How Has Big Publishing Changed American Fiction (reviewing Dan Sinykin's "Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature.")
By: Kevin Lozano (Nov. 1, 2023, The New Yorker)
An interesting review in The New Yorker of a recent book about "big publishing." As always, I don't endorse the views of the article's author (or, for that matter, the book he's reviewing). But the conglomeration of the book publishing industry is an interesting—and, recently, a hotly litigated—topic.
From the piece:
Today's publishing house is closer to a hedge fund than a tastemaker. Every book that it acquires is a bet on profitability. The financialization of the acquisition process functions like an index of risk, creating a "system in which homogeneity . . . is encouraged" to minimize bad bets. This system affects all houses, no matter their size. Every season, Big Five publishers are incentivized to pursue best-sellers, authors whose works can scale into a franchise or a movie. Meanwhile, independent publishers and nonprofits such as W. W. Norton and Graywolf Press seek to carve out their own niche in this ecosystem by focussing on books with small but ardent audiences (poetry, the literature of marginalized voices). Sinykin sidesteps the question of whether this system has made books worse. He wants to demonstrate something trickier: how the process of authoring a book has become subsumed by a larger and larger network of interests, changing what it meant to be an author. . . .
In casting a spotlight on the many players—editors, publishers, agents, booksellers—whose coördinated labor is required to create a book, Sinykin makes a compelling case that books are not produced by a single author but through a collective effort. But does that mean that the corporation itself should be thought of as an "author," as Sinykin suggests? At times, he seems to overstate the "systematic intelligence," the machinelike efficiency, of the publishing houses under whose imprints books appear. As a parade of industry executives testified in the course of the P.R.H. antitrust trial last year, a certain amount of randomness defines everything about literary success. No one ultimately knows which books will make money, let alone make it onto the classics shelf. The editor Daniel Menaker once compared the acquisition process to a bad night at a casino, saying, "You put your money down and most of the time you lose." In this respect, at least, nothing about the math of publishing has changed in the conglomerate era.
The subject of the review is obviously blinkered toward the large (frequently international) corporate entities who operate the "Big Five" publishing houses (Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Hachette): "Before conglomeration, Sinykin asserts, writing a book 'was a completely different experience.' Once, a would-be novelist's chances of being published depended on 'how easily you could get your book in the right editor's hands.'"
I have no reason to doubt that's an accurate historical summary. But a couple of points come to mind. First, aside from the wonderful advent and subsequent ubiquity of word processing programs, writing a book is pretty much the same experience as it's ever been. You sit down at a desk or table, you have thoughts, you put them in order, and then you put them down on paper. To be sure, how you go about publishing that book (so that an audience will find it and read it) has changed dramatically.
Which leads me to my second point. The publishing process has indeed undergone dramatic changes—some of which have nothing to do with the "systematic intelligence" of the Big Five Publishers. There has been a great democratization in publication. Independent publishing (whether self-publishing or through small and micro-presses) has grown tremendously from its pejorative "vanity press" beginnings. Need proof? Exhibit A: what you're doing right now. This blog is a form of publication. And you, dear reader whoever you are, are reading it. There's more content available for anyone to freely read than at any point in human history. If your authorial goals revolve around good old fashioned financial remuneration, there's all sorts of new trails being blazed in this new landscape of independent publishing. Exhibit B: fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson's completely independent publication of four novels, a project that yielded over $20M in the first 72 hours it was launched and broke the record for the most successful Kickstarter launch ever.
Mr. Lozano's review never broaches this technological upheaval in publishing. But in his defense, the subject was probably never mentioned, or, at most, briefly glossed over, in the book he was reviewing. If so, that's a shame. Because publishing books is indeed changing, and not all the changes are for the worse…