How Has Big Publishing Changed American Fiction?

A new book argues that corporate publishing has transformed what it means to be an author.

Illustration by Tyler Comrie

In 1989, Gerald Howard had been a book editor for about ten years, and his future filled him with dread. His primary fear, he wrote in a widely read essay for The American Scholar, was “a faster, huger, rougher, dumber publishing world.” He had entered the industry during a time of profound change. In the course of a few decades, American publishing had transformed from a parochial cultural industry, mostly centered on the East Coast, into an international, corporate affair. Starting in the nineteen-sixties, outfits like Random House and Penguin were seen as ripe targets for acquisition by multinational conglomerates like RCA and Pearson, which wanted to diversify their revenue streams, whether through oil, textbooks, calculators, or literary fiction. These parent companies changed the business of books, inciting an arms race that encouraged publishers to grow larger and larger, consolidating and concentrating the industry into a few giant players. Howard’s career had overlapped with this period of flux, and he saw before him a brutal, profit- and growth-obsessed landscape, inimical to his work. Corporate publishers like Penguin moved and grooved “to the tune of big-time finance,” he wrote. This dance was no “fox-trot; it’s a bruising slam dance,” he observed. “From down here on the shop floor, the results often look ludicrous and disastrous.”

Last year, shortly before the antitrust trial that successfully blocked a planned merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, Howard, who had recently retired, wrote for Publishers Weekly looking back on how the industry had changed in the course of his career. The slam dance had continued, its pace only more harried. The corporate houses had grown exponentially since the eighties, and swallowed up their competitors. Trade publishing was dominated by an even smaller group of companies that exerted an immense influence on the reading habits of Americans. When Penguin merged with Random House, in 2013, Howard took to calling the resulting behemoth Cosmodemonic Publishing. The scale of the company, the thousands of employees and hundreds of imprints, were, he says, “simply too large and abstract for a mere editor to get his head around.”

Howard still had hope for publishing; his “worst fears,” that the Cosmodemonic realm would engender a “race to the commercial bottom and a relentless quest for profits above quality,” hadn’t come to pass. Books were still good, the work still worthwhile, despite the stiff headwinds. But he admitted to a nagging unease: “At a certain point in my tenure at Penguin Random House I just gave up trying to understand a lot of the emails that arrived from corporate and would just hit delete, asking myself quizzically, ‘And the contribution this makes to the actual publication of actual books is . . . ?’ ”

That discomforting riddle—what these business machinations contribute to the actual publication of actual books—is the central question of Dan Sinykin’s “Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature.” Sinykin argues that the corporate ethos that dominates the modern publishing house has exerted such an overwhelming influence on the way books are written and published that it has inaugurated a new epoch: “the Conglomerate era.” As he sees it, the consolidation of the industry that began in the nineteen-sixties and seventies transformed American fiction and “changed what it means to be an author.” The stakes of Sinykin’s inquiry are to explain “how we should read” fiction published in the U.S. during the past half century or so, a period during which every book, no matter its preoccupations or themes, could be said to reflect a greater entity: the corporation.

Sinykin’s study begins in the postwar years, when publishing was a smaller and more cloistered world. The companies were mostly family-owned and -run, bookstores and book critics were influential but far fewer in number, and costs were less daunting. The editor Jason Epstein recalls, at the time, an author could sell “six or seven thousand copies” and “make the average book profitable.” When Epstein joined Random House, in 1958, it was owned by its founders, Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, a pair of cultured patricians who were famous for publishing James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” in 1934. The company was housed in a Gilded Age mansion that served as a second home for its writers. W. H. Auden felt comfortable enough to show up in house slippers to hand in his latest work.

Soon after Epstein started at Random House, Cerf and Klopfer decided to take the company public. The change had a tangible impact on the way the business was run. Epstein writes in his memoir “Book Business,” that Cerf, newly accountable to shareholders, “would chew the corner of his white linen handkerchief in anguish whenever the stock fell.” When Random House was privately owned, it could withstand a “slow season,” because publishers knew that selling books required patience. But the need to balance concerns of taste with sound financial decision-making made it harder to play the long game: enter the profit-and-loss statement, the five-year budget, and, eventually, the need to frame every book as a potential best-seller.

This same story was unfolding across the industry. In 1960, New American Library, one of the country’s largest and most successful mass-market-paperback publishers, was acquired by the newspaper company Times Mirror and then forced to reckon with a McKinsey-led reorganization. Another mass-market publisher, Pocket Books, went public that same year and merged with the trade publisher Simon & Schuster in 1966. A year after its I.P.O., Random House acquired one of its rivals, Knopf, and then the whole enterprise was gobbled up by the electronics conglomerate RCA, in 1965. Across town, Doubleday began a spending spree in the late sixties to keep up, launching a broadcast subsidiary and acquiring a number of radio and TV stations throughout the country. (In a little more than a decade’s time, Doubleday would buy a majority stake in the New York Mets.)

