For the average reader who loves getting lost in books, there’s usually no reason to pay much attention to the shifts occurring in the industry that undergirds their passion. But that doesn’t mean that the tremors that are regularly rumbling through the book trade won’t lead to tectonic shifts that transform the books we love. For example, it may not matter this week, or next week, that Americans are reading fewer books, or that last year the Justice Department blocked a merger of two of the five largest publishers; but both of these facts will ultimately shape which books end up in readers’ hands. In his magnificent new book Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature, Dan Sinykin, an assistant professor of English at Emory University, traces how changes to the publishing industry have also driven changes to the fiction we read. In September 2023 Dan and I chatted about some of these changes, and what they mean for conglomerate publishers and for nonprofit independent publishers that are inventing new ways to publish in the shadows of the giants. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Clayton Childress (CC): In Big Fiction you rely on a truly impressive depth of research and engaging storytelling to explain the twists and turns of US fiction. Something that struck me is that when it comes to fiction and changes in fiction, we almost always think of authors. Be they authors we love or hate, we assign them with a superhuman ability to drive trends and changes in publishing. That’s not quite right, though. How is the story you tell in Big Fiction different from that more standard, author-centered story?
Dan Sinykin (DS): You’re right. We love authors! We love the fantasy of creative people sequestered in solitude to craft stories for us. It’s a fantasy with a strong hold over us, a fantasy upheld by profiles, biopics, and listicles, all undergirded by the expansive business of marketing and publicity. But it is just that: a fantasy, a myth, and one that’s convenient for capitalism. An author’s photo is more appealing to the consumer than the publisher’s colophon.
Lots of people contribute to the books we read. Editors, of course, though there’s an omertà on them saying so, so much so it’s comical. Editors contort themselves to insist they only serve the author’s vision. This is a disingenuous professional credo exemplified—and, arguably, institutionalized—by Maxwell Perkins, who shaped fiction by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe but severely minimized his role.
In the 1970s, literary agents and marketing departments became more involved in making books. Revolutions in format (mass-market books), wholesaling (Ingram), and retailing (B. Dalton and Waldenbooks) expanded and transformed audiences for books, creating new and different incentives for publishers. And publishers—previously small and owned, often, by the founders or their heirs—were swept into multinational conglomerates governed by shareholder value, demanding quarterly growth.
Authorship—responsibility for the words we read in the pages of our books—is distributed widely across these figures and forces.
Big Fiction concerns this conglomerate era, which begins in 1960, matures in the 1980s, and continues today. I found that, if we look beyond just “authors”—if we also take into account agents, scouts, editors, marketers, managers of subsidiary rights, wholesalers, distributors, and retailers—we end up with something like a conglomerate superorganism: conglomerate authorship.
It’s an extremely difficult phenomenon to keep in view because English grammar privileges individual agents over distributed forces. But I do my best!
CC: That’s such an interesting observation about English grammar. And this totally dovetails, as you write about in Big Fiction, with the emphasis in fiction on the embodiment and perceptions of individuals, and with the rise in the late 20th century of what’s referred to as autofiction (fiction that’s not shy about drawing from the author’s identity, experiences, and life).
What’s the story behind how the distributed cognition of the “conglomerate superorganism” ends up driving a rise of something as self-referential as autofiction?
DS: What could seem more personal, more individual, more author-centered than autofiction? In Ben Lerner’s 10:04, the protagonist, Ben, even sequesters in solitude—on a residency in Marfa—to write. In fact, Ben wonders the same thing you do, Clayton! Within the pages of the novel, he asks why a big New York publisher paid him a strong six-figure advance to write an autofictional art novel. Seems like a bad investment!
Why is autofiction such a buzzy genre in the conglomerate era? But the mystery dissolves if we think in terms of the conglomerate superorganism: the collective constraints, incentives, and intentions distributed among so many figures.
We—consumers—love authors! We love gossip. We love to get behind the scenes. That’s why biography and memoir perpetually sell. Autofiction incarnates the figure from the author photo (carefully shot to be intriguing by specialized author photographers, such as Marion Ettlinger and Nina Subin). The last thing the conglomerate superorganism wants is for its books to be recognized for what they are: industrial products.
The conglomerate superorganism wants to hide. And there’s no better screen for it to hide behind than autofiction, which testifies to the creative, expressive individual author whose name is emblazoned on the cover. Meanwhile, the author becomes a channel, a vessel, expressing not personal genius but conglomerate desire.
