Dan Sinykin details how changes in the publishing industry have affected fiction and literary form, and reveals how conglomeration has shaped what kinds of books and writers are published. Peter and Orlando explore a conversation with the author and discuss underrated and "weird" books from nonprofit publishing houses. 

Big Fiction by Dan Sinykin
Credit: Columbia University Press


Peter Biello:  Coming up in this episode. There are a few ways that writers can still, uh, break into a market, uh, with something a little more obscure, something a little difficult.

Dan Sinykin: It's not that readers are getting dumber, it's that the publishing companies are pursuing the money.

Orlando Montoya: It's a weird, weird world because. Because it's art and it's also a business. This podcast from Georgia Public Broadcasting highlights books with Georgia Connections hosted by two of your favorite public radio book nerds, who also happen to be your hosts of All Things Considered on GPB radio. I'm Orlando Montoya.

Peter Biello: And I'm Peter Biello. Thanks for joining us as we introduce you to authors, their writings, and the insights behind the stories mixed with our own thoughts and ideas on just what gives these works the Narrative Edge. Hey, Orlando, great to be back in the studio with you.

Orlando Montoya: Great to be back here. What book do you have for me today?

Peter Biello: Well, in a sense, Orlando, we're talking about every book that has been published in the last, oh, 100 years or so.

Orlando Montoya: Going all the way back to the Bible, we're going huh? There's a lot of books we're going to talk about.

Peter Biello: It seems like it. Right, because we're going to be talking about one book that's about a lot of books, or rather the ecosystem in which these books are made. Uh, it's called Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry in American Literature. And it's by Emory professor Dan Sinykin. So this is a book that anyone who loves books, anyone who loves reading, should care about, uh, because it describes the system that creates what we call American literature.

Orlando Montoya: So how we read what we read, you know, what, how, how how is this stuff even coming to us?

Peter Biello: Right. How's it coming to us? Why is it marketed the way it is? Uh, what are the economic forces that that enable this kind of writing to come to being? And this particular story starts kind of around World War Two. I mean, Dan Sinykin doesn't necessarily go in chronological order. He starts with something that happened, uh, in the late 80s, early 90s, but really goes back to around World War II. Um, before that point, the writers who consider themselves sort of highbrow or modernist. Uh, they often use patrons to distinguish themselves from so-called popular writers. But then World War II lands and creates a whole lot of veterans with GI bills. They all go to college. Uh, and then in the 40s and 50s, you also see colleges opening up to, to women and people of color, essentially pumping out a ton of readers. Right? Uh, and people had disposable income back in those days. The 50s was pretty good at a time economically. So, uh, as Sinykin in tells it, the culture back then in the 1940s and 50s was primed for something of a democratization of reading.

Dan Sinykin: Now, these mass market publishers were well placed to send hundreds of thousands of novels out to these new readers. That meant all those modernist novels that were trying to differentiate themselves from popularity could now become popular. For instance, William Faulkner was made popular by New American library mass market publishers that put smutty covers on Faulkner's novels The Wild Palms and Sanctuary, and made bestsellers of those books. So in the years of the 1950s and 1960s, you see this, uh, collapse of the distinction between prestige and popularity.

Peter Biello: Can you imagine William Faulkner being marketed in the way that someone like Colleen Hoover is marketed today?

Orlando Montoya: I didn't even know there was this difference between prestige books and popular books.

Peter Biello: Oh, well, we're going to get into that today, my friend. We're going to get into it. In this era, the mid 20th century, a lot of the big publishers like Knopf and Random House and W.W. Norton, they were run by people who cared about books. They loved books, and they the companies didn't yet have shareholders to answer to. Uh, Random House went public in 1959, and that was the beginning of the conglomerate era as we know it. Uh, and the people at the top who cared about books were slowly replaced by people who came from other industries, who saw books as just another widget. Uh, they cared about the numbers. And by the late 1960s and mid 70s, one symptom of that is you started to see the emergence of genre writers. You know, genre. We're talking about horror, romance.

Orlando Montoya: Well, we would call that demographics in radio.

Peter Biello: Yeah. In the sense that, you know, that there's a certain audience that's going to buy what you're selling, right?

Orlando Montoya: It's got to everything's got to be marketed.

Peter Biello: Yeah. The easiest thing to market is selling someone something that they are familiar with. So that's when people like Stephen King and Danielle Steel came to prominence in the late 70s. Later on, it was Tom Clancy and John Grisham. You know, you can slap those names in big font on a cover and, you know, you could sell those things. And so publishing, big publishing anyway started to lean that way. And, you know, I asked Sinykin about this, about whether readers were just becoming lazier, more interested in less challenging books, just not as sharp as they used to be. Uh, and he had a concise answer.

Dan Sinykin: It's not that readers are getting dumber, it's that the publishing companies are pursuing the money.

Peter Biello: And they're pursuing the money by marketing books that are most likely to have massive appeal. They're not going to invest a ton of money into marketing something that's a little weird or offbeat or or maybe offensive. Uh, but they're, they're they're going with the proven winners of the things they know they can sell.

