Literature in a Time of Conglomeration
A new book about the publishing industry offers surprising new perspectives on American literary history.
How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature
by Dan Sinykin
Columbia, 328 pp., $30
A COLOPHON IS THE DESIGN OR SYMBOL publishers place on the spines of their books. Glance at your bookshelves, at the bottom edge of each volume, and you might see the Knopf borzoi, the three fish of FSG, the interlocking geometric shapes of Graywolf. They are designed to be clean and distinctive but unobtrusive. The colophon is not what sells the book, after all. The author does. One doesn’t buy A Dance with Dragons because it’s published by Bantam. One buys it because it’s written by George R.R. Martin.
Yet Dan Sinykin, a scholar and critic, has made the colophon and the commercial realities it represents his primary field of inquiry. His new book, Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature, tracks the progress of U.S. fiction from the postwar era to the present from the perspective of the colophon. Harcourt, Brace; Pantheon; New American Library: these and countless other publishers provide the institutional setting of Sinykin’s account. His cast of characters includes editors, agents, publicists, fundraisers, accountants, and others who belong to the ranks of literature’s wage laborers, toiling away behind the veil of the colophon. Though often unknown, they take center stage here, their talents, idiosyncrasies, and shortcomings on full display.
But why does Sinykin tell this story in this way? Is it just an exercise in nostalgia, a chance to swoon over the glamour of midcentury New York publishing, with its three-martini lunches and rampant sexism? Hardly. For all the office gossip, Sinykin’s focus ultimately remains on the books themselves and on their authors, seen through the lens of the industry that shaped their careers and enabled some of them in turn to alchemize their commercial dealings into their art.
This is an angle both promising and obvious enough that it’s a surprise to learn that others have not already worked this ground over many times. Its unexpected novelty is what gives Sinykin’s project its unique insights, making it a real contribution to our understanding of recent American literary history. Comparisons to Mark McGurl’s landmark The Program Era, a study of the influence of the writing workshop on American letters, are not inapt. By slightly modifying his viewfinder, Sinykin perceives new meanings and details in the literary history’s equivalents of the most photographed barn in America.
Take David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest is a vast novel concerning, among many other things, a fictional film called Infinite Jest, said to be so entertaining that viewers become enraptured while they watch it, neglecting to eat or move until eventually dying as they sit on the couch, amused to death. Yet the intentions of the filmmaker, James O. Incandenza, were noble. He sought to create a film that would bring his son, Hal, out of his emotionless, irony-soaked cocoon. But his artistic powers were so great he inadvertently created a weapon, one sought after by government agencies and Québécois separatist terrorists. Critics and readers have interpreted Infinite Jest as an exploration of a generational malaise. But in Sinykin’s telling, the story mirrors Wallace’s engagement with the publishing industry.
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Wallace, like Incandenza, held high hopes for his work. He believed Infinite Jest—originally titled “A Failed Entertainment”—could lead readers out of ironical disaffection and into genuine engagement with others. To do that, he believed the book itself needed to fail, at a fundamental level, as that would compel the reader to look for true fulfillment not in the book, but in life. But Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s editor at Little, Brown, took a more, well, commercial approach to the book’s publication. He cut hundreds of pages from the manuscript, rearranging chapters and events in a way that arguably made the book stronger. He made the book’s heft a selling point, sending out postcards to booksellers promising the book would offer “infinite pleasure.” And it worked. The book became a hit, and Wallace a star. Yet Wallace was dismayed. The book he hoped would act as a clarion call for authenticity became yet another product. Sinykin writes:
The example of Infinite Jest demonstrates the limits of authorial agency in the conglomerate era. Wallace’s error was to put too much faith in the ability of his writing to transcend its conditions of production. He overestimated the power of his message and underestimated that of his medium.
“The conglomerate era” is Sinykin’s term of art for the present state of publishing, wherein independent publishers are absorbed by ever-larger media companies in an ascending spiral of consolidation. Up to the immediate post-WWII period, publishing was a fairly local, personal business, with houses founded by whiskered men shipping out books to stores on an irregular basis. Today we have the Big Five—HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Hachette, and Penguin Random House—whose countless imprints account for the rough majority of books published in the marketplace. (The Big Five nearly became the Big Four when Penguin Random House attempted to purchase Simon & Schuster, but the sale was blocked by the Biden Justice Department on the basis that such a massive company would constitute an uncompetitive monopoly. Simon & Schuster was then purchased by private equity firm KKR to the tune of $1.62 billion. Its fate remains uncertain.)
Taking the business of publishing out of the hands of the whiskered eccentrics and putting it into those of the men in the gray flannel suits didn’t happen overnight, but it didn’t take long.