But of course the last thing the author wants is to become a conglomerate vessel! Autofiction is good here, too. The author gets to write about herself writing, being an author in the world, having agency. It’s a grasp for control in a publishing context where authors keep ceding it—a kind of structural defensiveness, revealing generalized anxiety.
CC: It’s fascinating in that in carving out intellectual space from the big institution of conglomerate publishing, authors maintain their subjectivity while ceding the object of attention to the institution itself; the author is an agentic figure, but, in her fiction, her topic is being an agentic figure within the mothership of a conglomerate publisher.
Yet Big Fiction is far from a screed about the horrors of conglomerate publishing. While publishing is a big, slow-moving institution, it’s an inhabited institution—as people around my parts like to say—and the actions and reactions of individuals to that institution ultimately end up reshaping it.
Who were some of your favorite people to research for Big Fiction? What changes or shifts in big publishing did they contribute to?
DS: Oh gosh, I love this question. First, please let me share a quote from your book, Under the Cover, that guided my process. Updating Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory, you write, “down in the dirt, rather than action in any given situation always being automatic, to participate in a field regularly requires deliberation: people have to figure out if the rules apply to a situation, and if they do, which of the rules are the ones that apply, and how they do apply or not.” Conglomerate authorship is made up of its parts.
People are strange and sometimes unpredictable. Because of this, much of my book is dedicated to bringing these people to life to show how they took action, leading to our contingent world of books: this one, rather than any other.
And publishing history is full of characters: self-mythologizers, charming weirdos, horrible cads. There’s Jane Friedman, the publicist who liked to tell people she invented the author tour. (She didn’t.) She started as a typist at Random House in 1967 when it was a terribly sexist place. Bennett Cerf, the company president, would come by and pull her ponytail. She sent Julia Child on a spectacular tour—“We had parted the Red Sea. Julia made mayonnaise in a blender. We sold 500 books”—and rose through the ranks, like so many women of her generation, from marginalized “publicity gal” to executive, culminating in a tenure as the CEO of HarperCollins. She was a major force in the expansion of marketing and publicity departments.
There’s Morton Janklow, the corporate securities lawyer whose friend was having trouble with his publisher over his positive book about Richard Nixon. The publisher acquired it before Watergate and was feeling queasy about publishing it afterward. So Janklow put the screws to the publisher—and loved it, so he became a literary agent. He changed what it meant to be a literary agent. Before Janklow, no one knew the extent of legal power writers had but had let lay fallow. Here came big advances, big auctions, big money—for the elite few.
There’s Sessalee Hensley, mysterious Sessalee Hensley. She’s difficult to find much information about, though everybody talked about her in awed tones. For a period in the 1990s and 2000s, Hensley, as Barnes & Noble’s chief fiction buyer, vied with Oprah as the most consequential person in books. “If you talked to a publisher in the early 2000s,” Keith Gessen wrote, “chances are they would complain to you about the tyranny of Sessalee.” She was like Madonna, a one-name figure: everyone just called her Sessalee. She showed the influence that retail could have on publishers, who learned to anticipate her judgments.
I’ll stop there or else I’d go on and on. I loved the people so much I added a glossary to the end of Big Fiction with dozens of micro-biographies, sometimes highlighting curious little bits I learned about someone along the way.
An author’s photo is more appealing to the consumer than the publisher’s colophon.
CC: It’s funny in that we’re always pushed to try to write for a variety of imagined readers, but it’s the little things in books that it seems like authors might be partially doing for themselves—like your micro-biographies—that really make a text feel lived in and like an object of affection.
You have a really wonderful extended profile of someone I wasn’t familiar with, Jim Sitter, and after reading about him I couldn’t believe I didn’t know about him before. Who is Jim Sitter and what have been his contributions to the contemporary world of big fiction?
DS: Jim Sitter! Jim Sitter. An incredible story. It’s probably fair to say that Jim Sitter did more than anyone else to launch the nonprofit literature movement in the United States. Conglomeration intensified in the late 1970s and it freaked out literary people. The Authors Guild held a press conference in 1977 calling on the Department of Justice to break up the conglomerates. The Senate held a hearing about it in 1980. Later that year, Thomas Whiteside published an expansive three-part exposé in the New Yorker about how conglomeration eviscerated the midlist in favor of blockbusters. Everyone worried that conglomeration would rationalize literature right out of existence. Meanwhile in Minneapolis, Jim Sitter was running Bookslinger, a book distributor that he bought for $400 over a meal at a Mexican restaurant. He saw a story in the paper about how a local theater got grants from Dayton Hudson and General Mills to put on Ntozake Shange’s play for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. He had the play in his warehouse, so he picked up a copy to see if anyone had funded the book. No one had. So he decided to find out why not and what it would take to change that. If literature could be funded like dance, symphonies, and theater, it could evade the conglomerate prioritization of the bottom line—and the aesthetic consequences that follow.