As publishers scaled up their expansionary aspirations, new powers emerged: forces like literary agents and chain bookstores, intricate marketing campaigns and high-stakes auctions, helped to forge a different way of doing business, a process of diversifying and rationalizing that led to a larger, more stratified, and more economically conscious sphere, dominated by daunting hierarchies of power and money.

Today’s publishing house is closer to a hedge fund than a tastemaker. Every book that it acquires is a bet on profitability. The financialization of the acquisition process functions like an index of risk, creating a “system in which homogeneity . . . is encouraged” to minimize bad bets. This system affects all houses, no matter their size. Every season, Big Five publishers are incentivized to pursue best-sellers, authors whose works can scale into a franchise or a movie. Meanwhile, independent publishers and nonprofits such as W. W. Norton and Graywolf Press seek to carve out their own niche in this ecosystem by focussing on books with small but ardent audiences (poetry, the literature of marginalized voices). Sinykin sidesteps the question of whether this system has made books worse. He wants to demonstrate something trickier: how the process of authoring a book has become subsumed by a larger and larger network of interests, changing what it meant to be an author. Critics and scholars, Sinykin contends, are uncomfortable displacing the author when studying literature. His book is an earnest attempt to focus attention on the non-authorial figures involved in a book’s creation. Instead of individual writers, he wants us to think in terms of a “feedback loop.”

If there is a villain in “Big Fiction,” it is the “romantic” conception of authorship—the idea that writing a book is as simple as an author sitting down and marshalling their creative forces. This sense of the author, Sinykin thinks, is “a mirage veiling the systematic intelligences that are responsible for more of what we read than most of us are ready to acknowledge.” By “systematic intelligences,” he means the coördinated efforts of the dozens of people who touch a book before it makes its way into the hands of a reader.

Before conglomeration, Sinykin asserts, writing a book “was a completely different experience.” Once, a would-be novelist’s chances of being published depended on “how easily you could get your book in the right editor’s hands.” As the number of those involved in publication expanded, authors had to meet new criteria. “Could marketers see a market? What would the chain bookbuyers think? Could publicists picture your face on TV, your voice on the radio? Could agents sniff subsidiary rights? Would foreign rights sell at the Frankfurt Book Fair? Might your story be remediated? Would it work in audio? On the big screen?”

Sinykin calls authors who successfully navigated the maze of agents, marketers, and booksellers “industrial writers.” This group includes chart-topping genre writers, such as Danielle Steel, Michael Crichton, and Stephen King, and also literary novelists who managed to work within the new system. Among Sinykin’s most succinct and persuasive case studies involves the career of Cormac McCarthy. In 1965, McCarthy’s first novel, an allusive Southern gothic called “The Orchard Keeper,” was published by a legendary editor at Random House named Albert Erskine. Erskine, who had been a steward for the company’s most distinguished writers, including William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison, found a manuscript by McCarthy in the slush pile and committed himself to fostering his career. Though McCarthy’s early books rarely sold, he was able to survive outside the market with the help of fellowships and grants secured through Erskine’s influence.

When Erskine retired, in 1987, McCarthy needed a new patron. He reached out to Lynn Nesbit, an agent who represented Robert Caro, among others. Nesbit passed McCarthy on to her protégée, Amanda (Binky) Urban. By chance, Urban was an admirer of McCarthy’s work. She made it her mission to insure that his next book would be a hit. She called up Sonny Mehta, who had recently been installed as the editor-in-chief of Knopf. Mehta sent McCarthy to an ambitious editor named Gary Fisketjon. As Fisketjon went to work on McCarthy’s prose, Mehta and his most trusted publicist, Jane Friedman, the woman credited with inventing the author tour, set about “aggressively marketing” McCarthy’s reinvention. They enlisted the photographer Marion Ettlinger to shoot a dashing author portrait and the designer Chip Kidd to create an enticing cover for his next book. That book was 1992’s “All the Pretty Horses,” which sold a hundred and ninety thousand copies in its first six months and was adapted into a Hollywood movie in 2000, starring Matt Damon. By 2007, when Oprah’s Book Club and the Pulitzer Prize anointed “The Road,” McCarthy was no longer perceived as a writer of difficult, obscure fiction but an approachable mainstream celebrity author.

Many of Sinykin’s claims about how fiction has changed in the past fifty years—that novelists are under pressure to bring in consistent profit, that literary writers have incorporated genre tropes into their work—are broadly true. But his account of how individual authors have responded to conglomeration requires us to take on faith many of his claims. We never see a manuscript page or editorial interventions that might illustrate these writers’ explicit acquiescence to the market interests of their stakeholders.

