Book Marketing

Skyhorse Publishing’s House of Horrors – Vanity Fair

What do Woody Allen, Roger Stone, thimerosal, and adult coloring books have in common? It sounds like the kind of dystopian crack that should only have a punch line. And yet, there is an answer, and the answer is Skyhorse Publishing.

The Manhattan-based publishing house, which bills itself as “one of the fastest growing independent publishers in the United States,” is far from a household name, but you’ve probably heard of its most newsworthy books: Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing, or the Skyhorse edition of the Mueller report. Or Roger Stone’s 2019 reprint, The Myth of Russian Collusion: The Inside Story of How Donald Trump REALLY Won, rushed out just days before Stone was slapped with a gag order while on trial for obstruction, witness tampering, and false statements (and found guilty on all counts before Trump commuted his sentence).

This month, Skyhorse has ordered a 500,000-first-print run for Disloyal, the memoir of beleaguered former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, which the White House has repeatedly attempted to bar from publication. In it, Cohen writes, “I know where the skeletons are buried because I was the one who buried them.”

“I’m shocked that this book was not acquired by one of the Big Five publishers. The fact is that fewer and fewer publishers are willing to take on the tough books,” Tony Lyons, the president and publisher of Skyhorse, tells me in an email. “Mr. Cohen was going to self-publish and I worked very hard to convince him to go with Skyhorse. I argued that we could get things done more quickly than any other publisher while maintaining the highest quality. In the end, I’m thrilled to be publishing Disloyal and confident that it will be a New York Times bestseller.” (Distributor sources say that the publisher considered selling Cohen’s book exclusively through Amazon. Skyhorse denied sending the entire first-print run to a single bookseller, but declined to provide further details.)

“Whether you are looking for a guide to fly tying, a lively read about organized crime or the world of politics, or the perfect gift,” reads the “About Us” section on the Skyhorse website, “we hope you’ll find what you are looking for on our list.” You might. The publisher’s homepage is a cornucopia: Allen nestles next to Predator King: Peter Nygard’s Dark Life of Rape, Drugs, and Blackmail. An etiquette guide and a remembrance of Kobe Bryant sandwich Guilt by Accusation: The Challenge of Proving Innocence in the Age of #MeToo, by Trump defender and Martha’s Vineyard pariah Alan Dershowitz. And there’s Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party, by Andrew Hacker, with a cover featuring the president’s planate profile, eyes squinting, lips parted like a fish gulping for air.

In recent months, Skyhorse’s Plague of Corruption, cowritten by the discredited former researcher Dr. Judy Mikovits, became a best seller following Mikovits’s appearance in the coronavirus conspiracy theory video “Plandemic,” a portion of which circulated widely online before Facebook and YouTube removed it for violating anti-misinformation guidelines. In the clip, Mikovits claims—incorrectly—that the novel coronavirus is “activated” by face masks. In July, Mikovits participated in an interview for the Sinclair Broadcast Group television segment America This Week, in which she claimed—erroneously—that Dr. Anthony Fauci was responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. The segment did not air. Publicity material for Plague of Corruption touts Mikovits as an Erin Brockovich–type figure whose HIV work helped save the life of Magic Johnson. She “worked at the highest levels of the NIH for more than twenty years,” Lyons asserts in an email. (The government-owned Frederick Cancer Research and Development Center—a part of the National Cancer Institute, which is a branch of the NIH—only confirmed that Mikovits worked for them for 14 years, from 1987 to 2001. Her last title was principal scientist, of which there are many.) “The book has a strong blurb from a Nobel Prize–winning scientist,” Lyons said. (The blurber, Luc Montagnier, was a 2008 Nobel Laureate for his codiscovery of the link between HIV and AIDS; for nearly a decade, he has garnered skepticism in the scientific community for various assertions, including that vaccine “accidents” may trigger autism.)