Sitter did his research. He figured out who funded the arts in Minnesota. He made himself known to them. He found himself at dinner with the design curator of the Walker Art Center, Martin Friedman, and Toni Morrison, both of whom sat on the National Council for the Arts. When he felt he’d laid the groundwork he brought in publishers: Coffee House, Graywolf, Milkweed. These worked, but Sitter’s ambitions were bigger, national, utopian. He moved to New York to run the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, where he acquired millions of dollars from Andrew W. Mellon and the Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Fund for the Minnesota nonprofits but also Arte Público, Copper Canyon, Dalkey Archive, and others. Those grants launched nonprofit literature as a movement. Today it’s a thriving sector, with all the presses named above, plus Archipelago, Deep Vellum, Hub City, Kaya Press, The New Press, Sarabande, Transit Books, and many more.
At the end of writing the book, I felt I should meet Sitter in person. I flew to Minnesota to check some final details in the archives, then met him, at his suggestion, at an old school white tablecloth supper club called the Monte Carlo. Everyone knew him. They gave us a private dining room. Sitter spread documents across a big table for show-and-tell. The server provided an ample martini service. It was two in the afternoon.
CC: You found the anachronistic three-martini lunch still kicking around in the world of nonprofit book publishing! I have to say, a more flattering or less deeply researched book would argue that nonprofit publishers are all that is good and are here to save our souls from the conglomerate behemoths. That’s a very familiar story, and (ironically) probably a very saleable story too, but the one you tell is more complicated.
While nobody complains when a writer pantomimes a Cathy cartoon while resignedly sighing about capitalism, your research on nonprofits doesn’t paint them in a much better light when it comes to fiduciary motives. And yet at the same time they’re responsible for some incredibly necessary and important changes in the world of big fiction. Can you tell us this story?
DS: When I began research on the book, I found this same narrative over and over: conglomeration is bad for literature, nonprofits and independents are good. People have been repeating this story for decades, often in the same terms, often without knowing the depth of this history. With Big Fiction, I’m trying to look closely at what happened in the industry and what the aesthetic and institutional consequences have been while bracketing judgment.
But we could challenge the binary immediately by noting that conglomerates publish some incredible fiction by the likes of Rachel Cusk, Lauren Groff, Jesmyn Ward, and Colson Whitehead, among many others. And nonprofits, though many do fabulous work, publish their share of duds.
More interesting is to consider how nonprofit publishing entails its own financial, institutional, and, subsequently, aesthetic constraints. In the book, I look at the (really quite recent) history of government funding of the arts and, separately, the history of tax-exempt donations to arts nonprofits. If you’re a nonprofit publisher and you subsist thanks to the good graces of politicians and wealthy people, you can never forget that you need to keep the right politicians and wealthy people happy. You have oversight from a board that often includes some of the most munificent donors. And you have a mission that codifies the tacit contract between funders and publisher and that provides a remit for acquisition. For early nonprofits such as Coffee House, Graywolf, and Milkweed, emerging in the mid-1980s, those missions gestured toward literariness and multiculturalism.
I’m particularly interested in the implications of these constraints for writers of color who face a structural dilemma. If a nonprofit mission includes mention of diversity or multiculturalism, writers of color inevitably serve the nonprofit as writers of color: an inescapable tokenism. Writers of color, in turn, responded, often, in one of two ways: they ironized identitarianism in their fiction, poking fun at their own usefulness to white liberals, as in Percival Everett’s Erasure and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange; or they explored the historical, linguistic, and political conditions that make it possible to think in identitarian terms in the first place, as in David Treuer’s Native American Fiction and Yamashita’s I Hotel.
Nonprofits escape one kind of constraint (the market) in exchange for another (funders). I don’t say this to diminish the work of nonprofits—not at all! But we do everyone a favor by refusing to romanticize and by acknowledging the material reality that shapes the books we read.
CC: I think that’s quite right. We do everyone a disservice—our subjects, our readers, ourselves—by reducing structure into moral psychodrama.
Another hoary false binary occurs between what gets called “literary” and “genre” fiction. How old are these labels actually, and how has the big fiction era turned the idea of them on its head?
DS: Aha. I was surprised to learn just how recently “genre fiction” and “literary fiction” entered circulation. Earlier this year, Andrew Goldstone charted the history of the genre system in the US in Book History. The farthest back he could trace the phrase “genre fiction” was the 1970s.
