Money  /  Book Review

Big Publishing Killed the Author

How corporations wrested creative control from writers and editors—to produce less interesting books.

Before the 1960s, U.S. publishing was a family affair. Small, privately held “houses” (as they’re still anachronistically called) decided what to acquire based mainly on their relationships and references. If a favored author didn’t sell, oh well, an editor might sigh, hopefully, he (and it was usually a “he,” almost always a white “he”) would do better next time. While mass-market paperback publishers brought “genre” fiction (Westerns, mysteries, romance) to the masses, the houses strove to put out literary fiction (more challenging, more aesthetically interesting, or so the prevailing wisdom dictated).

Then everything changed. In 1960, the newspaper Times Mirror Company purchased the mass-market publisher New American Library, inaugurating what Sinykin calls “the conglomerate era.” That same year, Random House went public and, flush with newfound capital, acquired Knopf and, a year later, Pantheon. Conglomeration spread rapidly, with well-capitalized behemoths gobbling up mass-market houses and old family-run firms with equal fervor. Over the next decade and a half, the electronics company Radio Corporation of America acquired Random House, a Canadian communications firm nabbed Macmillan, the Italian conglomerate that owned Fiat swallowed Bantam, and Gulf + Western bought Simon & Schuster. Ultimately, conglomeration consolidated more and more imprints under single roofs, with the German conglomerate Bertelsmann seizing Doubleday in 1986, Random House in 1998, and Penguin (via a merger) in 2013.

The economic downturns of the late twentieth century, starting in the 1970s, did nothing to halt the rise of conglomerate publishing; in fact, they accelerated the process. Management consultants arrived, and they contributed to a fundamental shift in the way U.S. publishers did business. Editors, who had previously enjoyed considerable freedom and made decisions based on their personal preferences and gut instincts, now had to do so by reference to a balance sheet; they had to prove that each title they wished to procure would be a moneymaker. “Editors,” Toni Morrison claimed in her 1981 speech, “are now judged by the profitability of what they acquire rather than by what they acquire.” This led editors to take fewer risks and go out on fewer limbs; it led literary novelists to adopt the techniques of their lower-brow counterparts, turning to what sold.