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Under one roof

Dan Sinykin House

Dan Sinykin is an assistant professor of English at Emory University. His first book, American Literature and the Long Downturn: Neoliberal Apocalypse, was published by Oxford University Press in 2020 and his second, Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature, by Columbia University Press in 2023. Big Fiction documents the period from the 1950s to the present day in which publishing houses, first slowly, then increasingly rapidly, swallowed one another up, resulting in the dominance of the “Big Five” we see today – Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins and Macmillan Publishers. The result is an industry that straddles creativity and the profit imperative, producing a unique relationship between the two. Sinykin’s book follows the key individuals involved in the conglomerate era, from literary agents to editors to writers to CEOs, and close-reads some of the 20th and 21st centuries’ most significant texts for evidence of how conglomeration moves upon the literature we have before us.


Interview by Nell Whittaker

The fractal, dialectical nature of publishing means that to state flatly the tidy takeaways from the conglomerate era is to make dynamic phenomena appear static. Danielle Steel is deeper than you think. What it means to write elite or middlebrow fiction is different every day. Autofiction is not one thing. Literary genre fiction is not one thing. Multiculturalism is not one thing. Each changed depending on who was using it, when, after whom else, under which financial constraints. Each is a mode, a strategy, a tactic deployed by the hundreds of players playing the game. Each was, and is, fundamental to the conglomerate era. I strived to include much that is left out of literary history as it's been told. You can't understand the conglomerate era without the details. I offer them in the spirit of building: toward a better collective understanding of literary production.

Dan Sinykin’s introduction to Big Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2023)

Nell Whittaker What is the conglomerate era?

Dan Sinykin  In the publishing industry in the US in the 1950s, you had a bunch of small publishing houses that were relatively independent and that tended to be run by the people who founded them or their heirs. Often those people still had a hand in editing or acquiring manuscripts. That changed in the 1960s when large companies began consolidating the industry. In 1965 RCA – a major TV manufacturer and part of the military-industrial complex – acquired Random House, which itself a few years earlier had acquired Knopf and Pantheon Books. These were the first big moves towards conglomeration that accelerated in the late 1960s and 1970s. By the early 2000s, six multinational conglomerates controlled something like 80% of trade publishing. In 2013, Penguin and Random House merged into Penguin Random House, the largest trade publisher in the world, bringing the total number to five.


NW Is this restructuring visible for the average reader? What evidence for it would they have seen?

DS Most of it is invisible, but the point of my book is to argue that it is felt. Big Fiction is written for a wide range of audiences, including the engaged reader of fiction who has not thought about publishing houses before. I hope they’ll come away at the end of this book realising that much of their life as a reader has been shaped by this labyrinthine maze of imprints and parent companies.


NW In the book, you discuss how the symbol of the publishing company on a book’s spine is deliberately small compared to the author’s name. Why might a publisher want to minimise itself in relation to the author?

DS Since Romanticism, if not before, authors have existed as figures through whom we fetishise creativity and imagination. That’s why the title and the name of the author are emblazoned large on the cover, and why the author’s photo is on the jacket flap, and then the colophon, the little logo for the publisher, is very small at the bottom of the spine. People come to fiction with these ideological attachments to ideas like freedom of the imagination, but the publishing industry is fully entangled in capitalism. It’s not the size of the television or film or music industries, but it is a mass cultural industry, and so it’s necessary for the publishing industry to try to mask that element. This masking is classic Marxist commodity fetishism: rather than seeing all of the labour that goes into building a book, you’re left with this shining object of individual genius.


NWWhat does that invisible machine look like?

