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the Complete Review
the complete review - publishing / business

Big Fiction

Dan Sinykin

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To purchase Big Fiction

Title: Big Fiction
Author: Dan Sinykin
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2023
Length: 223 pages
Availability: Big Fiction - US
Big Fiction - UK
Big Fiction - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Columbia University Press
  • How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature

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Our Assessment:

B : solid and often fun look at American publishing and the changes it has undergone in recent decades

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 25/7/2023 .
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 3/10/2023 Steffen Martus
TLS . 15/12/2023 Tadzio Koelb
The Washington Post . 27/10/2023 Becca Rothfeld

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sinykin sometimes succumbs to academic jargon (...), but his insights into how the corporatization of publishing has contributed to some of its most persistent flaws are revelatory (.....) Book lovers curious about how the proverbial sausage gets made will want to check this out." - Publishers Weekly

  • "If the main historical thrust of Big Fiction is seldom surprising, it is often accompanied by fresh insights. (...) The history of conglomeration itself could use streamlining. Big Fiction often consists of big lists. (...) More interesting are Sinykin’s short but in-depth discussions of specific writers and editors (Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Bennett Cerf), using their work and careers to highlight the influence of conglomerates, sexual or racial politics and personal ambition on the marketing and ultimately the form and content of fiction. (...) Though he sometimes uses the word “reification”, Sinykin is not an obfuscating academic writer." - Tadzio Koelb, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Many academics are clinical prose stylists, but Sinykin writes with verve and narrative flair as he documents the consolidation of the major publishing houses -- and, along the way, overturns the myth of “the romantic author,” that lone genius unfettered by social circumstances or material constraints. (...) The result is a fascinating and informative account of the convulsions roiling the American publishing industry for the past half-century -- and a devastating reckoning with the ways in which conglomeration has altered American fiction. (...) Ultimately, however, I wonder if conglomeration explains quite as much about contemporary writing and reading as Sinykin sometimes seems to think." - Becca Rothfeld, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In 2023, as this book comes out, American book publishing is dominated by a 'Big Five', and even if juggernaut Penguin Random House was not able to gobble up Simon & Schuster to make it into just a 'Big Four', a long process of "conglomeration" has consolidated a great deal of publishing power and influence in relatively few corporate hands. In Big Fiction Dan Sinykin examines how this has shaped the literary landscape in the United States -- not least in what gets published, and how the conditions contribute to what gets written: "conglomeration changed what it means to be an author", Sinykin aims to show, among other things.
       Sinykin dates the start of what he calls the 'conglomerate era' to 1960, with successful mass-market paperback publisher New American Library selling out to the newspaper conglomerate Times Mirror. Random House had already gone public in the fall of 1959 (which doesn't even rate a mention on their official company history timeline ...), and:

