Review: Alice Grundyon Dan Sinykin

Selling Tales, Telling Sales

For the past fifty years, publishing in America has moved inexorably in one direction: conglomeration. In 2023 the big five publishers – Penguin Random House (PRH), Simon & Schuster (S&S), HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan – nearly became four when Bertelsmann, the company that owns PRH, tried to buy S&S. A judge ruled in favour of the Department of Justice to stop the merger, even though some publishing professionals appeared on the stand claiming the existence of fewer publishers would have no adverse effects on the industry for readers or authors. The bench was unconvinced.  

American literary studies academic Dan Sinykin asks what effect such corporate machinations have in Big Fiction: How conglomeration changed the publishing industry and American literature. Drawing on archival research, interviews, digital-humanities methodology, and contextualised close reading, Sinykin plots out the relationships that form between the conglomerate, non-profit and independent publishers and the authors, editors, publicists and booksellers who are nodes in publishing’s network. Big Fiction is split into chapters covering the Mass Market, The Trade, Non-profits and Independents. Including un-merged operations demonstrates that Sinykin knows his Newton: every action has an equal and opposite reaction – that is, conglomeration is evident not only in the publishing of the multinational corporations, but also in the lists of the small presses. By way of contrast: while the Australian offshoots of multinationals have been bound up in mergers and acquisitions, what is different here is that independent publishing business practices have maintained a more diverse market, with private ownership privileged over stock-market floats and mergers.  

Sinykin’s approach matches the ‘new institutionalist’ approach from the social sciences, focused on illuminating what Simone Murray describes as ‘the mid-level organisations and cultural intermediaries that operate between … the micro scale of innumerable everyday instances of a phenomenon and … grand, totalising abstractions such as “society” or “the market”’. While academic literary studies started with close reading of the text, centring and then killing off the author, many contemporary scholars concern themselves as much with how books are produced as with what’s in them.  

Refreshingly, Sinykin considers influence, conventionally conceived of as a relationship between authors, all the way through the publishing industry – from agents and publishers to distributors, buyers for chain booksellers and publicists. He is not squeamish speaking about dollars or deals and argues for a reading of literature that acknowledges a range of market mediators whose buying decisions, publicity tours and distribution methods help determine a book’s life cycle. A digital copy of Big Fiction facilitated my own statistical analysis; for example, I can tell you that Sinykin uses the words ‘logic’ and ‘logics’ thirty times, flagging his preoccupation with the results of increasingly lengthy equations: 

author + publisher = book
author + editor + production manager + publicist
+ management team = product. 

Others might call this kind of work formalisation or mathematisation, systems thinking, or even cybernetics.  

In viewing the twentieth-century changes in publishing institutionally, Sinykin treats figures from Danielle Steel and Stephen King to Percival Everett and Toni Morrison with equivalent seriousness, as he examines the external forces that exert pressure on writing and publishing practices. Although Sinykin presupposes a high-level of bookish literacy with lists of authors and publishers, the helpful glossary of names at the back works like a Tolstoyan character list in case you confuse your Schiffrin with your Schuster. Despite this large cast of characters and the use of lists to make a point, the prose does not feel baggy; instead, the fluency, anecdotes, and lightness with which Sinykin delivers what is clearly the product of rigorous research makes for a highly readable book.  

Sinykin’s deployment of point-of-view over the course of the book is plastic – at times he writes in a collective first-person, shifting to second-person to discuss women in publishing for half a page, and occasionally using the first-person singular to describe his childhood in Minnesota or archival research. This may irk some readers who prefer perspectival consistency, but it seems to be a way of signalling his intent to dispense with the projection of objectivity and academic high-mindedness, offsetting personal anecdotes against scholarly ruminations and using the second-person to highlight positionality – in particular, to recognise the predominantly female workforce at trade publishers.  

As an academic nonfiction title, Big Fiction itself is part of a separate logic from those Sinykin examines in the book: its copyright is the property of Columbia University Press and not the author. But just as prestige in trade publishing has helped mask poor remuneration for authors and staff, writing an academic book can mean effectively working for free. In the past, scholars wrote during work hours, effectively being paid by an institution to do so, but with increases in administrative and teaching loads, such writing is now often done out of hours. And the academic journal publishing model is especially fraught.  