After WWII, hundreds of thousands of veterans attended college on the GI Bill. This transformed education—and publishing. Those veterans were eager readers, and publishing obliged their tastes with cheap mass-market books that could fit into the back pocket of a pair of Levi’s. A wide variety of titles was available, spanning everything from the classics to the hard-boiled pulp of Mickey Spillane. One such publisher was New American Library, where a young E.L. Doctorow worked during the 1960s. He soon tried his hand at writing fiction himself, eventually producing Ragtime in 1975.
Ragtime was popular to a degree that’s difficult to imagine now. It was a hit with critics, winning the National Book Critics Circle award. It was also a hit with readers. The mass-market rights were sold for $1.85 million (the equivalent of about $10.9 million today). It looked like a bright new future was in store, one where serious-yet-entertaining novels would be both well remunerated and showered with hosannas. But Ragtime’s success actually marked the end of the party. After seeing steady growth throughout the ’50s and ’60s, book sales began to taper off during the late ’70s, part of a larger cultural and economic slump. Yet publishing had grown far bigger. Many imprints had been bought by larger companies like Gulf + Western, which demanded returns on their investments. During the cocaine-fueled ’80s, publishers would post huge profits, but the authors producing the fastest-selling goods plied their talents in genre, as Danielle Steel did in romance and Stephen King in horror. Literary authors like Doctorow were increasingly forced to trade in sales for prestige. Indeed, the term “literary fiction” was coined during this era as a marketing device for appealing to that segment of readers. A new wall between art and commerce had been erected, and authors of literary fiction are still working in its shadow.
It might be tempting to turn one’s nose up at the commercial side of that wall, but one of the illuminating aspects of Big Fiction is the attention it gives to romance luminaries like Steel, Judith Krantz, and others. As big names who must produce new books regularly to satisfy readers and shareholders alike, they are truly “industrial” writers. (Steel, who has written over 200 books, claims to regularly work around 20 hours a day.) They responded to the conditions of conglomeration, accepting the commercial roles developed for them and incorporating those roles into their work. For example, Steel became the legendarily prolific writer she is thanks to a gamble on the part of an executive making a big bet on her. His goal was to turn her into “a brand, a writer readers could trust to be as reliable as Coca-Cola” amid the romance boom. To do this, his company spent an enormous amount of money producing over a million copies of a book she was adapting from a popular screenplay, and then spent even more money “on every promotion gimmick known to the book trade” to “make every American woman aware of Danielle Steel.” Predictably, it worked, but more interesting than that is the way Steel turned her experience of a publisher forging her literary persona into an allegorical subplot of the book she ended up writing, as Sinykin shows in a convincing gloss.
But perhaps no other author better conveys the breadth of conglomeration, and the scope of the changes conglomeration has brought about in publishing, than Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy had an incredibly long career. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, came out in 1965; The Passenger and Stella Maris, his final books, came out in 2022, the year before he died at the age of 89. For the first thirty years of his career, he was a commercial failure. None of his books sold more than a couple thousand copies, and he never earned royalties. But in the age before conglomeration fully took place, a few sympathetic editors helped him out with money and opportunities. Albert Erskine of Random House sent him checks when he could. By the early ’90s, McCarthy was ready to play ball. After Erskine, his long-suffering advocate, retired, McCarthy signed with an up-and-coming agent, Amanda “Binky” Urban. He streamlined his demanding, Faulknerian prose style and wrote a classic, crowd-pleasing western, All the Pretty Horses, which outdid his best previous sales record by a factor of forty and won the National Book Award. And he gained an even bigger, even more devoted readership in 2006 with The Road, a bleak postapocalyptic story with a moving father-son relationship at its heart. McCarthy has a reputation as an uncompromising artiste, all work shirts and modernism, but it’s worth pointing out how deliberately he courted mainstream success when he was induced to do so by the “extraordinary” team at Random House that set their hopes on him. Even geniuses like McCarthy comport themselves to the needs of conglomeration when the time comes. Perhaps the ability of an artist to cash in while retaining what makes him or her distinctive is a form of genius in its own right.
Talk of publishing mergers is always in the air these days; conglomeration remains a core dynamic within the industry. That alone makes Big Fiction valuable. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the book’s totalizing vision doesn’t miss something. Great effort is expended to find authors, to produce books, to market them to different demographics and target audiences. Yet once those books reach readers’ hands, and they read the words printed there, what happens? What is the nature of the exchange taking place there? After all the conglomerating, can a genuine encounter with literature still take place?
I have to believe so. I, like so many other readers selecting books from small-town libraries, found myself changed by books, no matter who published them. And I believe they’ll always retain that power, even if authors have to print copies of their own books out of their garages. That colophon will endure.