Orlando Montoya: Very interesting. Well, the book is about how publishing changed American fiction. So can you give any example of how this happened? How did authors behaviors change?

Peter Biello: Well, one good example is, uh, the career of Cormac McCarthy. Are you familiar with Cormac McCarthy?

Orlando Montoya: He died, I think, a few years ago.

Peter Biello: He died recently, and he was famously reclusive for a long, long time. But he'd been writing forever. Um, kind of in a people would kind of recognize the minimalist Hemingway style. Writing kind of is a is just an unfeeling camera on everything he sees. His early books like, like Suttree, for example, they weren't really making any money. They were kind of difficult to read. I remember trying Suttree way, way back in the day. I got about halfway through and I just it wasn't for me, at least at the time. I'd like to try it again with a better appreciation of what McCarthy was trying to do. But it wasn't for the mass market. It was. It was well done for a specific type of reader, and it wasn't making money. And McCarthy at the time, this was, you know, 60s-70s he's living under the poverty line. Uh, and he was protected to some extent by those mission driven editors of large publishing houses that were protecting him, you know, trying to get him fellowships so that he could survive and continue to write this kind of obscure stuff that appealed to a limited, narrow audience. Uh, and then those people retired and conglomeration continued its march towards big money. And around the late 80s, early 90s, there was this big push that every novel should be profitable. No longer can writers like Danielle Steele or John Grisham or Stephen King subsidize the rest of the lot. Every book has to be profitable in its own right, and this was obviously not McCarthy's jam. So he's like, what do we do?

Dan Sinykin: So he reaches out to one of the most famous agents in the game, Lynn Nesbit, who hands over the request to her protege, Amanda "Binky" Urban. Binky Urban would become one of the most powerful agents in the business, but at that point was still fairly young and, uh, had actually read one of McCarthy's novels. So she decided to work with McCarthy, and she helped McCarthy set up a team of folks in the publishing industry, uh, the head of Knopf, uh, Sonny Mehta. Knopf was a publishing imprint that, uh, belonged to Random House, um, and several other folks within Knopf and Random House, uh, who became the sort of dream team to help reinvent and repackage Cormac McCarthy. And he helped them out by writing a novel that was a departure from all those previous strange, opaque, difficult books, a popular a book that is really on the model of a popular Western, kind of like a Louis L'Amour western, but taken up a few notches of, uh, stylistic prestige called All the Pretty Horses and became a national bestseller, became uh, won the National Book Award, became a movie with Matt Damon. Um, and so it carried itself financially, uh, and it was really a departure from everything he'd done before.

Peter Biello: So next time you're in a bookstore, any bookstore will have Cormac McCarthy, like, read a few pages of Suttree and read a few pages of All the Pretty Horses. The the the stylistic differences are noticeable. They're noticeable.

Orlando Montoya: Well, if I can respond to that, I think that it can't be that authors only write one type of fiction. I mean, you have authors that are going to write things that are that they know are going to be not profitable, and they're going to write things that they think that are going to be more profitable. I think that a lot of authors have that. So we see a lot of different types of fiction, even here on GPB, so.

Peter Biello: Mm-hmm. There are a few ways that writers can still, uh, break into a market, uh, with something a little more obscure, something a little difficult. Right. And one of the ways to do that is, uh, through nonprofit publishing, uh, the, the print runs are much smaller. So literary types, writers, lovers of this kind of book, uh, kind of banded together. A guy named Jim Sidor in Minnesota asked, what if we follow a path taken by the symphony or the opera and get philanthropists and the government to subsidize the kind of thing that's not broadly popular? So long story short, he collaborated with people, the people behind Coffeehouse Press and Graywolf. Those are big names that still exist, uh, in the ecosystem today. Encourage those people to come to Minnesota. And those two little publishers, uh, became nonprofits.

Dan Sinykin: They envision themselves as resisting conglomeration, resisting New York City, where all the big presses were located, uh, and creating a home for different kinds of writing that might not make it solely on the demands of the market.

Peter Biello: Nonprofits also turned out to be a great place for nonwhite writers to break into the publishing industry because, as Sinykin writes, the nonprofits kind of created a space for those writers who didn't fit into the mold that the big publishers were creating, a mold that often forced them to write towards the expectation of a white audience. It was the mission of some of these nonprofit places to, to, uh, increase the diversity of books. And that's, of course, something that's expanded a lot in the past decade. But nonprofit publishers were way ahead of the curve on that. Um, the other option for the weirder books is W.W. Norton. You might remember Norton from college. Is that familiar word? Norton. The Norton anthology.

Orlando Montoya: Oh, yeah. I vaguely remember that.

