were trying to sort things out," said Thomas Nelson Senior Vice President and Publisher Brian Hampton. "Were these matters of opinion? Were they differences of interpretation? But as we got into it, our conclusion was that the criticisms were correct. There were historical details — matters of fact, not matters of opinion, that were not supported at all."
Maybe it's just me, but I'd think that I, if I were Thomas Nelson, would have asked long before I published the book, maybe back when I was acquiring it, how any Evangelical Christian reconciles the man who said, "Question with boldness even the existence of a God" (and who went on to say that it's totally cool if you end up an atheist, you can still be a good person) with the claim that Thomas Jefferson was a "conventional Christian" that Evangelicals would recognize as one of them. But I am not an important religious publisher that stands to lose thousands of dollars from this debacle.
(The Tennessean also has a story on the issue, parts of which are interesting, but parts of which are so weird I don't want to get lost in the weeds discussing them. Long story short, for instance, whether Jefferson could have freed his slaves isn't really a matter of opinion. You don't have to go out and find someone who disagrees with Barton's claims. You could just look up the relevant laws and report whether the claim is factual.
Fact: After 1782, it was fairly easy to manumit slaves in Virginia. Jefferson's contemporary, Robert Carter, for instance, freed over 400 slaves. Fact: Some of the harshest anti-manumission laws proposed in Virginia — which didn't pass — were written by Jefferson. Opinion, but truth: Jefferson could have and should have been a better person about slavery — which he knew was wrong — than he was.)
Anyway, calling this a headache for Thomas Nelson is probably a bit of an understatement. I don't know the specifics of Barton's contract with Thomas Nelson, but he's a well-regarded and popular Evangelical author. He probably received a sizable advance which Thomas Nelson appears to not be trying to recover. This was a book that got a lot of great publicity and was widely available in bookstores, which means they likely adopted a strategy of having in circulation at any given time about twice as many books as they thought they could sell.
So if they thought the book would sell 40,000 copies, they probably paid to have 80,000 copies in print. If it was selling better than that, they had even more copies out there. Depending on how big their print run was, they probably have two or three dollars per book just in printing and binding costs. They paid to advertise the book, to publicize it, to spend time getting Barton in front of the media.
All that is expensive, which is great if a book earns it back (or leads to a book from that author that will earn it back). But to have to pull a book from sale? It's a financial disaster for a publisher. It causes a lot of bad will with retailers. And it can lead to a lot of bad will and confusion with authors and the general public. It's not something that a publisher undertakes lightly. Thomas Nelson sank a lot of money into that book they now have no way of recovering.
They must have been very concerned about the veracity of its content to take such a drastic step.