The Characters 

Although he tends to avoid explicitly making disparaging comments about conglomeration and its effects, Sinykin does offer plenty of opportunities for critics of these transformations to speak. As both an editor and an author, Toni Morrison is one of the main characters of Big Fiction and her dismay at Random House’s changes during her tenure in the 1970s and early 1980s is clear. Big Fiction adds to recent contributions from Richard Jean So, Evan Brier, and Melina Moe on the outsized effect Morrison had on the number of writers of colour published in America, through her editorial work as well as her personal support for her authors.  

Morrison also attracts Sinykin’s notice for her writing. He finds in her prose an appropriation of some genre tropes such as ‘a ghost, a haunted house, terrifying violence, and trauma’, arguing that ‘[t]he shifting terrain made it more attractive, or less inhibiting, for literary writers to adopt genre techniques, as Morrison did in Beloved’. Part of the ‘shifting terrain’ was an emphasis on sales volume as publishers increasingly sold books to chains such as Walmart. This heightened shareholder expectations that companies maintain high levels of growth, and so there rose a need, as Sinykin identifies, for literary works that spoke to general readers.  Throughout Big Fiction, Sinykin discusses organisational and systemic developments along with the practices of individual authors in exemplary books – though he does not tend to quote, commenting on novels as wholes. This means Sinykin reads Morrison’s Beloved as allegorising ‘the publishing industry for a black woman who worked as an editor at a major house for sixteen years, who fought for black writers in a sea of whiteness, who was more or less accused by other black editors of being a race traitor’. Reading Beloved, ostensibly the story of a formerly enslaved woman in post-civil-war America, as a metaphor for the publishing industry is unorthodox, but the circumstantial evidence Sinykin gathers – from the fact that Morrison wrote Beloved after she left Random to Morrison’s public commentary about the publishing industry – makes for a persuasive argument.  

Similarly, Sinykin reads E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime as an analogue for conglomeration, with its protagonist Tateh figured as a traitor, though this time to class. Ragtime traces the booming early film industry, and its concern with the mass production of culture offers a parallel to the increasing commercialisation – the churn – of publishing. Like Morrison, Doctorow was an editor, at New American Library, and was vocal in his despair at changes in the industry’s makeup. When asked why he left the company after it merged into an entertainment enterprise, he replied, ‘Times Mirror brought in their business consultants and personnel people who had no sympathy for this kind of work. The soul went out of the place.’ 

Not all authors have been critical of the machinations of conglomerate publishing: take Cormac McCarthy who after several books that enjoyed modest success found a huge readership once he embraced (and was embraced by) conglomerate publishing. While Mark McGurl’s hugely influential study, The Program Era, used the strictures and conditions of the college creative writing program as a way of reading McCarthy’s oeuvre, Sinykin takes another institutional step back to include agents, publicists, editors, and book buyers in his networked explanation of McCarthy’s huge success with All the Pretty Horses and the books that followed. According to Sinykin, ‘conglomeration made McCarthy middlebrow’. In other words, before his publications by larger houses, McCarthy’s writing was less accessible and more experimental, garnering a smaller readership. When his work began to be published by Vintage, owned by Random House, McCarthy had a crack team including a new agent and new editor and – whether as cause or coincidence, Sinykin doesn’t say – his work became more commercial. And it wasn’t just publishers who were happy to encounter his new style and focus – even movie studio executives approved.  

In fact, we could step back even further, beyond the scope of Sinykin’s book, to consider the interdependence of content industries. Both films based on books and novelisations of movies are huge earners for book publishers. A successful book helps lay the foundations for a blockbuster film since there are existing fans and ready-made marketing copy. Just as the film versions of McCarthy’s novels increased sales of All the Pretty Horses, so high sales of a novel make a convincing argument for adapting a novel to a film. This poses the question: how might the interdependence of content industries affect the composition of new novels if they are generated with a view to being optioned for film or TV?  