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“I was thinking about what makes Skyhorse different from other companies,” says Lyons, during a wide-ranging interview this spring, “and it goes back to being open to publishing books that other people might not publish for a variety of reasons.” Those reasons might include a short turnaround time, or disinterest from other publishers. They also, one could argue, include dubious scientific claims that toggle between the merely controversial and the outright inaccurate. Skyhorse has made millions by differentiating itself from traditional publishers, releasing books on a rapid schedule and courting controversies along the national divide, from cancel culture to freedom of the press to hallmarks of the misinformation age. But accounts from former employees paint a picture of a company with internal demons too: reports of a toxic workplace, everyday misogyny, and the human costs of mismanagement in an industry always anxious about its margins.

“Why don’t I just start at the very beginning? I can tell you where I was born,” says Lyons, prompted by a question about his early jobs. His literary father and artist mother raised the family on the Upper West Side. “There would always be writers and teachers, other artists, and publishing people who’d visit us, whose houses we went to. We had a lot of great dinnertime conversations where we’re all disagreeing about all kinds of things. That, I think, was probably the time when I began really liking to look at everything from both sides,” he explains, adding, “I just always liked the idea of saying, Well, what if the opposite is true?”

When I ask Lyons about his personal taste in books—what’s on his nightstand, or his all-time favorites—he says he has a “dozen or so” books he plans to read soon, declining to name them. A few days later he follows up in an email to say, in part, “I just re-read The Plague by Albert Camus. It’s one of my all-time favorites and there couldn’t be a better time to read it. And now I’m re-reading The End of White World Supremacy by Malcolm X. I think everyone in America should read that right now.”

Illustration by Alicia Tatone.

Lyons built his indie empire in the mold of many publishers, as an umbrella over a stable of imprints. The 20 under Skyhorse include Sky Pony Press, which publishes children’s and YA books like Sabrina Hahn’s The ABCs of Art and Poppy O’Neill’s Sometimes I’m Anxious: A Child’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety; Night Shade Books, for fantasy and sci-fi; and Carrel Books, geared toward “the needs of librarians.” Hot Books is, what else, timely nonfiction. Arcade—founded in 1988 by Richard Seaver and acquired by Skyhorse in 2010—has a long history of publishing groundbreaking authors, including Malcolm X, Umberto Eco, and Nobel winner Mo Yan. Arcade also publishes Woody Allen, and the imprint will publish a forthcoming novel as well as the memoir by A Prairie Home Companion creator Garrison Keillor, who was fired from his longtime job at Minnesota Public Radio in 2017, following an investigation into sexual harassment allegations.

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“[Arcade] is international, it is open-minded,” says Jeannette Seaver, the imprint’s current head (and Richard Seaver’s widow). “It is different from all the other imprints of Skyhorse…. It may not be commercial.” Lyons, Seaver says, is “a terrific colleague. He makes mistakes. He’s criticized that there’s too many imprints, and perhaps too many books are published under Skyhorse, but basically he’s a terrific, good guy.”

Regarding his list at large, Lyons says, “We believe in free speech, take a strong stance against cancel culture, and live by the rule that it’s important to err on the side of letting even unpopular voices be heard.”

Lyons started his career in book publishing after graduating from Albany Law School in 1993. (At Skyhorse, he edited and published The Little Black Book of Lawyer’s Wisdom, and he retains a lawyerly approach to conversation—he followed our initial two-hour phone interview with three requests for clarification phone calls, postponing once and ultimately canceling all; multiple extensive and particularized emails; written testimonials from employees; and a libel threat.) In 1995 he began a long run at independent publisher Lyons & Buford, then owned by his father, Nick (whose memoir, Fire in the Straw, Arcade will publish next month). The house was primarily devoted to fly-fishing manuals and outdoor narrative nonfiction, such as Jon Krakauer’s Eiger Dreams. Lyons served as the president and publisher from 1997 through the company’s 2001 sale to Globe Pequot, when it was rebranded as Lyons Press. Following a three-year contract, he left the company in 2004.

Two years later, Lyons launched Skyhorse Publishing, borrowing the company’s name from a former Lyons Press editor, Brando Skyhorse, the PEN/Hemingway Award–winning author. (Skyhorse declined to speak for this article, writing in an email, “I’ve had no contact with SP in years.”) With a scant staff and a commitment to rapid growth, Lyons pledged to publish 100 titles in the company’s first full year. He succeeded, and by the end of year three revenue hit $5 million. By 2015 the company’s revenue had reportedly reached $43 million, and in 2017 the Skyhorse team, 77 staffers strong, published 1,120 books, with a backlist of more than 6,500. “The Sky Horse Is the Limit” marveled a headline on a HuffPost story about the company that year.

