What Alex Jones, Woody Allen and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Share

by Pelican Press
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Skyhorse Publishing is not a large company, but it has an outsize reputation for taking on authors that others avoid. Its list includes figures on the left, the right and those outside the mainstream altogether, like Alex Jones, the conspiracy broadcaster whose recent book examines “the global elite’s international conspiracy to enslave humanity and all life on the planet.”

What has garnered significantly less attention is the way in which the publisher’s founder, Tony Lyons, has supported the political ambitions of one of his authors: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose campaign for president has been rife with misinformation, including false theories about coronavirus vaccines. Mr. Lyons is a chairman of a super PAC supporting Mr. Kennedy. Under his direction, Skyhorse has donated $150,000 to the group.

Mr. Lyons casts his support for Mr. Kennedy as an extension of his mission as publisher: to defend against what he considers censorship. “Bobby Kennedy says this line now and then,” Mr. Lyons said. “Name a time in history where the people advocating for censorship were the good guys.”

At a moment when the country is deeply polarized, Mr. Lyons stands out among publishers for being more willing — and, because of the structure of the private company he controls, more able — to take risks. Skyhorse’s titles range from anodyne cooking and gardening books to works that court controversy or promote theories that have been debunked.

Its best-selling book ever was Mr. Kennedy’s “The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health,” which was released in 2021 and makes baseless claims against Dr. Fauci, accusing him of having “truly a dark agenda.” Mr. Lyons said it has sold more than 1.1 million copies across all formats.

“He is unique in the way he questions and challenges industry norms,” David Steinberger, a longtime publishing executive, said of Lyons. “Nothing Tony does surprises me.”

In recent years, publishing decisions that might not have seemed controversial in the past have incited a backlash. After Simon & Schuster signed a two-book deal with former Vice President Mike Pence in 2021, more than 200 employees, joined by thousands of writers and other publishing professionals, signed a petition demanding the deal be canceled. Simon & Schuster published the first book in the deal, a memoir, anyway.

In instances where other publishers decided to drop a book, Skyhorse has sometimes stepped in. Hachette canceled the publication of a memoir in 2020 by Woody Allen, called “Apropos of Nothing,” in the face of allegations that Allen molested his adopted daughter when she was a child. Allen has denied the allegations and was not charged after two investigations. Skyhorse picked up the memoir and published it weeks later. The book became a New York Times best seller.

Mr. Lyons takes pride in publishing across the political spectrum, and beyond.

Last year, as several publishers rushed out their own version of the Jan. 6 report, Skyhorse put out two versions: one with a foreword by Elizabeth Holtzman, a Democrat and former United States representative from New York, and another with a foreword by Darren Beattie, who was a speechwriter for former President Donald J. Trump.

This year, Skyhorse published “The War on Ivermectin,” by Dr. Pierre Kory, which argues the anti-parasitic drug could have ended the Covid-19 pandemic. (Clinical trials have found that ivermectin is not effective against Covid-19.)

Mr. Lyons said he believes the pharmaceutical industry has too much power over scientific research and federal regulators, and so he approaches established science with suspicion. This wariness, even in the face of widespread agreement and convincing evidence, informs his approach to publishing.

“Time after time, people have generally agreed about things that turned out to be demonstrably untrue,” Mr. Lyons said, citing as an example the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a claim that served a basis for justifying the U.S. invasion, and which turned out to be false. “That’s a much bigger danger than the danger of people being wrong.”

But there is at least one line Mr. Lyons said he would not cross. Though Skyhorse publishes Alex Jones, he said it would not publish a book by him about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which Mr. Jones has falsely argued was a government hoax.

Christopher Finan, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said he supports Mr. Lyons’s publishing program, and the coalition welcomed Mr. Lyons onto its board this summer.

Mr. Lyons’s philosophy reflects the coalition’s, Mr. Finan said: “Nobody has a monopoly on the truth.”

Skyhorse, which published about 450 titles last year, also puts out novels and thrillers, along with books about sports and graphic design. Much of its business is supported by an undramatic collection of older books — reliable sellers that include a pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution, a series of cookbooks called “Fix-It and Forget-It” and a book titled “Back to Basics: A Complete Guide to Traditional Skills,” which offers instructions on activities like weaving a rag rug and raising chickens.

Mark Gorton, an investor and entrepreneur, is a chairman, along with Mr. Lyons, of American Values 2024, the PAC supporting Mr. Kennedy. Mr. Gorton said his own political evolution away from the mainstream began about 16 years ago while he was reading a book about former President Lyndon B. Johnson. As he made his way through the book, he thought, “Oh my God, Lyndon Johnson is behind the J.F.K. assassination.” From there, he began researching what he described as “various deep state crimes,” and by the time he met Mr. Lyons many years later, he estimated he had 30 Skyhorse books on his shelves.

Now, Mr. Gorton said, he acknowledges that his worldview — which includes believing “that 9/11 was orchestrated by the U.S. government” — is “almost on a different plane from most people.” (There is no evidence that the U.S. government orchestrated the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, nor that it was involved in President Kennedy’s assassination.)

“When people are like, ‘Are you left or right?’” Mr. Gorton said, “It’s like, I’m up when everyone else is down. It’s not even the same scale.”

Mr. Lyons said he first met Mr. Kennedy about 12 years ago at a speech Mr. Kennedy was giving about thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in some vaccines, which Mr. Kennedy has falsely linked to brain disorders and autism. Numerous studies have failed to support a connection between thimerosal in vaccines and autism. The preservative was removed from most childhood vaccines in 2001, yet autism diagnoses have continued to rise.

The two men connected over the issue. Mr. Lyons said a member of his family had had a seizure after a vaccine, which he believes led to brain damage and an autism diagnosis.

“It has definitely influenced me,” he said. “If you see something with your own eyes, then you see newspaper after newspaper that says it never happens and that anybody who thinks that it happens is crazy, then that does change you in some way.”

In 2014, Mr. Lyons published a book edited by Mr. Kennedy on the subject, called “Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak.”

Industry executives said that while Mr. Lyons’s role as a chairman of the American Values 2024 super PAC was unusual, it did not appear to be unethical. He is also not the country’s only politically engaged publisher. Rupert Murdoch is deeply involved in Republican politics and is a major shareholder of News Corp, which is the parent company of HarperCollins.

Mark Gottlieb, a literary agent with Trident Media Group who has sold many titles to Skyhorse over the years, said that Skyhorse fills a critical niche in the industry.

“Skyhorse is a safety net for publishing for voices that would otherwise get canceled,” Mr. Gottlieb said. He has sold to Skyhorse illustrated books, thrillers, memoirs and some nonfiction books that might not have easily found a home elsewhere, such as “Gender Madness,” a book by Oli London, a TikTok personality who writes about struggling with gender identity and why, after living as a trans woman, he decided to begin identifying as a man again.

“They don’t publish any one political view,” Mr. Gottlieb said. “They’ll show the complete spectrum.”

Mr. Lyons said that spectrum includes many Skyhorse titles with which he personally disagrees. Among them, Mr. Lyons said, was “Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect,” which he described as a book that “‘debunks’ many of the arguments in other Skyhorse titles.”

Mr. Lyons wrote in a text message that he found the book to be “interesting and helpful,” but, he added, “not quite right for me — since I’m proud and excited to live in and explore and learn from the rabbit hole, a place of countercultural ideas, fascinating characters, mind-boggling uncertainty and the possibility of progress.”

Alexandra Alter contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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