Paula Deen has been dealing with a major and life-altering controversy over the last few days. The 66-year-old chef, who has made a career out of creating warm and comforting southern dishes, recently admitted she has dropped the N-word several times in the past and once wanted African American servers to dress up in period costumes for a wedding (unflattering, considering the connotation). While the celebrity chef stated these were past behaviors during a deposition for a court case, they don’t paint a particularly pretty picture of Deen. It’s understandable that some companies that have helped to make her a brand name might want to drop the woman’s contract. However, when Ballantine Books dropped Deen from her publishing deal on Friday, the move made little business sense.
Ballantine Books is an imprint of Random House. Until yesterday, the company had a book deal with Deen for five cookbooks, including one that was set to be released this October called Paula Deen's New Testament: 250 Recipes: All Lightened Up. The “All Lightened Up” part refers to another controversy that Deen handled a little more successfully when she developed diabetes. Now, she’s cooking healthier and lighter—well, if anyone will let the woman cook.
Ballantine Books isn’t bound to do so, despite the fact that the company already has a bestseller on its hands. That’s right, after Deen’s recent controversy hit the media, a grassroots campaign was spawned by her most ardent supporters, who showed up at her restaurants and started pre-ordering her next book via outlets like Barnes and Noble and Amazon. According to Fox News, Paula Deen’s New Testament is already a #1 bestseller via both of those outlets—and it isn’t even in print, yet. Now, it may never be.
From a business perspective, a publishing house is there to meet the demand of consumers and to push copies, sometimes allowing the best pieces of prose to hit the market and other times putting together useful titles meant for a particular audience. In the latter’s case, a bookseller should want to court controversy if it means pushing more copies—especially in a business that is as fluid and rapidly changing as the book industry. I get that Ballantine Books feels that it is taking some moral high ground by cutting Deen out, but this isn’t an imprint that only publishes Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners, it’s an imprint that published Kathy Griffin’s book, Official Book Club Selection. There’s no need to make a decision based on some moral high ground when there’s already demand.
While certain companies, Food Network and Walmart included, have already dropped Deen from the ranks, other outlets are more than willing to take the woman’s business, as long as there is demand. You need go no further than the rumors that Deen might join the ABC family and Dancing with the Stars next season to help rehab her image—on both the racial and diabetic fronts. For those who need something a little more tangible, Deen’s annual cruise has gotten so popular, it is adding a second departure for 2014. That’s a business that knows how to make money when the money is there to be made.
That perspective may seem cold and heartless, but let’s look at the facts one more time: Paula Deen is an impetuous talker and her smarts lie more within the realm of food than the realm of careful thinking. She’s clearly said some careless, hurtful things in the past and in those instances she clearly had a choice. However, those verbal incidents happened some time ago and Deen has now apologized for those behaviors not once but twice. It’s time everyone laid off Paula Deen, and it’s time these publishing executives started thinking with their wallets. If people think Paula is a racist and want no part of her book, that’s fine, but there’s no point in messing with the nature of supply and demand, either.