LISTEN: In "Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature," author Dan Sinykin breaks down large corporations' impact on how American literature is written and read. GPB's Peter Biello speaks with him about the book.

Dan Sinykin is the author of "Big Fiction: How Conglomeration changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature"

Dan Sinykin is the author of "Big Fiction: How Conglomeration changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature."

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If you’ve been to a bookstore lately, you were likely searching for a particular title or author. But another name on the book — the publisher — is also worth noting, because publishers decide what’s available for you to read. Over the past 70 years, a growing number of publishing houses have put an increased emphasis on profit. That’s changed the way writers write and readers read, says Emory professor Dan Sinykin. In Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature, Sinykin breaks down the broader impact of large corporations on fiction. He spoke with GPB’s Peter Biello.

Peter Biello: So this book is about what you call the "conglomerate era" of publishing, and you start writing about it from the perspective of the industry in about 1959. What were the conditions like then?

Dan Sinykin: The publishing industry looked very different than it does today. Back then, there were many smaller independent publishing houses. They were typically owned by the founders or the heirs of the founders, and they were more properly what we would think of as a publishing house. The environment was somewhat familial, hierarchical and relatively small. And that started to change in the 1960s when bigger companies started to buy up and centralize the industry.

Peter Biello: And as that process played out through the 1960s and '70s, what happened to fiction of all types?

Dan Sinykin: So if you were a publisher in the 1970s, you had a couple pressures that were put upon you. You had new owners who were asking for you to increase your shareholder value and suddenly asking you for quarterly growth. So what do you do? You have to figure out ways to predict what people are going to want to buy so that you can make more money selling it. There are two techniques that mass market publishers used in particular to predict sales. One was to expand the marketing department that was once quite a bit smaller and make these big baroque publicity campaigns to support new mega-bestseller brand names like Danielle Steel, Stephen King, or in the 1980s, Tom Clancy or John Grisham. The other thing that they could do with genre was to follow the Harlequin model. This was a small Canadian publishing company that devised techniques to make these formulaic romance novels that were predictable enough that people would recognize the brand name Harlequin, and the company could pay a small amount of money to hack writers who would then churn out these formulaic fictions and write them in these series one after another so that people would buy one and then keep buying all of them from the series. This was taken up by a number of publishing companies in the '70s and '80s, especially in the genre of romance and the new mass market genre that didn't properly exist previously of fantasy. And fantasy and romance are the biggest, hottest genres of 2023. This is all the product of the conglomeration of publishing from the '70s and '80s.

Peter Biello: Let me ask you about the nonprofit sector, because as conglomeration took hold, nonprofits kind of filled in a gap that — that those on the literary end of things really felt they needed. The books that weren't likely to become bestsellers but were really well-written, really artful. How did nonprofits carve out a space for themselves?

Dan Sinykin: So in the late 1970s, there was a feeling going around that these increasing demands for quarterly growth were going to kill off literary books. And so one idea that a guy named Jim Sitter up in Minnesota had was: What if we follow a path taken by the symphony or the opera and get foundations and philanthropists and the government to subsidize publishing? That way there can be a little bit of freedom from the free market. So Jim Sitter started to figure out who had the money and what a good place would be to support this kind of infrastructure. And Minnesota had a lot of folks who were already supporting the arts. And so he drew publishers from Washington State, a guy named Scott Walker, who was running a little outfit called Graywolf, and Allan and Cinda Kornblum, who were running a little press down in Iowa City, Iowa, and had them come up. And both Walker and the Kornblums filed as nonprofits and the Kornblums started Coffee House Press. And they envisioned themselves has resisting conglomeration, resisting New York City, where all the big presses were located and creating a home for different kinds of writing that might not make it solely on the demands of the market.

Peter Biello: So you've got nonprofits and conglomerates. Nonprofits: mission-driven. Conglomerates: driven by profit. And then there's W.W. Norton, which is a big name. You may remember your college survey course where you had a giant Norton Anthology of literature. How did Norton carve out a space that's neither conglomerate nor nonprofit?

Dan Sinykin: W.W. Norton is a great story, and it's because of a couple of historical accidents. The guy who founded the company, whose name was W.W. Norton, died relatively young and his wife had to decide what to do with the company, and she decided to sell it to the employees, making it an employee-owned cooperative. So that's the first thing. And the second thing is that, as you said, Peter, W.W. Norton has an unusual relationship to higher education. It developed an anthology series that has become enormously popular in English departments as well as a series of critical editions of classic novels that are widely put to use. And so its college division functions something like a foundation or a philanthropist at a nonprofit. It gives it a little bit of a buffer to do some more creative things on the trade side where it publishes its fiction and poetry.

Peter Biello: I'm thinking Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, Trainspotting [by Irvine Welsh], weird books that that may not have found a place elsewhere.

Dan Sinykin: So right. In the 1990s, there was a great editor named Gerry 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 with Devil in a Blue Dress. This is where Patrick O'Brien's immensely popular sailing novels (Master and Commander was the inaugural one), which had been published a couple of times before in the U.S. and it failed. This was the third try. No one else was going to try, but W.W. Norton could do weird things. And so they published those books to immense success as well as, yes, Trainspotting, Fight Club. These books might not have had a chance in the United States, hadn't it been for Norton, which had this unusual setup where it was independent, had a little bit of buffer, had a little bit freedom to do the oddballs, the misfits, publish kind of stranger books.

Peter Biello: But what it seems like you're saying is that, you know, for a reader who's looking for something they can't find easily, you know, at the front table, at their local bookstore or even at a Barnes and Noble, you got to do a deeper search, perhaps to find something unusual and challenging and fun.

Dan Sinykin: The great thing about these small, nonprofit independent presses that are thriving in our current moment is that they do do wilder stuff. They keep a wilder vision of American literature alive. And it's out there if you look for it. And I think these places are finding their readerships on social media. And it's great to see there's variety of ways in which this is done.

Peter Biello: And I will say too: I don't want to give the impression that bookstores don't carry any of these things. What I will say, though, is that it seems to me that what we see in the bookstores, most bookstores anyway, is really just the tip of the iceberg. Most of it is under the surface.

Dan Sinykin: Yeah, I would encourage people to pay attention to the publisher who's publishing the books you're getting and know that those big conglomerate publishers, there's just five of them that control something like 80% of the world of publishing these days. And there's a lot of imprints that are contained within those big five. And those big five really hold a great deal of sway over marketing and publicity in terms of the books that are likely to win big awards, the ones that are going to get on all the big lists of people's top 20 books of the season or Time's top books of the season. It's because those big publishing companies have a lot of money to market them that they're the ones that are more likely to get in front of your eyes. So I'd encourage folks to just try a little bit harder to find the books that are just — just kind of flying under the radar, but doing exciting things.