DS There are loads of books where the actual writing was done by multiple people. It’s well-known that celebrity books or similar are ghostwritten, but it happens elsewhere, too. The Hardy Boys series were written by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a collection of authors, as was Nancy Drew. Millions of kids grew up thinking they were reading a singular author’s vision of the Hardy Boys when in fact it was produced by a factory. Erle Stanley Gardner was one of the best-selling mystery writers – he created Perry Mason – and he had a fiction factory on a ranch in California cranking them out. But if you look at literary fiction – Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth or David Foster Wallace – even the people who we think of as the most engaged in artistry are nevertheless also impacted by the conglomeration of the publishing industry. I draw from philosophy of mind, from notions of embodied cognition, distributed cognition, and from the sociologist’s ideas of anticipatory socialisation put forward by people like Pierre Bourdieu and Howard S. Becker. The idea is that you’ve got hundreds of thousands of writers who want to get published. If you want to be published by one of the Big Five, which controls the majority of the industry, you have to go through an agent, then the agent has to find an acquiring editor who also says yes. That acquiring editor is getting pressure from their sales team, their marketing team, and their president, who’s getting pressure from their parent company to create quarterly growth. These pressures are disseminated through the system, becoming what amounts to industry common sense regarding what’s trending and what’s successful. Authors are, as a collective, looking around at what is working and what is getting published, whether they’re conscious of it or not. Then, once you are acquired, you have to get the house to believe in you enough to market you. Only a minority of books sell well, so you need to encourage the staff at the house to lift you up. All of this creates intense pressure on aspiring authors to anticipate what all of these different figures in the system desire – the agents, the editors, the marketers, the subsidiary rights teams, the booksellers, the buyers for Barnes & Noble – and the authors that succeed are often the best at anticipating the desires of all of these people. Typically, there’s a necessary disavowal on the part of the author, who needs to believe in their own artistry – and everyone in the system has to have this shared aetiology, this shared idea that the author is doing it all by themselves. In fact, what is happening is the dissemination of capitalist incentives back down through various feedback loops to the author.

Flow Chart Grain

NW What are some ways in which this anticipation manifests? Is it at the base level of the selection of specific narratives, characters or character traits?

DSThe clearest version of how this plays out is through Cormac McCarthy. Here you have a guy whose first five novels are just weird. Stylistically, the writing is dense; they don’t have super clear plot arcs or follow traditional genre constraints. McCarthy could do that because he was writing for Random House under an editor, Albert Erskine, who had the autonomy to protect McCarthy from anticipating the demands of the system. He didn’t make any money from his work and those five books all went out of print, including Blood Meridian (1985). Then in the late 1980s, Erskine retired and soon died and McCarthy ended up with one of the most hotshot literary agents in the industry, Amanda “Binky” Urban, who got him signed up with the new editor-in-chief of Knopf, Sonny Mehta. It would serve them very well if they could take a relatively unknown author and make him a star, and McCarthy did his part by anticipating the needs of the industry and writing a novel that was, for the first time, much more accessible. It adopted the genre of the Western and featured a protagonist that people could fall in love with. It was still McCarthy, but watered down. It was called All the Pretty Horses (1992) and it won the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award, sold 100,000 copies, and was made into a movie starring Matt Damon. When you look at his later work, the Border Trilogy (1992-1998) or The Road (2006) it’s clear that his career as a writer changed at this moment. That, to me, is a perfect case study for what anticipatory socialisation looks like – even one of the writers we lift up as an exemplary degenerate genius of the last 50 years of American literature is subject to the market forces of literary conglomeration.


NW Is it relevant as well that the Border Trilogy and his final books, The Passenger and Stella Maris (both 2022) were serials?

DS Absolutely. The logic of genre and the logic of seriality as we understand them today are both products of the 1980s. Publishers leaned into seriality to better predict sales when under pressure to rationalise their processes because of demands extending from the priority to grow shareholder value. Around the same time my own book was published, the scholar Andrew Goldstone found that genre fiction as a category didn’t have traction as a concept until the 1970s, and that literary fiction was a response to it, similarly to how Foucault argues that heterosexuality and homosexuality weren’t identity categories until the late 19th century, and that homosexuality was invented first. Once genre fiction consolidated as a concept, the financial demands coming from up top changed. Quickly thereafter, literary fiction writers discovered that adopting elements of genre fiction would open up an audience, making their work profitable and attractive, creating what scholars have come to call literary genre fiction. The core canonical literary fiction writer of the 21st century in the US, Colson Whitehead, has a career built on one literary genre fiction novel after another.


NW Genre writer par excellence Danielle Steel is a guiding light in the book as well.

DS I’m obsessed with Danielle Steel. I took a pilgrimage to her mansion in San Francisco before I finished the book. It was during the summer and my partner had an artist residency in Finland, so I took our dog and drove west and was able to hit a few spots in the book – including Port Townsend up in the northwest corner of Washington State – and along the way, I went to Steel’s house, rang her doorbell, and asked if she was in. They said that they were afraid that Ms. Steel was in Paris at the time, and I wouldn’t be able to see her. Which I know is true because I follow her on Instagram.


NW Instagram is another part of her media empire – and she signs every post with #DanielleSteel.

