Big Fiction

How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature

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Pub Date 24 Oct 2023 | Archive Date 31 Jan 2024

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In the late 1950s, Random House editor Jason Epstein would talk jazz with Ralph Ellison or chat with Andy Warhol while pouring drinks in his office. By the 1970s, editors were poring over profit-and-loss statements. The electronics company RCA bought Random House in 1965, and then other large corporations purchased other formerly independent publishers. As multinational conglomerates consolidated the industry, the business of literature—and literature itself—transformed.

Dan Sinykin explores how changes in the publishing industry have affected fiction, literary form, and what it means to be an author. Giving an inside look at the industry’s daily routines, personal dramas, and institutional crises, he reveals how conglomeration has shaped what kinds of books and writers are published. Sinykin examines four different sectors of the publishing industry: mass-market books by brand-name authors like Danielle Steel; trade publishers that encouraged genre elements in literary fiction; nonprofits such as Graywolf that aspired to protect literature from market pressures; and the distinctive niche of employee-owned W. W. Norton. He emphasizes how women and people of color navigated shifts in publishing, arguing that writers such as Toni Morrison allegorized their experiences in their fiction.

Big Fiction features dazzling readings of a vast range of novelists—including E. L. Doctorow, Judith Krantz, Renata Adler, Stephen King, Joan Didion, Cormac McCarthy, Chuck Palahniuk, Patrick O’Brian, and Walter Mosley—as well as vivid portraits of industry figures. Written in gripping and lively prose, this deeply original book recasts the past six decades of American fiction.

About the Author: Dan Sinykin is an assistant professor of English at Emory University with a courtesy appointment in quantitative theory and methods. He is the author of American Literature and the Long Downturn: Neoliberal Apocalypse (2020). His writing has appeared in the New York Times, theWashington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Dissent, and other publications.

In the late 1950s, Random House editor Jason Epstein would talk jazz with Ralph Ellison or chat with Andy Warhol while pouring drinks in his office. By the 1970s, editors were poring over...

Advance Praise

"Sinykin’s Big Fiction is a book of major ambition and many satisfactions. Come for the comprehensive reframing of a key phase in US literary history, stay for the parade of interesting people, the fascinating backstories of bestsellers, the electrically entertaining prose. The story of literary publishing in the postwar period has never been told with such verve."
⁠—Mark McGurl, Stanford University

"Ten years from now, Publishing Studies will be central to English departments, and Big Fiction will be a foundational text. Sinykin is precisely the critic I have been waiting for, with the intellectual range to bring rigor to the everyday processes by which publishing shapes how we write, read, and think."
⁠—Martin Riker, author of The Guest Lecture

"Sinykin’s Big Fiction is a book of major ambition and many satisfactions. Come for the comprehensive reframing of a key phase in US literary history, stay for the parade of interesting people, the...

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Featured Reviews

My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher Columbia University Press for an advance copy of this book dealing with the changes in the publishing business since the end of World War II and how this has changed the reading habits of people, and effected the careers of certain authors, casting some into obscurity, and meteoric heights for others.

Over the long time that I have been involved in the book trade, there have been a huge amount of changes, some small, some huge, and some that were big for some, but never noticed by the general populous. This is has been a trend in most media companies. People come in with money, hate the old way, create a new way. Most of this instead of being great business ideas costs these companies money, or even worse lost time. Film companies never understand streaming, music companies also not understanding downloads. Even the comic industry has a habit of shooting itself in the foot every time they have a growth. Changing distribution, causing chaos, thinking speculation was actually good for their industry, pricing. Publishing though always had this way of acting different. Old houses, old authors, friends of friends publishing books. Until the sharks came sniffing blood. Big Fiction by Dan Sinykin is a look at how an industry went from many companies down to a few, who a few stayed their course, and the effect all this had on the reading habits of people, and the rise and fall of literary writing and authors.