The Plots

Big Fiction is as much a history of the publishing industry writ large as it is an examination of the authors and books that are the product of this business. Sinykin traces the American book market as it grew in the wake of the G.I. Bill’s creation of new customers and the advent of mass-market paperbacks. Although post-war book publishers benefitted from the romantic idea that their products differed from a can of Coke or a T-shirt, ‘executives came to treat corporations as the legal fictions they are, mere means for one goal: increasing shareholder value’. For Sinykin, the period after 1980 marks a particularly critical shift, due in large part to Harry Hoffman’s innovations at book distributor Ingram. To put it simply, before the rise of Ingram, a bookseller ordered directly from a publisher – the accuracy of whose inventory would vary from company to company – and waited extended periods to receive stock. In the new arrangement inaugurated by Ingram, booksellers order from a distributor who supplies bookstores, whereas in Australia booksellers continue to order direct from publishers. Hoffman created a weekly catalogue advertising new products that was sent to retailers, alongside smoother and more reliable delivery protocols, making the ordering process far more efficient. Such consideration of seemingly peripheral players is what makes Big Fiction so useful for scholars of books and publishing, since it may not be immediately obvious just how powerfully distribution determines what is published, when, and by whom.    

The industry’s relationship with an increasingly complex market – with the circulation of books reliant on microfiche catalogues, hyperactive sales teams, powerful buyers and other non-editorial staff – has also intensified the need to maintain readers’ romantic perceptions of the books they buy. One way publishers could pretend authors were still communicating more or less directly with their readers was through their support for the seeming intimacy of auto-fiction – writing where the author and the narrator or protagonist have much in common. Sinykin claims that ‘[a]utofiction projects the fantasy of victory over the systems that threaten to interfere in the cultivation of the expressive self, whether the creative writing program or the conglomerated publishing industry, which is why it is so useful in the conglomerate era.’ While the deeply personal work of American authors such as Ben Lerner or Sheila Heti (or, in the English context, Deborah Levy, published by PRH), can seem like a direct line to the author, they are actually part of a many-step process.  

The idea of mediation can be unnerving for those invested in the fantasy of a direct line to the sole author. A similar fantasy is arguably at work in the debates over breastfeeding and formula, where the naturalness of direct contact is opposed to a more corporatised and inorganic source of nutrition – but I do not think that there is such a thing as a ‘natural’ or direct line to an author, or that formula feeding is inherently bad for that matter. Just as with feeding, a new nuanced discussion about publishing is overdue. There is a spectrum: an author may be the predominant creative force behind a work, or they may be little more than a name on the cover, or fall at any other point in between.  

Crisis and opportunity

In this intricate system connected by authors who, on reaching a certain level of success, move between publishers, the effects of conglomeration prove just as consequential for the operations of small and independent presses as for the multinationals. As Sinykin writes, for non-profits, it was always good for ‘literature to be in crisis because it made their mission … urgent’. One of these crises was the dearth of books by authors of colour or from marginalised backgrounds. The focus Australian independent publishers place on these works mirrors that of their American counterparts. Interestingly, while the public perception may be that literary publishing has overseen a major rise in works by diverse authors, digital humanities scholar Richard Jean So’s analysis demonstrates that US publishing remains overwhelmingly white. In this context, non-profit publishers present a solution to potential funders – government or otherwise – making a claim for the importance of their lists by pointing to their books’ ability to increase representation and effect social change.   

There are differences between small Australian independents (very few of which are non-profits – Upswell is an exception) and American non-profits, but what connects them is a dependence on external funding. In Australia such funding usually comes from government bodies. To receive this support, they must argue for a need that is often aligned with the publication of authors from marginalised communities. Publishers that regularly receive Australia Council (now Creative Australia) funding include the University of Queensland Press and Magabala, both of which prioritise First Nations authors. Recent Copyright Agency funding has supported First Nations writers’ fees. Indeed, when applying for many grants from government and private bodies, the organisation must indicate whether or not they propose to work with authors from underrepresented backgrounds, genders, or geographical regions. Consciously or not, some publishers make acquisitions based on their anticipated income from grants. Sinykin asks, ‘What values, aesthetic and otherwise, were encoded in the missions of government units and foundations that would guide the editorial practices of non-profits?’ and finds these values are often diversity and difference. 

Yet funding bodies also want work that, in grant-writing parlance, ‘demonstrates excellence’, which means, for better or worse, work that prioritises style and sometimes experimentation. The combination of these criteria – diversity and excellence – goes some way to bearing out Jean So’s analysis: grants may support the writing of ambitious literary works by marginalised authors (and even win them recognition in the form of prizes), but such books do not constitute the bulk of sales. There remains a disjuncture between books by marginalised authors that can find a path to publication and books that, in appealing to more readers, make a writing career more feasible. Naturally there are some exceptions (I think of Anita Heiss, a Wiradjuri scholar, editor, and author who has explicitly written for a wide audience), but the imbalance in representation on bookshop shelves in both Australia and the US will only be redressed through more commercially self-sustaining works by diverse authors. And with self-publishing platforms such as Wattpad creating more opportunities for peer-to-peer readerships, the diversification of the market for fiction may come from the ground up rather than the top down.    