Lyons still prides himself on taking a “both sides” approach (his words). Last month, Skyhorse published The Case Against Masks: Ten Reasons Why Mask Use Should be Limited, cowritten by Mikovits and Kent Heckenlively. In October, the company will publish The Case for Masks: Science-Based Advice for Living During the Coronavirus Pandemic by Dean Hashimoto. Likewise, Skyhorse released both The Case for Impeaching Trump by Elizabeth Holtzman and The Case Against the Democratic House Impeaching Trump by Dershowitz. The month before the 2016 election Skyhorse published Malcolm Nance’s The Plot to Hack America, about Russian efforts to tip the election in Trump’s favor, and reissued their 2015 book The Clintons’ War on Women, cowritten by Roger Stone and Robert Morrow, a Clinton obsessive who has catalogued his sexual fantasies about and death wishes toward Hillary. (Reached for comment on his publisher, Stone responded, “With all due respect, Vanity Fair having never reported anything fair or accurate about me, much of it both malicious and vicious, I will decline your request.”)

The debate over whether all sides of every argument deserve the platform and distribution of a professional publisher like Skyhorse (or, say, the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times) has reached a fever pitch. “That centrist or liberal idea that there must be two sides to everything and that you have a better debate when you publish both sides just seems wrong,” says Jacob Stevens, the publisher of Verso, an independent left-leaning house. “So much of the mainstream media will publish poor quality and problematic and counterproductive work on that basis.”

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Some Skyhorse books even include opposing arguments: Skyhorse editions of both the best-selling Mueller report and the impeachment report were published with introductions by Dershowitz, whom Lyons describes as an “iconic attorney.” Lyons says that Skyhorse editors considered publishing the Mueller report with oppositional packaging too, but in the end decided not to for two reasons, the first being that they believed an edition by the Washington Post would serve that purpose. The other was time. “One of the things with Alan Dershowitz is that he’s very, very fast,” Lyons says. “He wrote his piece for the book, I believe, in just a few hours. It didn’t seem to me that there was anybody we could get that would have written a countervailing view in that time.” One former employee describes the Skyhorse publishing philosophy as “libertarianism of convenience.”

The strategy does take the shape of an Ouroboros. “I’ve had lots of fun with things like, we publish all kinds of books about conspiracy theories,” says Lyons. They include The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ, and Who Really Killed Martin Luther King Jr.?: The Case Against Lyndon B. Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover—“but then we published a book called Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect by Mick West,” which addresses “lots of the subject matter that we’ve covered in our various conspiracy books and it explains why they’re all wrong.”

When I ask how Lyons ensures factual accuracy in the books Skyhorse publishes, “That’s always a tough question,” he says. “Generally the idea is that we want a book to make a strong argument.” In response to a follow-up, Lyons declines to specify standard practices, writing, “it’s dangerous to assume that just because you disagree with the conclusions of a book, it’s therefore inaccurate and should be censored.” He compares himself to late civil rights activist Congressman John Lewis, saying that “I’m trying to get into some ‘good trouble, necessary trouble.’”

The role of fact-checking in book publishing is of crucial concern, particularly in light of inaccuracies found in recent big-ticket books like Naomi Wolf’s Outrages, which was canceled by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt prior to publication, or Donald Trump Jr.’s Triggered published by Center Street, an imprint of Hachette.

While magazines, including Vanity Fair, employ internal research teams to fact-check articles, book publishers don’t assume the same legal liability (a fact that Lyons points out to me in a follow-up email, citing case law). Some book publishers say that the extensive research is too onerous a process, and the law agrees. Other publishers and imprints embed fact-checking into the editorial process, but require the author to foot the bill. “Typically when I’m working with people on journalistic nonfiction, we work out the plan for fact-checking,” says Chris Jackson, the editor and publisher of the Penguin Random House imprint One World, “but it’s an author responsibility in book publishing—it’s part of what the author warrants us, that they’re giving us a book that’s accurate.”