The cover grabs one immediately, the color, the look when trade paperbacks were making inroads, and people were drawn immediately to the look and style, not even seeing what the book was about, nor caring. A time when hot young things were given book contracts to write hot novels that addressed the time, while other stodgy authors were given the heave ho, or moved off to publishers who knew how to cater to there kind of writing. Sinykin has broken his book down into 6 section, looking at the influence of the mass market books, and how chasing these sales put publishers on the radar of companies looking for profit, at the expense of writing. The trade market and nonfiction, along with a look at publishers who resists change by either remaining independent, or in some instances nonprofit publishers. Sinykin looks at many writers who either changed with the times, were left behind, and how their time in publishing can be reflected in their writings.

A different look at publishers, not only looking at the shrinking market, and the changes, but how this changed the literary history of America, which the book mostly deals with. Writing about the French publishing system would be a multi-volume set, and that would be just on feuds. The layout is interesting, a historical look, with plenty of examples, and views of what has changed. Sinykin has tracked these changes using Publisher's Weekly, and draws a lot of different conclusions, that Sinykin pretty well backs up. I would like more input on the retail end, the chain bookstores I know have tremendous influence, with their own prepaid bestsellers lists, and even worse how Amazon made things even worse. An interesting look at publishing, and one I am sure will draw a lot of pro and con arguments.

Recommended for people interested in publishing history or books in general. People who have worked retail will recognize much of this, and go yup, called it. Business leaders can learn quite a lot on what not to do, but as media corporations seem not to learn lessons, that might be a lot to ask. A very good book, with a lot of things to make one nod one's head in agreement, or nod away in distress and anger.

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Thanks to NetGalley and Columbia University Press for the ARC of this title.

This does a masterful job of threading the needle between academic research of this era of publishing and making that accessible for someone like me. This occasionally falls back on the more dissertation-y "here's what I'm going to talk about in this chapter, [talks about the topic], in my next chapter I will talk about", but when it just gets down to covering case studies of how authors, editors, and publishing houses of all types adapted or reacted to the conglomeration that happened from the fifties through today, it really shines.

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Thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher Columbia University Press for an advance copy of Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature, by Dan Sinykin.

This is a comprehensive look at the changes in the publishing world over the last few decades, particularly with respect to fiction, but other genres, as well. With the consolidation of many independent publishing houses into multinational conglomerates have come sweeping changes in publishing practices — in what gets published and by whom. I’m not involved in the book trade, but have a great interest in how fiction gets published in this country. And in particular, the leveraging of profits over writing quality. As smart as it is ambitious, this book sill be eye-opening to those of us who love books. It’s hard to be okay with the business side of publishing. We cling to our illusions, I guess. But there’s a lot to learn here, a lot we should all be aware of, and Sinykin is a wonderful guide to the territory.

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In “Big Fiction,” Sinykin traces the corporate history of publishing in post-war America, and argues that the influence of conglomeration and corporate thinking has shaped the way fiction is written and read.

There are a lot of names in this book, which made me long for little inset pictures so I could stick a face to all of the publishers and agents in the 50s, or some sort of ecological flowchart of which companies have absorbed other ones and when. Conversely, I wondered whether or not having some details about the actual numbers of sales—BookScan style—would have been illustrative. That said, there’s a lot of great history and color in BIG FICTION. I loved hearing about the habits of all the GIs who came back from WWII and were willing to give a wide range of novels a try. Good stuff on E.L. Doctorow, one of those guys you’ve kind of heard of forever. Learning about book supply chains before the internet was fascinating, and reading about Michael Crichton and Danielle Steele, and how their careers were engineered, was bone-chilling and great.

Yes, it's an academic book, but it's a great read, and what a killer cover!

I don’t always buy the analysis of novels that Sinykin portrays, but having this sort of materialist history is useful, especially in light of the antitrust cases, Amazon’s market dominance, CoHo’s self-publishing her way to the bestseller list, and what we’ve all been reading about how few non-white editors and authors actually are given a chance in the industry.

In the introduction, Sinykin draws readers’ attention to the colophon, a symbolic lens for thinking about all of the people, not just the author, who are involved in getting a book published. This reminded me of Malcolm Harris very politely listing all the people involved in the making of his most recent book, down to the editorial assistants.

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