In an extended section on Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Sinykin argues that the novel’s success was partly due to its incorporation of horror elements in a time when horror authors like Stephen King were the industry’s most consistent commodities. In “Beloved,” Sinykin writes, Morrison “made good on the trend, deploying a ghost, a haunted house, terrifying violence, and trauma in her high modernist neo-slave narrative.” But there is no evidence that Morrison was consciously modelling her novel on horror fiction in response to the genre’s success, or that her editor, or her publisher’s marketing department, was urging her in this direction.

Sinykin’s reading of “Beloved” is part of a larger argument that “conglomeration led to the production of fiction that allegorized conglomeration itself.” “Beloved” is not just a horror novel, he argues; it is a novel about “publishing.” As evidence, he offers a preamble on Morrison’s career as an editor and the challenges that she faced at Random House. One of the publishing house’s only Black editors, she battled indifference from a white staff and grew to resent the demands placed on her as a trade editor. In 1983, she quit her job to write full time.

In a foreword she wrote to “Beloved” some years after the novel became her most successful, she returned to the frustrations of her editorial job, acknowledging that the book had been made possible when she was freed from her nine-to-five:

I had no agenda and couldn’t hear the telephone if it rang. I heard my heart, though, stomping away in my chest like a colt. . . . Then it slapped me: I was happy, free in a way I had never been, ever. It was the oddest sensation. Not ecstasy, not satisfaction, not a surfeit of pleasure or accomplishment . . . Enter Beloved.

Sinykin takes this as a testament that the book’s meditation on the fragility of freedom after slavery was inspired by the freedom that Morrison felt after leaving her editorial job.

“Big Fiction” is explicitly indebted to Mark McGurl’s “The Program Era,” a historical study of the structural and creative effects of creative-writing programs on postwar American fiction. McGurl provides his own reading of “Beloved” that argues the plantation in the novel is a metaphor for the education system.

The clumsiness of these readings points to the limitations of works like “Big Fiction” and “The Program Era.” These are daring attempts to map the larger structures that shape how books are written and published, but their attention to the big picture can obscure how novels operate on a visceral, textual level. Still, Sinykin’s study is valuable because it speaks to the same fear that Gerald Howard voiced in 1989: that the balance of culture and commerce at the heart of publishing is increasingly weighted toward profit.

Sinykin won’t render a direct verdict on whether conglomeration has been bad for literature. But the processes he describes have been bad for writers, whose livelihoods are subject to the vicissitudes of a boom-and-bust economy. And they have been bad for publishing employees, from the warehouse to the cubicle, who are at the mercy of layoffs and constant reorganizations forced upon publishers by their parent companies. Nine months after the Justice Department won its case to block the merger between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, a private-equity firm won the bidding sweepstakes to take over Simon & Schuster. The future of corporate publishing seems as uncertain and chaotic as ever.

In a postmortem of the P.R.H. trial, a reporter for New York pointed out that there has long been a fear that the company was “too bureaucratic, too unwieldy,” a place that stifled creativity. Resources were put behind books that were “safe bets,” homogeneity was rewarded, and risks were rarely taken. Though contemporary corporate publishing is superficially more diverse, less reliant on an exclusionary social sphere, than publishing of the postwar years was, the industry still struggles to foster a heterogeneous literary culture. According to a 2020 study by the academic Richard Jean So, between 1950 and 2018, ninety-five per cent of the English-language fiction books major publishers put out were written by white authors. A 2019 survey showed eighty-five per cent of the people who acquire and edit books in the U.S. are also white.

When it comes to individual writers, the effect of corporatization on fiction is apparent less in the quality of any single novel than across an author’s career. Cormac McCarthy benefitted from a close working relationship with a devoted editor that afforded him the opportunity to write without fear of having to earn back his advance. By the time he became a celebrity and best-selling author, he had established a distinctive style and had amassed a body of work, two key factors in his ability to secure a durable readership. As Sinykin points out, a career like McCarthy’s would not be possible today. Most young writers never receive the attention and care needed for their talent to come to maturity; if their first novel fails, as most débuts do, they are written off as a bad investment before they have a chance to publish another.

In casting a spotlight on the many players—editors, publishers, agents, booksellers—whose coördinated labor is required to create a book, Sinykin makes a compelling case that books are not produced by a single author but through a collective effort. But does that mean that the corporation itself should be thought of as an “author,” as Sinykin suggests? At times, he seems to overstate the “systematic intelligence,” the machinelike efficiency, of the publishing houses under whose imprints books appear. As a parade of industry executives testified in the course of the P.R.H. antitrust trial last year, a certain amount of randomness defines everything about literary success. No one ultimately knows which books will make money, let alone make it onto the classics shelf. The editor Daniel Menaker once compared the acquisition process to a bad night at a casino, saying, “You put your money down and most of the time you lose.” In this respect, at least, nothing about the math of publishing has changed in the conglomerate era. ♦