“This all comes down to the quality of where your information’s coming from,” says Morgan Entrekin, the president and publisher of celebrated independent publisher Grove Atlantic. “That’s one of the things that we endangered, because the internet has helped flatten everything. So it’s like, it comes from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, from a Pulitzer Prize–winning team of reporters, or it comes from a guy sitting in his underwear in the garage. You’ve got to take that into consideration. It’s important that we keep reliable sources of information.” For publishers who care about their reputations, there is an impetus to work with credentialed authors who are faithful to the facts.

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To fact-check any one of the dozens of “controversial” books published by Skyhorse may indeed be an onerous process. Take for example Plague of Corruption and The Case Against Masks, both coauthored by Judy Mikovits and Kent Heckenlively, and both sent to me by Skyhorse representatives as standouts on their list.

In The Case Against Masks Mikovits and Heckenlively make a dangerous comparison between the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and HIV, writing that as a researcher working with HIV-positive patients, Mikovits was completely safe. Of course she was—HIV is not transmitted through saliva. There have been numerous findings, on the other hand, that frontline medical workers, particularly those with inadequate access to PPE, are a highly at-risk population for contracting SARS-CoV-2. In the book the authors primarily cherry-pick from articles on websites like EarthHow and Health, many of which, if read in full, conclude the opposite of what Mikovits and Heckenlively are arguing, as in the chapter entitled “Oxygen is Good for Human Beings and Carbon Dioxide is Bad!” In it, Mikovits and Heckenlively reference a Health.com article which does indeed cite evidence that extremely high carbon dioxide levels are toxic to humans, but—and this Mikovits and Heckenlively leave out—concludes “that prolonged use of any face mask, including the N95 respirator, has not been shown to cause carbon dioxide toxicity in healthy people…. As for cloth face coverings (either store-bought or homemade), there’s even less of a chance of breathing issues, and it’s definitely not an excuse for going out without one.”

In Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s introduction to Plague, he claims that Mikovits was arrested in 2011 “without a warrant” and that “no prosecutor has ever filed charges against [Mikovits],” both claims that Mikovits echoes in her text. But her warrant is available online, and a simple search in the Washoe County, Nevada, judicial website turns up a case file under her name, charging her with two felony counts for unlawful use of computers and possession of stolen property. (Full reports are available on these charges being dropped “without prejudice,” and her former employer successfully sued her for damages in civil court.) Furthermore, Science did not, as Kennedy writes, “feverishly [press] Mikovits to retract her October 2009 article” on a supposed link between chronic fatigue syndrome and the polio vaccine because the “evidence threatened financial catastrophe for the world’s pharmaceutical companies,” but rather, according to Science, because other researchers were unable to replicate her results, and in fact found evidence that directly contradicted them.

Within the Skyhorse wheelhouse, certain topics seem to inflame Lyons’s interest more than others. The alleged danger of vaccines is one of them. Skyhorse has published at least a dozen books on the topic. Kennedy’s book, Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak—he, too, is a veteran Skyhorse author—is of particular interest to Lyons because it was a target of what he calls “subtle censorship.” According to Lyons, “Major newspapers all over the country started just totally bashing the book and calling Bobby Kennedy an anti-vaxxer before we even sent out review copies.” When I ask for the articles, a Skyhorse publicist sends along links to posts by Time and Slate, both of which are responses to an authorized, in-depth profile of Kennedy by the Washington Post Magazine, itself written by a journalist who had read the Thimerosal manuscript. (That article reminds readers, and so will this one, that “according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Institute of Medicine, no evidence supports a link between thimerosal and any brain disorders, including autism.”)

Lyons hasn’t published a book in favor of vaccines because the argument for them is “so well-covered that there’s no story,” he says. “If somebody came to me and wanted to publish a book on why they think Bobby Kennedy’s book on thimerosal is wrong, I would love that.” Lyons himself has written the books Vaccine Injuries: Documented Adverse Reactions to Vaccines; The 1,001 Tips for Parents of Autistic Girls; and Cutting-Edge Therapies for Autism. During our interview he brings up a “book that is very close to home, which is my ex-wife’s book, Beyond Autism: My Life With Lina,” about their daughter. When I ask, in a follow-up email, whether his daughter plays a part in his decision to publish books about the alleged dangers of vaccines, he responds, “First of all, my children are totally off limits. I brought up the book as one that’s close to my heart, but not to discuss my views about my daughter’s diagnosis,” adding, “Like any parent whose child has been diagnosed with an illness, I’ve done my best to research the subject as thoroughly as possible. As a publisher, I am privileged to be able to bring out books that explore competing views on the subject.”

