How Has Big Publishing Changed American Fiction?
A new book argues that corporate publishing has transformed what it means to be an author.
By Kevin Lozano
n 1989, Gerald Howard had been a book editor for about ten years, and his future filled him with dread. His primary fear, he wrote in a widely read essay for The American Scholar, was “a faster, huger, rougher, dumber publishing world.” He had entered the industry during a time of profound change. In the course of a few decades, American publishing had transformed from a parochial cultural industry, mostly centered on the East Coast, into an international, corporate affair. Starting in the nineteen-sixties, outfits like Random House and Penguin were seen as ripe targets for acquisition by multinational conglomerates like RCA and Pearson, which wanted to diversify their revenue streams, whether through oil, textbooks, calculators, or literary fiction. These parent companies changed the business of books, inciting an arms race that encouraged publishers to grow larger and larger, consolidating and concentrating the industry into a few giant players. Howard’s career had overlapped with this period of flux, and he saw before him a brutal, profit- and growth-obsessed landscape, inimical to his work. Corporate publishers like Penguin moved and grooved “to the tune of big-time finance,” he wrote. This dance was no “fox-trot; it’s a bruising slam dance,” he observed. “From down here on the shop floor, the results often look ludicrous and disastrous.”
Last year, shortly before the antitrust trial that successfully blocked a planned merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, Howard, who had recently retired, wrote for Publishers Weekly looking back on how the industry had changed in the course of his career. The slam dance had continued, its pace only more harried. The corporate houses had grown exponentially since the eighties, and swallowed up their competitors. Trade publishing was dominated by an even smaller group of companies that exerted an immense influence on the reading habits of Americans. When Penguin merged with Random House, in 2013, Howard took to calling the resulting behemoth Cosmodemonic Publishing. The scale of the company, the thousands of employees and hundreds of imprints, were, he says, “simply too large and abstract for a mere editor to get his head around.”