Peter Biello: Yeah. The Norton anthology. They also have, like, critical editions. So, like, if you get your Gulliver's Travels, for example, it might have like 5 or 6 critical essays at the back. That's the Norton critical edition. Anyway, W.W. Norton is is an unusual exception. Uh, says Sinykin because it has this this, uh, college division, which functions like a foundation. W.W. Norton is, uh, an employee-owned cooperative. It became that way when the widow of its founder decided to make it so. Um, so these Norton anthologies and Norton critical editions essentially is the arm that subsidizes the unusual books.

Dan Sinykin: In the 1990s, there was a great editor named Jerry Howard who found himself at Norton and used that freedom that Norton had to do books that didn't quite fit either the conglomerates or the nonprofits, books that might never have been published otherwise. So here's where you get someone like Walter Mosley, uh, with Devil in a Blue Dress. This is where Patrick O'Brien's immensely popular sailing novels, Master and Commander, was the inaugural one, uh, which had been tried, uh, to be published a couple times before in the US, and it failed. This was the third try. No one else was going to try him, but W.W. Norton could do weird things. And so they published those books to immense success. Uh, as well as. Yes, Trainspotting, Fight Club. These books might not have had a chance, you know, in the United States hadn't been for Norton, which had this, uh, unusual setup where it was independent, had a little bit of buffer, had a little bit of freedom to do the oddballs, the misfits publish kind of stranger books.

Orlando Montoya: Aren't there weird books all the time, though?

Peter Biello: I mean, and that's that's. Well, yeah. But where do they come from?

Orlando Montoya: They come from weird authors.

Peter Biello: Yeah, but where do those authors go? That is the question? Right? Like. Well, let me ask you, like how many how often do we pay attention to, uh, the, the actual publisher of the book? Do you care? Do you read that and say, oh, I know this, this book was published by so-and-so?

Orlando Montoya: I mean, uh, no, I don't, I just find the book scrolling or searching, you know, it doesn't. I don't really pay attention to the publisher.

Peter Biello: Yeah. Do you have a favorite nonprofit press?

Orlando Montoya: No.

Peter Biello: I would I would venture that most people don't.

Orlando Montoya: No. I know that. University of Georgia, Mercer, all these universities put out good stuff.

Peter Biello: University presses. Right. They they publish, uh, would would you imagine a university press, for example, publishing something like a steamy potboiler romance? Right. So that's that's the kind of thing. But they would sell a lot of those, right? I imagine they would sell more than most of the academic stuff. No, no slight to the academics. They just those things aren't flying off the shelves. Um, and that's kind of the way it is. I will say I do have a favorite nonprofit publisher. Um, it's a it's a publisher called Open Letter. Um, they publish works in translation, and the only reason I know about them is because I used to attend these writers conferences where there was a ginormous book fair, 12,000 writers at this conference, and all the little nonprofit presses, they all came in. They they set up a little booth, and I found this one press, and they're publishing stuff that's amazing that I never see marketed. I guess this book means a lot to me, this Dan Sinykin book, because it's it's drawing attention to that, that, that, hey, there's there's more options out there than just what's being put out by the big five and marketed pretty easily.

Orlando Montoya: I would like to find a publisher like the way I find news site, excuse me, sites that recommend music. You know, I have certain sites that recommend music to me that I trust, right? And so yeah, it would be great to find publishers like that.

Peter Biello: Yeah. And I suspect independent bookstores will have a better handle on that. Uh, than, than most.

Orlando Montoya: So what gives this book the Narrative Edge, in your opinion?

Peter Biello: This book has the Narrative Edge because it's it's actually we haven't been talking about it as if it were an academic book, you know? But that's what it is. It's an academic book. That's a that's a, uh, heavy study of, of literature. And it goes deep into how authors work their magic under a system that was pushing them in a certain way and does it in a way that that makes it interesting, exciting, makes it feel like there's something at stake. I think that was great. Um, and he was just enjoyable to talk to. He he had a lot of passion for this. He is a reader and, uh, thought a lot about why he ended up with the books that he ended up with growing up. And that's a question worth asking yourself too. Why, why am I suddenly been reading this kind of book? Is it the only thing that I can easily find? Well, what am I missing? It also makes me wonder to, you know, would people read more if they were better able to find the book that really means something to them, you know? Are they just, uh, finding the stuff that appears on the bestseller table at Barnes and Noble and saying, none of this speaks to me, I give up, you know, that'd be sad.

Orlando Montoya: It's a weird, weird world because it's art and it's also a business. You know I think if that if this book goes into that sort of dimension I think I would be a great read. Yeah.

Peter Biello: No it's, it's, it's definitely worth reading if you care about books, if you care about literature and the culture overall.

Orlando Montoya: Well, the book is How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature by Emory University professor Dan Sinykin. Peter, thanks for telling me about it.

Peter Biello: Happy to do it.

Orlando Montoya: Thanks for listening to Narrative Edge. We'll be back in two weeks with a brand-new episode. This podcast is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Find us online at GPB.org/NarrativeEdge.

Peter Biello: You can also catch us on the daily GPB News podcast Georgia Today for a concise update on the latest news in Georgia. For more on that and all of our podcasts, go to GPB.org/Podcasts.