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If some topics assume gray-area qualities, in other aspects of business, such as management, there are bright lines. This is where Skyhorse moves from embodying conversations about cancel culture into the specifics of a larger reckoning: What protections can employees expect from an employer? And what does the constant churn, the thirst for profit, mean for the people doing the work?

Skyhorse touts greater “opportunities for advancement” in its fast-moving waters. Multiple employees hired into entry-level positions received promotions within the first six months of working at Skyhorse; others held three different positions in under two years. (In 2013, straight out of college, I applied for a job at Skyhorse through a posting on Craigslist. I was offered a full-time “paid editorial internship” for $7.25/hour, but didn’t take the position.) Someone with no prior experience in book publishing applied for an assistant position and didn’t realize until two months into the job that they’d been hired into the more senior position of an associate. (For comparison, a literary fiction editor at a Big Five publisher—Penguin/Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, HarperCollins, and Macmillan are the giants—describes a typical editorial career path as two to four years spent in assistant positions working closely with more senior editors, then two more as an associate editor.) A ladder at that tilt is easier to scale.

“A lot of the things that tend to rule out people from low-income backgrounds or people of color, like expecting people to have had five or six internships in publishing before they get their first entry-level job—a lot of that doesn’t come into play as much there,” says a former employee who was initially impressed with the company’s relative staff diversity. But this person and others say they watched many of those people leave Skyhorse or the industry altogether when faced with the realities of working at the company.

Illustration by Alicia Tatone.

The Skyhorse Glassdoor page is peppered with one-star reviews citing an emphasis on quantity over quality, sexism and harassment, and burnout. “You’ll have the potential to meet good people as you miserably ride together in cattle class on this dystopian cruise ship,” wrote one former employee in March of this year. “The nearly all-white, all-male management tends to hire very young, inexperienced women because they can pay them next-to-nothing,” reads another from 2018.

Other reviews, bearing four and five stars, read like calls coming from inside the house. “If you’re looking for tight corporate structure and lots of bureaucratic red tape, then Skyhorse isn’t for you,” reads one six-paragraph missive from 2019. “If you’re looking for a free-wheeling place that allows you to dive in head-first into publishing and see how the field really works, then you’ll find great opportunity at Skyhorse.”

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In interviews and email correspondence with 22 current and former staff members across editorial, publicity, marketing, HR, and production departments, many recall training techniques that at best sound like a hamster wheel. Editorial assistants acquired their own books with little to no guidance on what to look for. Publicity and marketing assistants at Skyhorse have been given more than 100 books each to promote per season (15 books per year is normal elsewhere), with few tools beyond a database of emails and a ranked list of which books should receive the most attention. To this day and across imprints, any one Skyhorse editor may be currently working on more than 30 books a year, between reissues and originals. (An editor at a Big Five publisher describes a normal workload of four to six books annually.) Furthermore, at Skyhorse some of those editors are doing double duty as publicists.

In 2015, when the adult-coloring-book craze swept the country, the company flooded the market, Lyons says, putting out 100 coloring books over the course of about 18 months. Skyhorse breathlessly took its staff from 56 full-time employees to 81. Then, it got the bends. Former employees call the semi-regular layoffs that began in 2016 and continued through 2018 “The Purge.” Teams were let go without warning, with management citing repeated “restructuring.”

“If I had to do that over, I would definitely not have hired so many people,” Lyons says. “Downsizing is always a difficult and complicated thing.”

While book publishing can be an arduous process—two years from acquisition to publication is typical for both fiction and nonfiction; 10 years for reported books is not unheard of—for authors like the intrepid Dershowitz, speed and an anti-dogma dogma are Skyhorse’s biggest boons. “I did my book on Defending the Constitution, the Trump defense; they had it out in three or four days after I finished it,” Dershowitz says. “[Skyhorse is] basically the publishing industry’s response to social media. Social media is too fast. You think of something and you put it out there without even a second thought.” His books, he says, require “a second thought—but not a third thought. So it’s halfway between a long tweet and a long book.”

