An Editor Speaks Out: Teng Biao, Darkness Before Dawn, and the American Bar Association
In light of present controversies pertaining to China’s influence on Western publishers and academic institutions, as well as a wonderful recent profile piece about Teng Biao in the New York Times, I thought now was an appropriate time to come forward with my own story. I was the Executive Editor at ABA Publishing (the publishing division of the American Bar Association) behind what I’ve come to call The Teng Biao Affair.
In October 2014, my editorial director at the time presented me with an article from the New York Review of Books profiling Chinese human rights lawyer Teng Biao. The article featured a photograph of Teng holding a copy of the China Law Deskbook, one of ABA Publishing’s top-selling titles. As I was particularly interested in acquiring books related to human rights issues, my director felt this might be something I’d be particularly keen to pursue.
I emailed Teng and pitched him the idea of writing a book about his experiences trying human rights cases in China. As it turned out, Teng was already in the early stages of writing a manuscript and didn’t as yet have a publisher. Together we developed a proposal for his memoir, tentatively titled Darkness Before Dawn. I explained how the acquisition process worked and scheduled my presentation of Teng’s proposal for the upcoming November 2014 acquisitions meeting, typically attended by the publisher, the directors of marketing, production, and editorial; and the acquisitions editors.
I went into that meeting feeling confident that Teng’s proposal would be favorably received, as the book seemed tailor-made for the ABA.
Sadly, the response was not what my editorial director nor I could ever have anticipated. The initial concern was that it wouldn’t appeal to American readers. One of the senior managers even asked, and I don’t think rhetorically: “Who gives a shit about little Chinese widget-makers?” Amid heated accusations of racism – and a reluctance on the part of other senior managers at the table to condemn this particular manager’s offensive remark – additional concerns were expressed that the publication of a book that might be seen as critical of the Chinese government would put the work of the ABA’s ROLI (Rule of Law Initiative) team at risk in China.
I hadn’t spoken to anyone at ROLI and this meeting was the first time any such concern was expressed to me.
We decided to table the discussion until we’d received feedback from NBN (National Book Network), our distributor. We often relied on the input of our distributor before making any final decisions about publication, especially when the acquisitions team was not in unanimity.
NBN’s feedback was split as well. One response was that they couldn’t recommend we move forward, while another thought it could be a successful book if it was written in a non-academic, compelling narrative style. I shared this feedback with my acquisitions team. And to my knowledge, there wasn’t any further discussion about it, at least none that I was a part of.
A week or so later, my editorial director came to me and said I had approval to extend an offer to Teng for his book. My assumption was that he had received this approval from the Publisher. The chain of command at the time was such that outside of the monthly acquisitions meetings, I, as an Executive Editor, had very little direct interaction with the Publisher. Any such communication was filtered through my boss down to the editors. I saw no reason to question anything was different here.
I emailed Teng the good news and extended an offer. He accepted. Then perhaps a week or two later, my editorial director came to me with the news that I had to rescind the offer. I asked him if the reason was concern that publication of such a book could jeopardize the work of ROLI in China and if that was what I should tell Teng. I was told yes.
Teng’s response was very gracious. I apologized and said that while I didn’t agree with my publisher’s decision, I had to honor it. I then offered to send the proposal to a literary agent I knew whom I thought might be interested in representing him. I sent the proposal, and that was the end of my contact with Teng and involvement with Darkness Before Dawn. This was in early 2015.
In April 2016, my publisher’s boss – ABA Publishing’s Director of Business Services – came into my office and said I needed to meet with General Counsel. An article was about to be published accusing the ABA of cancelling Teng’s book out of fear of recrimination by the Chinese government. My email correspondence with Teng was included in the article, though my name was not released as per Teng’s request to the media.
It was clear from the onset that the ABA was in damage control mode. I met with General Counsel and related the events surrounding my contact with Teng much as I have related them here. I was due to leave for two weeks’ vacation in England the next day. General Counsel thanked me and said they would be in touch as needed while I was away.
The next morning, the story was picked up by various media outlets, both nationally and internationally. The gist of these articles was not overly favorable to the ABA. I went off to England expecting the worst. I received an email from the ABA’s Director of Media Relations that I was not to speak to anyone in the media and to refer all queries from the press directly to her.
The statement that the ABA released in response to these articles and to a call for clarification from Senator Marco Rubio and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, portrayed me as a rogue editor who had commissioned Teng’s book and moved forward with it without any supervision. My actions were termed “erroneous.” The reason the ABA gave for cancelling Teng’s book was that it wasn’t deemed profitable. In my response email to General Counsel, dated April 28, 2016, I wrote:
"I extended the offer to Mr. Biao and then subsequently rescinded it based on what I believed to be the direction and approval of my manager. I would never - and have never - done either without the explicit approval of my manager at the time. What could I possibly have hoped to gain by going rogue and acting in such a manner without managerial consent? It doesn't make sense.
" [The] statement suggests that I acted completely on my own and twice acted without proper authorization. This is completely untrue and is extremely damaging to my professional reputation, which has always been excellent."
I went on to say:
"While there was certainly a limited discussion regarding the financials of the project - and with NBN via email, correspondence I have shared with you - I maintain the reasons that were communicated to me by my manager at the time for rescinding the offer were due to sensitivities about the ABA's work in China and not because of concern about the book's profitability. These sensitivities were at the heart of the discussion about the proposal at the acquisitions meeting, a meeting that [the Director of Business Services] did not attend. If financials were truly the determining factor, we wouldn't move forward with at least half the books we publish…
"It is all very damaging and very disappointing. The fact that my name hasn't been released to the public is little consolation as most who might read these statements or write about them in the press know or can easily piece together the identity of the editor at the heart of this mess."
In response to which I received an email from General Counsel stating they would be available to speak with me when I was back in the office.
Upon my return, a week later, ABA Publishing’s Director of Business Services, one of those involved in drafting the statement, called me into his office and accused me of stupidity. He informed me that ABA senior management had been clamoring for him to fire me but he wasn’t going to do so because I was simply too valuable to him as an employee. He reminded me: “This organization is bigger than you. You serve the ABA.” And then he proceeded to express how pained he was at the fact I’d re-tweeted an article from the New York Times calling the ABA’s statement into question.