Reading Between the Lines
Last year, a high-profile antitrust trial blocked the attempted acquisition of Simon & Schuster by Penguin Random House, the largest of the United States’s Big Five publishers. The proceedings offered outsiders a peek behind the curtain of the contemporary publishing industry. What it revealed wasn’t especially romantic: a business more preoccupied with cultivating lucrative intellectual property and telegenic BookTokers than with questions of quality, craft, or the state of literary culture writ large. As the critic Christian Lorentzen wrote for Harper’s, publishing bigwigs like Markus Dohle—until recently the global chairman and CEO of PRH—now look upon the industry as a network of shareholders collaborating synergistically in the interest of profit: “In Dohle’s vision, everybody in the book business—publishers, agents, authors, publicists, cover designers, sales reps, printers, truck drivers, warehouse owners, independent booksellers, Amazon—were partners, and the more the books moved, the more money for all. If only every book could be a top seller!” How did we arrive at such dull ambitions?
Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature, a new book by Emory assistant professor of English Dan Sinykin, traces the evolution of publishing from an eclectic landscape of small, privately held houses to a business dominated by a handful of large firms over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. More than a history, it examines the effect of such seismic organizational changes on literature itself, as the work of editors became more managerial and authors grappled with a growing self-consciousness of their status as commodities. Like any study of publishing worth the paper it’s printed on, it’s also studded with delicious gossip. Dan and I spoke about Big Fiction over Zoom last month. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Jess Bergman: To begin, could you briefly define conglomeration and explain how it became the dominant form of consolidation within the publishing industry?
Dan Sinykin: After World War II, the United States was in one of the great boom periods in the history of capitalism and American corporations had an impulse to grow. There was this need to constantly be getting bigger, and they were getting bigger, in part, through acquisitions. But antitrust law in the 1950s and 1960s meant that there were limits on acquiring within your own industry. A conglomerate is defined as a company that merges or acquires a company outside its own industry.
It was in the early 1960s that the conglomerate model started coming for publishing. Up until that point, publishing companies were by and large small companies owned and run by their founders or the heirs of founders. They were publishing houses, really, in the sense of a house that a family lives in. Conglomeration came in and changed them.
JB: When and how did you come to see conglomeration as, if not the essential paradigm, at least an essential paradigm for understanding not just contemporary publishing but contemporary literature in the United States?
DS: It started with a fear or an anxiety. I’d finished my PhD in an English department and I still felt kind of ignorant, like I didn’t understand the books that I had studied and written about in my dissertation in a fundamental way. Part of this is due to the format of a dissertation. Traditionally, you come up with a theory and each chapter then focuses on one author, one text. I felt that I was missing the full ecology in which these texts lived, that I couldn’t really say things about American literature just by looking at this handful of writers if I didn’t understand how they were related to the system. Toward the end of my dissertation, I was doing these maniacal things like writing long lists of everyone who was published in 1998 out of an obsession with trying to get my head around contemporary American literature, which is vast.
I was also trained in economics, so economics was always central to how I was thinking about all of this. And I was getting into the archival papers of Leslie Marmon Silko, Cormac McCarthy, and David Foster Wallace, where I was seeing the traces of the influence of the publishing industry: work with agents, work with editors, input from marketing departments. It increasingly seemed to me that this was the fundamental story. But when people spoke about conglomeration in the publishing industry, they spoke about it in one of two ways: it was always either that conglomeration is destroying literature, or conglomeration is, in fact, a boon for the expansion of literature. It was moralistic: it’s good or it’s bad. Even when I started this project seven years ago, people were using the same talking points that had been spouted since 1977. I thought, there’s a whole thing here that needs to be dug up.
JB: I was really struck by the way you deployed such varied strategies throughout the book, including archival research and close readings of many novels, but also large-scale quantitative analysis.
DS: My intuition from the beginning was that I would understand literature best if I understood how an individual text stood in relation to the system. I would have to understand the system as best I could, I would have to understand the individual work of art as best as I could, and then I’d have to figure out the various mechanisms by which they were mediating each other. If I wanted to write a book that was thinking dialectically in that way, I would need mixed methods. I would need close reading that would allow me to understand the individual text, and then I would need to know how it fit into a struggle. Bourdieu understands that every work of art emerges out of a struggle to find its place in what he calls the literary field. To give a quick, crude example, while you’re reading Portnoy’s Complaint, you have to know that Philip Roth is in competition with Norman Mailer. And to that end, you have to understand how Philip Roth and Norman Mailer fit into the larger context.
