Life Inside the Fiction Factory: Dan Sinykin on Conglomerate Publishing

From Public Books:

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.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Whenever PG reads about Big Publishing writen by someone with inside knowledge of the business, he invariably asks himself why any intelligent person, including authors, would want to be involved in such a bizarre and dysfunctional industry, especially when insiders so often believe themselves to be so precious and special.