Nort-on your life: independence at all costs 

Just as Sinykin identifies the effects of conglomeration in non-profit publishing, so he diagnoses it in independent publishing with a chapter on Norton. He sees in Norton an object lesson in how a publisher might maintain independence, while successful small presses are being vacuumed up by the bigger companies, arguing it was possible ‘[f]or one reason, above all: [Norton] is employee owned.’ Considering Norton’s list, he finds that their choices were informed to some degree by the titles they could acquire for a lower advance once the larger publishers had passed. In some instances, this led to huge successes – particularly for editor Star Lawrence, who brought American readers Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, and was the first to publish Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Had conglomerate publishers bet the other way and picked these books for their lists, Lawrence would not have been in a position to edit (and profit from) them at Norton. This is one way that the effects of conglomeration trickle through the industry, distributing profits that are not dammed up by the multinational houses.   

Independent publishers in Australia have avoided conglomeration through a few different mechanisms. The first is private ownership – though not employee ownership. The second is bolstering local bottom lines through the acquisition of rights to titles such as Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books (Allen & Unwin), Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (Text), and political autobiographies and other bestselling international non-fiction – see Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and Giulia Enders’ Gut (Scribe). Hence, the vehemence of the arguments against dropping parallel importation restrictions: if Australia allowed international publishers to sell foreign editions without leaving a window for local editions, then this important revenue stream that underwrites some local publishing activities would evaporate.  

As with Norton (an outlier in American publishing), not only have most Australian publishers chosen to avoid mergers, but they have also avoided floating (issuing shares to the public) – these two points may well be causally connected since the quickest way to grow is by merging, and shareholders are always due growth. Interestingly, Allen & Unwin – a privately owned publisher – has deployed a strategy of acquisitions, buying Atlantic UK and Murdoch Books in Australia. Text may have made decisions informed by its co-founders’ past (Di Gribble of McPhee Gribble) and avoided merging with a larger operation; it was not long after McPhee Gribble merged with Penguin that the imprint ceased to exist. These kinds of business decisions, coupled with the ongoing vibrancy of local independent booksellers, have networked the Australian book industry in a different configuration than in the US or UK. This means that despite the size of the local market, dozens of debut novels classed as ‘literary fiction’ are published each year, even though most of these titles sell in modest quantities.   

Industrial relations 

One common element across conglomerate publishers and independents is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of new staff, eager to work with books. Sinykin writes that ‘[d]espite booming business, conglomerate bosses have counted on spiritual compensation to substitute for the material well-being of their employees’. However, I think part of the explanation for continued low wages is the relationship between publishing companies, large and small. Publishing is an industry some people see as a vocation and a social good, which means staff are often prepared to accept low wages – this is especially the case for small presses. In this environment, conglomerate publishers can peg their salaries to those of the independents, on the premise that the work is largely commensurate, and so wages remain low.   

Recent years have brought developments in the industrial behaviour of publishing staff, no longer prepared to simply accept the pay and conditions on offer. In the US, to take two examples, HarperCollins staff went on strike in 2022–23 and Condé Nast editorial and other content staff held a one-day strike for better pay and conditions in January 2024. Similarly, Australia has seen strikes from bookshop staff at Readings and Better Read Than Dead. Penguin Random House editorial staff have an enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) and Hardie Grant employees voted to begin negotiations for an EBA in 2020. While pay and conditions in publishing are still below those in other sectors, such as education or the public service, and very few book authors can live by the pen alone, unionisation movements and public discussion of labour, both in America and Australia, along with greater scrutiny of publishing in academia and coverage in mainstream media, may well have de-romanticising effects that could lead to industrial change. If staff are paid a living wage and not merely a token amount that reflects the idea that working with books – those hallowed cultural objects – is a privilege, then perhaps there will be an opportunity to attract a new generation of talented workers from a range of backgrounds, as opposed to a status quo where the pool of potential staff is restricted to those able to afford to live in a capital city on meagre earnings. Perhaps when scholars reflect on the 2020s in publishing, they will be able to locate a move to remuneration that signals appropriate recognition of the contributions of workers, from authors and editors through to booksellers. It would certainly be legible in the fictions of the future.