Part of the way that I would get my head around this vast system is by using quantitative methods. So, one chapter in Big Fiction uses machine learning to think about how novels published by conglomerate presses differentiate at scale from novels published by nonprofit presses in their stylistic tendencies. I also wanted to understand how reception networks function, to see which authors were being recognized as on the same tier or in conversation with one another at the time of publication. I got this big database of book reviews, hundreds of thousands of book reviews, and was able to analyze it: not the reviews themselves, just the metadata about which titles were reviewed in which venues. That helped me actually reconstruct the system in a given moment in time so that I could then go back into an individual text and put these things in conversation.
JB: Your comments about systems thinking reminded me of the concept of “conglomerate authorship” that you put forward in the book. Of course, theorists working in many different traditions have argued over the years that there’s no such thing as a totally individual, unmediated author. But could you explain what the essential features of conglomerate authorship are, and how it differs from some of those older theoretical models?
DS: We’re hooked, as a culture, on the individual model of authorship. It works really well with capitalism; it works really well with American individualism. No matter how many times people try to trouble it or argue against it, we love this image of the author as a heroic person, wresting their creative vision from their own imagination. As you say, I propose a very different picture of authorship in this book. I’m drawing on a lot of the work that others have done. I’m drawing on T. S. Eliot and his idea that works are always emerging through tradition, or Michel Foucault’s notion of discourse. Or more recently, the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers, who have this idea of the extended mind, that our thinking itself is less ours than we think it is. I’m also drawing from histories of authorship; pre-capitalist authorship was much more collaborative and collective.
The conglomeration of publishing introduces bureaucracy, rationalization, and a ton of employed figures into the production of literature. I’m trying to bring in a very materialist sense of who’s actually building a book, step-by-step—who is involved in it going from an acquisition, before it’s perhaps even completely written, to it ending up in a reader’s hands. This idea of collaborative authorship operates in a range of ways. There is a kind of fiction factory, a Stratemeyer Syndicate type situation, where you have a bunch of people writing under a single name for a series like The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew—or James Patterson just cranking out books with coauthors. It’s everything from that to the people who we think of as auteurs, who I suggest are much more deeply embedded in the bureaucratic structures of the publishing industry than we ever imagine they are. Including, you know, folks like Toni Morrison or Cormac McCarthy: our image of the creative genius. I argue that they are industrial creatures by necessity.
JB: I’m glad you mentioned rationalization. Obviously, commercial publishing was never totally unmotivated by financial considerations. But it seems that before the conglomerate era, editors’ acquisitions were guided to a greater degree by their personal tastes. You write that “at different speeds, conglomerates worked to increase the profitability of publishing by rationalizing it to the extent possible.” What does that rationalization look like in practice?
DS: Book publishing has always been notoriously inefficient. After these companies started getting bought up by and brought into conglomerates, the conglomerates shifted, in the 1970s, toward the hegemony of shareholder value. Increasingly, questions of quarterly growth started coming down from the top. And the way for a publishing house to respond to demands for quarterly growth was rationalization: the process by which a publishing house makes changes to attempt to become more profitable and more predictable in their business operations. There’s an increase in bureaucracy, a formalization of roles, an increase in the number of meetings. There’s an introduction of paperwork, like profit and loss forms. An acquiring editor has to fill out a form calculating how much money a book is going to make, and part of that is based on a book’s comparative titles, or comps. You take a book you want to acquire, and you say, here are three books that it’s similar to, and we can make a guess about how it’s going to do on the market on the basis of these three other books.
There’s an increasing role of agents and scouts whose entire function is to be an incarnation of the market in human form. There’s also an increasing influence of marketing and sales departments. In the 1960s, marketing was quite small: you’d have a marginalized “publicity gal,” in the gendered language of the times. The 1970s saw the rapid expansion of marketing into marketing departments, and with that, the expansion of power for women in publishing. Marketing and sales teams then get an increasing degree of power in determining acquisitions directly and indirectly. The 1970s also see the rise of chain booksellers: B. Dalton, Waldenbooks—and then later, of course, Borders and Barnes & Noble. They begin to computerize their sales and figure out what to order on the basis of that rationalization, and this feeds back into acquisition.
Another way to rationalize is to create series. Publishers can do this in one of two ways. One is to hire hack writers who they don’t have to pay a lot and have them fill in formulaic series. This became especially successful for the genres of romance and fantasy, which both exploded in the 1980s. You’ve also got, on the other side of the equation, brand names that emerge in this moment as dependable. You put together a massive campaign to create a massive brand name: Danielle Steel, Stephen King, Tom Clancy; a little later, John Grisham and Michael Crichton. Some of these people are the same people who are on the bestseller list every month today.