     Times Mirror took control of NAL in 1960, a watershed year for publishing. Pocket went public, ceding control of its operations to shareholders. The relinquishment of editorial ownership by the two leading mass-market houses signaled the state of a new era for the business of books.
       As Sinykin notes, a post-World War II boom in reading, boosted by the spread of mass-market paperbacks, made for good business -- and, significantly, the "ethos of the mass market was to unify, not stratify". (One of my favorite examples of just how different a world it was is that in 1967 Signet (despite already being owned by Times Mirror ...) brough out a 1400-page mass-market paperback edition of Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling -- unimaginable in recent decades.) A slow-down in the 1970s led to a situation where: "market segmentation and sales prioritization had become the norm, bestseller lists populated by a small group of brand-name authors". Among the manifestations: "Before 1980, prizewinners showed up on bestseller lists. After 1980, far less".
       Sinykin divides his chapters -- two each on mass-market and trade publishing, followed by one on nonprofit publishers and one on independent publishers -- into short sections, many of which present essentially short case studies, of particular authors and works. E.L.Doctorow and his Ragtime are one prominent and fascinating example -- Doctorow long employed in publishing, and thus with: "all the right friends and protégés, the industry connections", and the novel's paperback rights selling for a staggering $1.85 million (Sinykin translates the money involved throughout the book -- here noting that this is: "about $10.5 million in 2022 dollars"). Many publishing figures and authors are looked at more closely, and while especially among the authors it is necessarily just a selection, Sinykin often provides quite fascinating quick introductions, such as in considering the career of Danielle Steel or the breakthroughs by Cormac McCarthy (despite having: "never sold more than 2,500 copies in hardcover" by the late 1980s) and Patrick O'Brian. (Among the minor irritants is, however, some magazine-feature-type description-filler in these otherwise interesting portraits: "He looked out from his warm eyes set beneath his pronounced male pattern baldness. He wore a salt-and-pepper chinstrap beard" .....)
       Sinykin traces the historical changes across the recent decades -- as, for example:
     The 1970s was the decade of the chain bookstore. It was the decade of the literary agent. It was the decade of book promotion. It was the decade of the book packager, the blockbuster auction, the brand-name author, the purported death of the midlist. It was the decade of subsidiary rights.
       As he sums up, "The making of a book" now involved many more factors (and people and departments) -- "Conglomerate ownership, conglomerate authorship". Publicity and marketing departments, previously having only a small role, ballooned in size and became far more central to the process.
       Charting the ebbs and flows of publishing, Sinykin moves also to the rise and spread of the non-profit -- focusing in particular on Graywolf Press, though also offering a broader overview --, filling in the many gaps conglomeration can't accommodate, as well as then the (for-profit) independents, focusing on Farrar, Straus and Giroux (while it lasted; they too sold out to the conglomerate world) and odd man out employee-owned W.W.Norton, which could and does operate differently because of its ownership structure (and its cash-cow college division).
       Sinykin sums up that:
     The industry is congealing into a system with a clear logic. On one side, a vast machine of conglomeration built to maximize profits by rationalization is expanding in size and accelerating. On the other, an earnest attempt at organizing around literary and social missions is taking shape in opposition -- if constrained by the very missions and the bureaucratic exigencies legally required to maintain nonprofit status, guiding the acquisition of books. At scale, each side behaves with loose predictability. An industry long famous for its imperviousness to calculation is being tamed by the logic of shareholder value and the nonprofit complex.
     Conglomerates and nonprofits form an organic whole: lash and backlash.
       Sinykin does acknowledge "this book's largest lacuna" right at the start, as: "I have restricted my purview to U.S. writers and the U.S. literary field". Author-wise this certainly seems reasonable enough, but given that the corporate owners of three of the 'big five' publishers are foreign-based (Hachette (of Hachette Livre); Macmillan (as part of Holtzbrinck); and Penguin Random House (part of Bertelsmann)), and with HarperCollins (part of News Corp) having "publishing operations in 15 countries", some discussion of the effects that might have would have been of interest.
       From considering the rise in a kind of autofiction as a reaction to conglomeration to the paths of authors as varied as Jonathan Franzen and Chuck Palahniuk, Sinykin makes an interesting case for the connections between how publishing works and what authors produce. Limiting himself essentially to writers from the United States, the bigger picture does have some voids, as many foreign authors have made significant marks, and the variety of these authors also reflects some of the changes in publishing over these decades -- not least, in the willingness to publish works in translation, which has fluctuated wildly since the Second World War. (A few foreign authors -- notably Patrick O'Brian and Irvine Welsh --, do sneak in.)
       Sinykin also pays particular attention to the failures of publishing in broadening its reach, inside and out, as it has long been too white and male, and looks at some of the different paths to more diversity, including, for example, examining Toni Morrison's position both as editor and author.
       Big Fiction is provides a fascinating overview of American publishing over the past sixty or so years, with many interesting titbits about a large number of significant players and many notable publishing deals. While offering many case-studies along the way, of people and books, Sinykin doesn't bog down in too much detail -- though at times significant events can get a bit too compressed, such as his mention about Farrar, Straus and Giroux, that: "in 1987, they had two blockbuster bestsellers with Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent and Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities -- success, though, that led the house to become too bullish with acquisitions and first printings, such that Straus had to lay off 15 percent of his staff in 1992", which suggests but doesn't really convey how significant the publication of those two titles was in the transformation of FSG.
       The connections between conglomeration and writing itself are also interesting, though of course much more could be said here -- but Sinykin offers a solid foundation which other will no doubt expand upon.
       A 'Glossary of Publishing Figures' makes for an amusing extra -- "idiosyncratic and far from comprehensive", as Sinykin notes, but certainly offering (if not always relevant) entertainment value, e.g. that Morgan Entrekin was: "A top U.S. croquet player in the 1980s".
       Big Fiction should certainly appeal to anyone interested in American publishing and writing over the past sixty-plus years. It presents a good overview -- with many good and often entertaining examples -- of many of the changes in this peculiar business -- and of how the nature of American business -- from the multi-national mega-conglomerate level to the bizarre concept of non-profits -- has shaped and affected every aspect of the literary industry and what kind of books are made available to the reading public.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 October 2023

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Big Fiction: Reviews: Dan Sinykin: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dan Sinykin teaches at Emory University.

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© 2023-2024 the complete review

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