“All my books are first drafts,” he goes on. “I believe you don’t aim for perfection when you write a book, you get it out there. And then if people criticize it, you write another one.”

Dershowitz says that his Skyhorse advances are “a tenth of what I get from major publishers,” and former editors say that many advances range from $1,000 to $4,000, with $20,000 being the highest end of the spectrum. (Skyhorse declined to comment on this.) Yet the publisher has also, at times, erred on the side of over-ordering books that end up greatly underperforming expectations—a gamble in an industry where it’s common practice for publishers to eat the cost of bookseller returns.

In early 2017, boxes of Roger Stone’s The Making of the President 2016: How Donald Trump Orchestrated a Revolution, which Publishers Weekly reported had an initial print run of 200,000 copies, sat piled in the Skyhorse office until, one day that spring, a member of management caught wind of a protest against the president at Trump Tower. The publicity team—mostly young, mostly women—was directed to head to the protest and hand out copies to members of the media. All but one refused. To date, NPD BookScan reports U.S. sales of the book to be just shy of 22,000.

Throughout its history, Skyhorse has seemed caught between the identity of a large, legacy house and that of a scrappy start-up. Certain details align with some Silicon Valley stereotypes: According to a Skyhorse representative, Lyons “worked exclusively on a treadmill desk” for a little over a year, walking on it while eating lunch and during interviews with potential employees; another representative lists a Ping-Pong table as an office perk. But former employees note that company culture contradicted company policy. In a Skyhorse document from 2015 that compiles exit-interview feedback, reviewed by V.F., one answer to “any other issues” reads, in part: “no flexible hours, not everyone has a say in things, no stock options or other perks of start-ups.”

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While publishing is one of the few industries in which even executive-level positions are typically dominated by women, multiple former employees—men and women—refer to the Skyhorse management team as “the boys’ club,” and point to sexism playing a role in dissatisfaction with the job. During one publicity meeting, employees claim a male manager suggested that women in bikinis holding books be posted on the company Instagram. (Lyons says that this was brought up as an example of something another publisher or author did. “This was not—and never would be—discussed as a Skyhorse marketing strategy.”) A former employee describes another manager, who is still employed by Skyhorse, talking about junior female staffers with whom he had had sexual relationships. (“To my knowledge there is no basis whatsoever to this claim,” writes Lyons via email. “No one made such a claim to HR.” )

Lyons says that the perception of a male-dominated management team is a problem of optics. “Of the five most senior people beneath me,” he says, “three of them are female and two are male.” But of those three women, two work permanently from their homes in Connecticut and Vermont. Lyons says that in recent years a formal career mentoring program has been implemented in which senior female employees are paired with entry-level staff.

In June 2017, two Asian American employees reported to management that Skyhorse author Oliver Stone made racist and sexual remarks to them at a party Lyons hosted at his own Upper West Side apartment. (In October of that year, Playboy model Carrie Stevens accused Stone of groping her at a party when she was 22, and Patricia Arquette described an uncomfortable professional encounter.) The two employees, both publicists, had been assigned to work with Stone before and during the party as he signed materials for his book, The Putin Interviews. In a recording of a meeting among the two employees, Lyons, and Skyhorse controller Ann Choi on the Monday following the party, the employees, audibly emotional, describe Stone repeatedly calling one of them “Wing” (not her name), joking that one of the women had a nighttime job as a prostitute, making other references to Asian women and prostitution, suggesting that one of the publicists give him a massage, and specifically requesting that an “Asian girl” help him out. When contacted by Vanity Fair both publicists stood by these characterizations of the event.

“He was saying a lot of awful things that made me really uncomfortable,” one of the women told Vanity Fair. “I didn’t tell him to stop because I was young at that time; it was still my first job.” Other party attendees have corroborated the accounts. Stone’s assigned Skyhorse publicist, Madeleine Ball, who was present at the signing table, says, “He was talking about ‘factory hands,’” and remembers Stone suggesting that one of the women give him a massage. Another party attendee says Stone made a “really grossly sexual innuendo” about Asian women and white men.