DS It’s all part of the large marketing mechanism that is folded into her identity in such complex ways. Danielle Steel has had a fascinating life and career that is, I think, in a pretty dark place at the moment. She grew up in the 1970s in Midtown Manhattan, right where all the big publishing houses were located. She lived blocks away from the Random House headquarters. Her mother left the family when Steel was young, so she grew up with her father in a very adult home. She married young to a wealthy banker to get out of the world she grew up in, and it was an unhappy marriage right off the bat. She had a kid young, but also wanted to work, and one evening she was watching the late-night shows and she saw these women from a PR company called Super Girls. She called them up the next day and started working in PR, and one of her clients at Super Girls told her she should be a novelist. She wrote a few post-feminist novels in the 1970s, Erica Jong-style, before an editor at her publisher, Dell, decided to make her a superstar. He gave her a film script to novelise, a rip-off of one of the bestsellers of the 1970s, Erich Segal’s Love Story, itself a novelisation of a film script. He said, “I want you to write a novel out of this, and then we’re going to do a massive marketing campaign.” That book was called The Promise (1978) and it sold more than a million copies. That made Danielle Steel. From then, she had to cope with the tension between being a brand name and also someone who thought of herself as a writer with some degree of artistry and individuality, which is what is effaced by branding. Much of her writing becomes allegories playing this out, the core tension of her life. I mean, it’s not surprising that this is what she’s trying to work out in her fiction – the individual retaining autonomy in the face of an attempt to reveal them as the same as everybody else, or the individual as in fact produced by larger external forces.

Danielle Steel Insta

Danielle Steel, Instagram, 2024 (@officialdaniellesteel)

NW As you describe her, she’s not simply a product of this publishing period, but encapsulates the whole logic of the conglomerate era.

DS Right. Sometimes people want to think of conglomeration as something that just dumbed everything down and turned all literature into a flat commercial product. But in the case of Danielle Steel, what’s happening is more dialectical. Art under capitalism is, as Fredric Jameson argues, the history of a battle between necessity and freedom. In the conglomerate era, the pressure for capitalist growth that filters through the system through bureaucratic techniques is necessity, and how that gets expressed is in the idea of freedom. Then there’s a contingency of human weirdness that is trying to claw back something that’s not just industrial factory production. With Danielle Steel, you can see, by closely reading the books, how she’s expressing that desire for freedom in the face of necessity.


NW But she’s in a dark place, you say.

DS That balance is in a bad way. Through the 1980s she was writing maybe a book a year, and at some point in the 1990s that picked up to around three books a year. Sometime in the 2000s it jumped up to four and then in the last handful of years, it went up to five to six to seven. She’s published seven books a year for the last several years. There’s a number of ways to think about what exactly is happening here. There used to be a sense in the publishing industry that there was a saturation cap that limited how much a brand could publish before people would stop buying the books, but James Patterson destroyed that – he can publish a dozen books a year and most of them can hit the bestseller list. That’s got to be part of what’s happening here. But she might be feeling pressure to maximise her human capital, to squeeze all the juice from the lemon that is her brand before she dies. Up until the last few months she was running a pretty regular blog which she’s just retired because she’s fully committed to Instagram, and there’s this great blog post from 2012, an incredible piece of writing, where she insists that she is the author of all her books, even though the speed is ratcheting up. She claims she sleeps four hours a night, that she’s typing for 20 hours a day, that she has teams of assistants that feed her, and that she has the back pain and bloody fingers to prove it. But still – if you read the books that she’s publishing now, they’re a pale shadow of her former grade.


NW How are they physically being produced, do you think?

DS I honestly don’t know. I don’t know if she’s become so enclosed in the habits of her own production that her life is closed down to this near constant literary production of hackwork, like she’s become an AI version of herself – her own large language model. She’s done it so many times now that she can set herself on autopilot. That, to me, is so sad. She’s so fully internalised the logic of capital and of conglomeration that she’s lost the desire for freedom. If you read her works allegorically, the recent books are just these disgusting attempts at shoring up the moral righteousness of the wealthy.


NW You often read both books and careers as allegories of their means of production. The shape of your book is character-led, following individuals navigating and influencing the systems they’re in. Is your book itself an allegory of the novel form?

DS I read someone’s Substack the other day that read Big Fiction in the way that Big Fiction reads novels, and understanding the trade-crossover generic conventions that I’m operating in as constraints for the kinds of stories that I’m able to tell in the book. I think that’s a really smart approach to take. I decided to write a trade crossover book that is narratively driven, with a character focus, that is attempting to reach a broader audience than your traditional academic monograph at a university press. There are people who are annoyed by that, and feel like it’s a thin generic trick, but those are sort of tensions that I invited by choosing the form. I also do think that there are intellectually rigorous things about telling the story in the way that I told it. The nature of the industry is a relationship between systemic forces and individuals. One of the core arguments about the traditional realist novel is that it takes individuals and puts them in a narrative in which their lives are shaped in relation to systemic forces. I haven’t ever thought of the book exactly like that before, but in that respect, the conglomerate era is something like a realist novel.