JB: One of the things I was really surprised to learn is that even some of the biggest and most obvious beneficiaries of conglomerate publishing, those brand name authors like Stephen King and Danielle Steel, resented, at least to some degree, the system that made them so successful. Could you say a little bit about how even some of the mega best-sellers revolted against conglomeration at the level of their work?
DS: Stephen King and Danielle Steel are such brands that it can be hard to remember that they are people. And they are people who have some sense of themselves as artists. That means there’s this basic, embedded, inevitable structural conflict between themselves and their brands. Because to become a brand is to become a financial instrument. For both of them, again and again throughout their writing, the engine of their plots ends up being this conflict between being a creative, artistic individual and being an industrial product.
Stephen King tried to get around this by publishing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in the early 1980s, to see if people were just buying his books because of the brand name or because the books were good. And Bachman’s books didn’t sell. This was super depressing to King. Then, in the second half the 1980s, you see him writing a series of books—Misery, The Tommyknockers—that feature a creative figure in some sort of conflict or struggle with commercialization. It was no surprise to me when, during the big trial last year between the Department of Justice and Penguin Random House, King came to testify against conglomeration, even though he’s one of its great beneficiaries.
JB: A big consequence of conglomeration that Big Fiction tracks is the bifurcation of the American literary market into popularity and prestige. The place where you start your book—the explosion of mass market paperbacks after World War II—feels like a more democratic reading environment. This is a time when publishers were putting out pulp, established classics, up-and-coming American authors, and even European modernists in identical formats, which you could purchase at the drugstore. Why was the mass market model so effective at guiding readers towards challenging as well as formulaic literature, and what eventually led to its obsolescence?
DS: There’s a helpful quote from Malcolm Cowley, one of the leading critics in the 1940s and 1950s: “It used to be thought that ‘serious writing’ and ‘best-sellers’ were mutually exclusive categories: the popular book never had literary merit, and the work of distinction would never be popular. The paperback experiment has destroyed that superstition.” The division or union of popularity and prestige goes on a pendulum over time in American literary history. The postwar years were a time in which these categories were confused or merged, and this has everything to do with, as you say, the rise of the mass market book.
Prior to World War II, it was actually kind of hard for a lot of people in the United States to buy a book. Bookstores were concentrated in urban centers, and the kind of reading material that people in most parts of the rest of the country had were magazines. Magazines were widely distributed; they would go to drugstores, railroad stations, and kiosks. They were mass reading material. Books don’t start getting that mass audience until the 1940s. And when they do, some of the people producing these mass market books—especially the folks running this press called New American Library, which was one of the biggest—had a democratizing ethos. They felt that they were cultural ambassadors. They wanted to get everyone reading Faulkner, and they would do this in part by slapping smutty covers on Faulkner and choosing some of his more salacious material. And Faulkner would be sold right alongside someone super pulpy like Mickey Spillane.
The pinnacle that is also the end of the period where popularity and prestige could be easily united is the 1975 publication of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, which set the record for the largest advance ever when it was initially acquired. It’s a high literary, elite, prestigious novel that also worked as mass entertainment. And it is, in fact, also about exactly that: culture becoming mass entertainment. That moment, 1975, is also when—because of conglomeration, because of demands for growth, because of larger economic trends like inflation, wage stagnation, unemployment—it very quickly becomes difficult to publish writers like E. L. Doctorow at that scale. Such that, by the early 1980s, it becomes almost impossible to publish new literary writers [at all].
One of the things that my book is about is how everyone involved in books comes up with creative ways to deal with the constraints that are placed upon them. And one of the creative ways that people deal with the constraints of the early 1980s is that editors begin publishing works of literary fiction in trade paperback form, rather than initially in hardback. Gary Fisketjon starts the Vintage Contemporaries line and publishes Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City in 1984, making a massive hit out of it as a paperback original and making that series recognizable with its unified covers. Between Ragtime in 1975 and Bright Lights, Big City in 1984, a revolution in books happens. And we now live in the world of Bright Lights, Big City, not in the world of Ragtime.
JB: Speaking of the creative ways that people responded to the constraints of conglomerate publishing, I think one of the most interesting phenomena that you write about in Big Fiction is the rise of nonprofit publishing starting in the 1980s. Do you think this ecosystem could have existed without a foil to define itself against? Does the creation of the nonprofit press depend on the conglomerate publishing era?