Stone responded to these specific allegations in an email to Vanity Fair, asking that it run in full: “I went to Tony Lyons’s book party to sign books, signature sheets, and give interviews. I praised the efforts of his assistants in helping me do this with genuine good faith, and I’m sorry if my compliments to his staff were taken wrongly. They were meant in sincerity.”

As the recording reflects, both Lyons and Choi expressed remorse to the women for their experiences, and Lyons said that he would not throw Stone any more parties. (Stone would go on to write a foreword to Dan Kovalik’s 2019 The Plot to Overthrow Venezuela, published under the Skyhorse Hot Books imprint.) In that meeting, both denied that they had heard the extent of Stone’s remarks. “I certainly picked up on the fact that there was, you know, that he was acting in a certain way, like a certain kind of person that was rude,” Lyons said in that meeting. “And so I wish that I had said something. I’m sorry.”

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Party attendees describe Stone, in a public toast, thanking Lyons for the “young, Asiatic, good-looking staff” Skyhorse employed. The alleged victims brought this up to Lyons during their meeting. “When he said that,” Lyons told his employees, “I was just kind of cringing. I didn’t know what to say.”

“If you’re ever in a position that really makes you uncomfortable, step up and say something,” said Choi, whom Lyons called “the best person to go to” when one of the women asked who they should consider their HR contact. “You are adults.”

To V.F., over the phone and in emails, Lyons’s responses to questions about that party have varied, ranging from describing the women’s allegations as “unfounded,” to writing that “as it was described to me in the initial meeting, my first instinct and reaction was to believe the women. But after hearing other accounts I became somewhat confused.” Following the party, Lyons asked 17 Skyhorse employees and party attendees to write down their recollections of the night, and events following. Lyons made various anonymous excerpts of these “testimonials,” as he called them, available to V.F., including an attributed one whose author did not confirm its use for this story. These include one 1,100-word statement that strenuously disputes the allegations against Stone. “Honestly, I don’t remember many particular things that were said, because none of it struck me as especially noteworthy,” this person apparently wrote. “I am extremely feminist, and injustice angers me more than anything else…. Had anything sexist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive been said at that table in my presence, I absolutely would have prickled.” Other excerpts, presented without further context, seem to refer to witnessing a difficult situation. “[The publicist] handled this moment well and used her quick wit to respond to Mr. Stone in a way that I felt both admonished him without directly confronting him,” reads one of the excerpts. “I was in awe of and disarmed by my colleague’s handling of the situation,” reads another. Another party attendee whom Lyons asked to write a testimonial now says, “The vibe I got was: Potential lawsuits, let’s put things in a file for things that could possibly come up in the future.”

During the meeting with the two publicists, Lyons named a former employee as a separate victim of workplace sexual harassment—this time by Skyhorse employees. Lyons said that he had fired one of the perpetrators after two incidents were reported. The other perpetrator, he told his employees, “sort of quit.” Two employees with knowledge of the situation say that the woman experienced yet a third instance of sexual harassment, this time by a member of Skyhorse management; when a reorganization made her a direct report to the alleged perpetrator (who remains at the company), she asked editorial director Mark Gompertz for a different supervisor, and was let go weeks later. (“Skyhorse never has and never would terminate an employee for reporting sexual harassment or any other workplace misconduct,” Lyons writes in response.)

Later in 2017, Skyhorse staff became divided by a campaign to join Local 2110. Labor organizers cited OSHA violations, low pay, and changes made to health benefits as motivations for the union. Skyhorse hired Proskauer Rose, widely seen as a union-busting firm. (Condé Nast is also a client.) Lyons and other current employees who opposed the union say that the campaign was led primarily by newer employees who didn’t understand the company ethos and didn’t voice concerns internally. Marion Schwaner, a former employee and then junior member of the publicity team who opposed the union says that the campaign, “woke [management] up to the realization that some of their employees weren’t happy, but I think [union campaigners] could have gone about it in a different way.”