People didn’t talk about “literary fiction” until the 1980s. Why so late? It was only under conglomeration that they became necessary. I’ll explain.
The prehistory of genre fiction and literary fiction has everything to do with distribution, economics, and format. Before World War II, what we now call genre fiction was largely cordoned off into pulp magazines for mystery, romance, science fiction, and Western. The pulps were distributed everywhere across the US to drugstores and railroad stations. Meanwhile, bookstores were relatively rare, concentrated in urban centers on the East Coast.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the mass-market book format proliferated wildly, taking advantage of magazine distribution and cannibalizing the readers of the pulps. But mass-market books didn’t only publish genre fiction. They brought modernism to the masses. They slapped smutty covers on Faulkner’s Sanctuary and sold a million copies. James Baldwin, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer were celebrities. Even Thomas Pynchon’s V. sold 200,000 copies. “It used to be thought that ‘serious writing’ and ‘best-sellers’ were mutually exclusive categories,” wrote Malcolm Cowley in 1954. “The popular book never had literary merit, and the work of distinction would never be popular. The paperback experiment has destroyed that superstition.” This was all undergirded by the postwar boom, one of the greatest periods of growth in the history of capitalism.
Everything changed in the 1970s. Inflation, unemployment, and wage stagnation ate into discretionary budgets at the same time that new conglomerate owners began demanding rationalization from their publishing holdings: comparative titles, profit-and-loss forms, quarterly growth, the rise of literary agents and marketing and publicity departments.
At the same time, a guy in Tennessee named Harry Hoffman revolutionized wholesaling for a company called Ingram: now booksellers could order and get books much more dependably, efficiently, and quickly than when they had to order directly from publishers, establishing the infrastructure to make it easier to run a bookstore.
This was the decade of the suburban shopping mall, which began to house B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. Who shopped at suburban malls? Suburban moms with their kids. Publishers discovered that they could sell romance and a new genre, fantasy, in previously unimagined numbers—in all formats: hard, paper, and mass-market. “Genre fiction” had differentiated itself. But what was its obverse?
The same economic conditions diminished possibilities for what Cowley called “the work of distinction.” The late 1970s and early 1980s were a tough time for serious fiction. Waldenbooks typically only bought stock from titles with print runs of at least 20,000 copies: unlikely for most serious fiction in hardcover.
What happened was Gary Fisketjon, a Random House editor, started a trade paperback line called Vintage Contemporaries, made it splashy with seductive uniform covers, and published originals, leading with his college pal Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. “When I came into the business in the late 70s,” Fisketjon told an interviewer, “[literary writers] couldn’t even get published because they sold so poorly in hardcover they never even went into paperback. There was a backlog of very good writers who were wildly under-published for a period of years. It was a good time for a kid to come into it because you had a lot of very accomplished writers to choose from.” This—Vintage Contemporaries—was “literary fiction.”
It’s, as you say, a hoary false binary! When conglomerates started shipping out genre series to the malls in the 1980s, they were putting their big heavy finger on the scale—on behalf of one side of an internecine conflict within genre between artists and hacks. Raymond Chandler versus Erle Stanley Gardner. Ursula Le Guin versus Lester del Rey.
Soon—consequently—literary fiction would find value in adapting genre techniques. Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted. Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. The winds of prestige and popularity are always shifting, given complex economic pressures.
CC: I’m curious about publishing models more abstractly, particularly given the dynamics of prestige and popularity and how frequently those winds are changing. We’re familiar with the problems of commercialism and market fealty. But the usual alternative to that is in some ways also bad, and in other ways maybe even worse: again and again you end up with an insular network of favor-trading elites, who use seductively romantic ideals to justify their social closure.
Who are the publishers I should be excited about? What models (that aren’t these models!) are they using?
DS: It’s true, whether conglomerate or nonprofit, publishing reproduces our society’s grotesque inequality.
A writer is much more likely to have success if they attend an Ivy League university for undergrad or one of a handful of the most highly respected creative writing programs for their MFA. These schools situate writers in the right networks and train them in the right sociolects to succeed in the literary field. Most major publishers only accept submissions from literary agents. Editors have stronger relationships with some agents than others, and those agents with the best relationships with successful editors are at the top of the agenting hierarchy, many of whom don’t accept queries.
It can seem impossible to break through if you weren’t born in one of the few zip codes that set you on an elite path from birth. It works this way because of the problem of abundance: there are more aspiring writers sending work than agents and editors can read, so they use established hierarchies to filter for them.