DS: I think it does, yeah. And that became clear to me when I spent a lot of time in the archives of Graywolf Press especially, as well as Coffee House Press and some others. The idea of a nonprofit is that you’re getting grants, you’re getting donations, and you’re mission-based. Both of the presses I mentioned existed before becoming nonprofits. But as soon as they decided to become nonprofits, the motivation is entirely around conglomeration. This is happening at a moment where everyone in the book world is feeling this crunch, this anxiety, this fear about the future of literature. One of the ways to deal with that is to create a financial model that allows you to publish fiction without it being subjected to quarterly growth demands and the bottom line of the market—because it is subsidized by the government, foundations, and private individuals. This in turn brings its own constraints. It’s not a realm of freedom.
JB: What are some of the unique constraints that nonprofit publishers face?
DS: If you’re a nonprofit press, you exist thanks to the funding that you’re provided. And you’re going to want your funders to fund you again, so you’re going to need to satisfy whatever they think is valuable about you as a publisher. You also need an editorial board to be a nonprofit and you need a mission: these are other constraints. Then there’s the National Endowment for the Arts, and that connects you to politicians. The government has people who are watching you and your funding is partially dependent upon that institution.
What does this actually mean for how nonprofit publishers work? They took up the new language of “literary fiction” and identified themselves as doing literary work. This was also a moment—especially as we get a little closer to the end of the 1980s and early 1990s—when the term multiculturalism becomes core to the culture wars. The nonprofits identify as on the side of multiculturalism. They argue on their behalf to their funders in terms of being literary and being diverse.
I’m particularly interested in what this means for work by writers of color, and for multicultural literature, in the 1990s and 2000s in the United States. If you are writing for a nonprofit publisher that has multiculturalism or diversity in its mission, there is an inevitable tokenization that happens with your work, especially at a place like Graywolf, Coffee House, or Milkweed Editions, where the press is not dedicated to a single ethnicity or dedicated wholly to writers of color. It’s, you know, publishing 70 percent white writers and 30 percent writers of color, and the writers of color are serving the mission. If they’re serving the mission, then that puts writers of color in a position of performing their identity for the press.
Writers tended to respond to that in one of two ways, playing on two different meanings of the term critique. One was an ironic, cynical distancing, such as you see in a work like Percival Everett’s Erasure, where the very idea of multiculturalism is sent up as a kind of cynical performance for white liberals. So the work itself winds up performing a refusal of the role that it is being asked to play by the nonprofit publisher. The other version is like the Kantian version of critique, where you’re trying to work out the conditions of intelligibility in the first place. Karen Tei Yamashita performs this second form of critique in I Hotel, which is an earnest book, not an ironic book. It’s interested in exploring what Asian American means as an identifier and how that how the concept can be redeemed for genuine political ends.
JB: Suspended between the nonprofit presses and the conglomerate publishers is the example of W. W. Norton, which is probably the biggest anomaly in Big Fiction as a large, independent publisher that has managed more or less to resist some of the incentives of conglomeration. You write that this is for “one reason, above all: it is employee owned”; it’s also buttressed by the reliable profits of its College Division. Do you think that Norton’s success is replicable?
DS: I don’t think it’s replicable. I think it’s the product of unique historical conditions. Which is not to say that there’s not a path forward for independent, for-profit publishers. Whether they can successfully reach the scale of W. W. Norton, that I’m unsure about, but at a smaller scale, I think it’s possible. And I think we see it happening. I think the third decade of the twenty-first century is a great time for small presses, and for readers who want to read work by small presses. I don’t have a fully worked out reason for why that’s the case. Part of it is the benefit of social media and the internet—the ability to find a small but committed readership, which is sometimes all you need if you’re a small publisher.
JB: You wrote Big Fiction before it became clear what was going to happen to Simon & Schuster after the merger with Penguin Random House was blocked. I was wondering what you think about it ultimately being acquired by KKR, the private equity firm that essentially invented the leveraged buyout. It feels illustrative of something.
DS: I think it’s dark. From what I understand, Paramount, who own Simon & Schuster, didn’t want to risk antitrust again, so they decided to sell to KKR, this cartoonish private equity firm. There was a pretty good piece in The Atlantic by a couple of people who studied private equity professionally, and even they say it’s hard to predict exactly how this is going to play out. One possible story is that the typically villainous private equity thing happens, and they fire a bunch of people to find pressure points where they can increase profits in the short term, and then sell the thing off—or even break it and sell it off for parts. But Simon & Schuster is a profitable company and KKR has this guy, Richard Sarnoff, who has a long history in conglomerate publishing. He’s probably got a heavy hand in whatever’s going on next. And maybe they use him to find ways to make Simon & Schuster more profitable without doing too much damage to the people who work there or the kind of things they publish, and then sell it off at a profit in three to five years. That’s the rosier version, and I don’t think it’s impossible that it could happen. But I also think it’s entirely possible that they could just wreck the place.