Dan Sinykin, “Mass Market” from Big Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2023)

NW In the book, you’re careful not to rhapsodise about the artistic value of literature. So, why does it matter that book production is conglomerated? Why is it more significant than, say, airline companies being conglomerates?

DS When I started researching for the book, I asked, what do people talk about when they talk about conglomeration? The loudest argument was that conglomeration has ruined literature, that literary values have declined, and now everything’s trash. But, as industry people would say, more books are published than ever before, and they are so much more diverse in their authors and subject matters. If you look at my interlocutors in the world of literary sociology – Sarah Brouillette, Mark McGurl, James English and Xander Manshel – they show that by initially sidelining this idea that conglomeration is either good or bad, it allows the terms of literary value to emerge in the complexity of the logic of the institution. One question is, why do we have this world of books and not any other? Why did my dad read Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) to me when I was 6, why did I read Piers Anthony books when I was 12, and why did I pick up Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) when I was 17? In order to answer those apparently personal questions, I had to understand that there were clear industrial reasons underlying them. A crucial project of the book was to let the terms of value that we live in atomise. Then I can come back around at the end and say, stepping back from it all, I can tell you that I think Blood Meridian is a much better book than All the Pretty Horses, and that has to do with commercial pressure. One of the dangers in doing that is that it’s foolish to say that conglomeration doesn’t produce great books. It produced Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison.
I’m reading Justin Torres’s Blackouts (2023) right
now which I think is a terrific book. It’s published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which is a conglomerate house owned by Macmillan, in turn owned by Holtzbrinck.


NW Why do you think people are increasingly interested in these questions of industry and production?

DS In the late 1970s and early 1980s the New Yorker published a long multipart exposé on conglomeration and publishing called “The Blockbuster Complex”, all about the conglomeration of publishing and the rise of the blockbuster model, and what auctions were doing to literary value and the death of the midlist. So, as long as conglomeration has been around, there have been cyclical moments every few years where people have asked what big corporations are doing to culture. But, unavoidably, there’s been a new degree of intensity post-2008 and right now, there’s machinations going on at the top. Madeline McIntosh, who was the CEO of Penguin Random House, was fired after the failure to acquire Simon & Schuster. She has joined others including Don Weisberg, former CEO of Macmillan, and Robin Desser, who was editorial director of Knopf and editor-in-chief of Penguin Random House, to start a new publishing outfit called Authors Equity, basically the gigification of publishing. They’re not going to pay advances and instead will give a higher percentage rate per sale to authors, retaining something like only six full-time staff and otherwise using freelancers. This is the Silicon Valley model, a second extension of conglomeration, in which the publisher offloads the risk onto the author and the staff. Advances are a way for authors to get guaranteed money regardless of whether the book earns out, so they’re a risk for the house – Authors Equity offloads all of that risk onto the author. Keeping so few full-time staff and using freelancers also massively reduces the risk your staff will unionise. It’s the next turn of the screw in the logic of conglomeration and it’s coming from these people who were in the heart of the beast. When stuff like this is going on, it makes sense to me that people are paying attention.


NW To end with a writerly question: I liked your n+1 essay “White Voice” about your experience as a telemarketer, which ends with an image of you on one side of a chain fence, looking at an oil refinery. What is it about these big, dirty systems that you are drawn to?

DS Interesting question. The books that probably impact you more than anything else are those you read when you’re 17, 18, 19. After my prefrontal cortex settled into its final shape, it’s been harder for a book to make a lasting change to my personhood. When I was 17, I came upon Gravity’s Rainbow, a book that is at its heart about individuals whose lives are shaped beyond their own awareness by the dirty industrial sublime, but the book is also a hysterical dark comedy. Miss Lonelyhearts (1932) by Nathanael West is probably my favourite book, and what West and Pynchon share is the sense that if you go up and stare at the darkest heart of the institution – the military-industrial complex or the publishing industry or the oil refinery – you’ll find something obliterating, but there’s also something liberating and deeply funny about looking at it straight on. ◉

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Dan Sinykin, “Trade” from Big Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2023)