What you want, then, are publishers that invite open, unagented submissions. These might be nonprofits or independents, but either way, they’ll read what you send. Most of these are small and have a niche—a niche that serves as a filter to keep them from receiving tens of thousands of submissions. Hub City is a great nonprofit in Spartanburg, South Carolina, run by Meg Reid, dedicated to “finding and spotlighting extraordinary new and unsung writers from the American South.” Deep Vellum is a dynamic nonprofit publisher based in Dallas, Texas, run by Will Evans, which does both hyperlocal literature and amazing translations from around the world. Dorothy: A Publishing Project is a feminist press that publishes two slender volumes each year. Sublunary Editions started in 2019 by sending new writing to subscribers in envelopes and now publishes ten to twelve volumes per year. Akashic occasionally has open submissions. It is “dedicated to publishing urban literary fiction and political nonfiction by authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers.” Belt is a worker-owned and women-led publisher focused on “smart narrative and serious nonfiction on any topic, as well as commercial fiction with a regional foothold.” Anne Trubek, Belt’s founder and publisher, has deep knowledge about publishing and writes a popular newsletter about the industry.
The Big Five and their many imprints suck up so much of the oxygen that it can be difficult for these alternative presses to breathe. But, amazingly, breathe they do. In truth, they are flourishing. I think we live in a great moment for small presses trying to do things differently. They’re there, if we look for them, creating a more equitable and imaginatively expansive world of books.
CC: There’s a weird phenomenon in which markets get consolidated and big enough that a space opens for little players to innovate and experiment, because the big fish are too big to even notice it or care. It sounds like the world of big fiction has some really exciting small fiction in it too.
Let’s close on a two-parter: first, what’s one thing we haven’t covered that you think we could or should have covered, and second, what’s your recommendation for a piece of creative art (a novel, song, show, anything really) that you think more people should know about and love?
DS: One day, in the reading room of Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, I had to repeatedly lean over and scoop my jaw off the floor. I was reading through Bennett Cerf’s correspondence. He was a cofounder and longtime president of Random House. In letter after letter, he wrote with cartoonish sexism.
If he was writing to a man, he commented on his (the recipient’s) wife’s body; if he was writing to a woman, he commented on hers. He told one guy he wanted to give his wife a “potch.” He told Olivia de Havilland how much he appreciated her “fanny” and added that, despite his age, his molars still work fine. (She had asked about the finances of a book of hers.) Under Cerf, and continuing after his death in 1971, Random House—arguably, with its imprints, the most important publisher in the US, then as now—was a terribly sexist place, with consequences, of course, for women writers, not least in terms of the policing of their aesthetics. In Big Fiction, I write about how three of Random House’s leading women writers in the period—Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Alison Lurie—navigated that sexism and reinvented the novel.
And now it’s time to reveal a bit about my habitus to the sociologist! Though her back covers say “EVERYONE READS DANIELLE STEEL,” I suspect that’s not true for most readers of Public Books, who, if I had to guess, struggle to decide where to start. After all, she has published more than 140 novels, adding more, lately, at the rate of seven per year. I recommend her 1998 science fiction comedy, The Klone and I, in which a middle-aged divorcée ends up in a love triangle with the head of a Silicon Valley startup and his clone.
In a similar vein, I recommend Fran Ross’s 1974 novel, Oreo—tied with Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts for the funniest book I’ve read. Though it has been celebrated by Mat Johnson, Harryette Mullen, and Scott Saul, far too few people have read it. It’s a picaresque quest about a woman with a Black mother who sets out in search of her Jewish father. It’s linguistically electric. It has more zingers than a pallet of boxes of Hostess Zingers. Unlike Steel, Ross wrote just the one book. It didn’t sell and quickly went out of print so she found work writing jokes for Richard Pryor.
Let me have one more. As an Americanist (scholar) and an American (citizen), I’m provincial, and only recently learned about Henry Green’s 1939 English novel Party Going, republished in 2017 in an elegant edition by NYRB. It’s about a woman who sees a pigeon die on a foggy day at the railway station and decides she needs to give the dead bird a wash in the public restroom. Bad things ensue.
CC: Those Bennett Cerf stories in Big Fiction were shocking. And thank you for these recommendations!
As for my recommendation, I wouldn’t say the following unless it was entirely sincere. Dear Reader, you should read Big Fiction. It’s the best treatment of why fiction is the way it is that I’ve ever read. And the stories too!
With all sincerity: as I write this it is 2:19 p.m., and this is the third time I’ve recommended Big Fiction today. It’s that good.
This article was commissioned by Leah Price.
Featured photograph courtesy of Dan Sinykin.