But without a clear and dedicated HR director, then employees say that they lacked the proper channels to elevate issues, and that Skyhorse management fostered an environment in which employees who voiced negative opinions were terminated, without official warning, under the auspices of “restructuring.” (During the reporting of this article, Lyons sent detailed descriptions of records and terminations of various former employees, including many whose names he had not been asked about.)

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“Even though they might’ve been doing something that not everybody agreed with, I think they were treated respectfully,” says Kathryn Mennone, the director of special projects, who has been with the company since 2009. “I do feel sometimes they did not treat the people who did not want a union with the same level of respect.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” writes Terry Buck, a former Skyhorse copy editor who spearheaded the campaign, in an email. “This is classic Trumpian projection.” Madeleine Ball likewise notes that “amity and civility towards coworkers and management behooves the union,” given that they were working toward more “yes” votes—a difficult process, organizers say, because of relationships between management and staff. Tony Lyons’s brother, Charles, was considered a voting-eligible part-time employee at the time of the union petition, though Skyhorse removed him from the voting unit when he transitioned into a consulting role—but the director of operations, Dean Notte, who employees say sometimes served in an HR capacity, was dating a voting-eligible assistant editor, and a part-time employee who was a sales manager’s daughter was also eligible to vote.

During the campaign, several pro-union staff members say they noticed unauthorized logins to their personal email and bank accounts from the Skyhorse IP address after receiving alerts about failed login attempts. (“Our head of HR investigated the claim and determined it could not be substantiated,” Lyons told V.F.) Over the five months between filing the petition and the union vote, 5 of the 12 organizers left for other jobs, and the National Labor Review Board dismissed all but one unfair labor practice charge (of an undue disciplinary measure taken by Skyhorse against an employee). The union effort concluded at the end of 2017 with a final vote of 18 in favor to 28 against.

In the wake of the petition, Skyhorse instituted annual harassment and discrimination training and later hired a permanent HR director, Carol Dudgeon, in 2018. But in April of that year, a reorganization resulted in a 20% reduction in staff—then employees on both sides of the union fight told me they believe that the layoffs disproportionately targeted union supporters, though Skyhorse disputes this characterization, saying that they had no way of knowing who had voted in favor. The company had reportedly shrunk down to 61 people, still including Lyons, Mennone, Gompertz, Notte, and Choi.

And although Skyhorse is in so many ways a small shop, strikingly different from any of the Big Five, it is dependent on one of them. At the beginning of 2019 the company ended a five-year partnership with Two Rivers Distribution/Ingram Publishers Services; since then, Skyhorse books have been distributed by Simon & Schuster, which means S&S warehouses and ships Skyhorse books. A spokesperson for Simon & Schuster did not respond to a question about whether the company has quality or ethical requirements of the independent publishers it distributes, or the content published by them.

Early this spring, Lyons drew what he believed would be a trump card. Rumors of Woody Allen’s memoir had circulated for years, and the New York Times reported that the director—whose daughter Dylan Farrow maintains her allegation of sexual abuse, a charge he has long denied—had unsuccessfully shopped it to four “major” publishers. On March 2, Grand Central, an imprint of French conglomerate Hachette, announced that they would publish it shortly. After much ado about Apropos of Nothing, including public condemnation from Allen’s son Ronan Farrow, whose book, Catch and Kill, was published by Little, Brown, another Hachette subsidiary; and a walkout from Hachette employees, Grand Central dropped the book on March 6. By March 23, the Skyhorse machine had picked it up and put it on shelves.

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“Forbidding the publication of the memoir of someone who was so important in American history of culture and art was unthinkable,” says Seaver, who acquired the book. “Tony did a little magic trick in that he found a printer who was able to print the book within a few days. And the agreement was, we wouldn’t talk about it until the book was actually physically out.” To the surprise of onlookers as well as to Skyhorse employees, many of whom found out about the book like the rest of the world, through media reports—Arcade Publishing launched the book with an initial print run of 75,000. The same day, citing declining sales due to COVID-19, the company laid off 30% of its staff. Skyhorse now employs 37 people.

To date, according to NPD BookScan, Allen’s memoir has sold 15,900 copies in the United States. Michael Cohen is a best seller.

This post has been updated.

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