How the Business of Books Shapes the Art of Writing

Dan Sinykin is an assistant professor of English at Emory University with a courtesy appointment in quantitative theory and methods. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of BooksThe RumpusDissent, and other publications.

Below, Dan shares five key insights from his new book, Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature.

1. The author is a myth.

As a society, we love authors. We love the idea of creative individuals using their imagination to bring great books into the world. It’s seductive, and we are seduced by it, with the help of magazine profiles, biopics, and the great big machinery of marketing and publicity. But this isn’t really how books are written. Our image of the author obscures more than it reveals.

Philosophers of mind have argued in recent years that cognition itself, our very thoughts, are distributed and extended (to use their terms). It’s a mistake to identify our mind with our brain and to think of it like a computer calculating thoughts for us. Instead, our thinking happens through our bodies, our environments, and other people. Today’s authors are embedded in a bureaucratic, optimized publishing industry, and they work among agents, editors, marketers, publicists, sales teams, scouts, and subsidiary rights specialists. Successful writers internalize their judgments and those of booksellers, critics, and maybe even TikTokers. I say all this as an author myself. It’s time we let go of the myth of the author. Letting go of the author doesn’t feel like a loss; it feels like liberation.

2. Contemporary literature started in 1980.

Scholars divide literary history into periods. Romanticism has William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and John Keats. Modernism has William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. What period are we in now, and when did it start?

So many features of fiction in our time are the product of the late 1970s and 1980s. That’s when publishers elevated a few novelists to blockbuster status and became household names. Think of John Grisham, Stephen King, and Danielle Steel, all of them still writing and reaching best-seller lists regularly.

“It was in the 1980s that the writers we now think of as literary began playing with techniques from genres of fiction, which have become ubiquitous.”

The 1970s and 1980s saw an explosion of romance novels and the invention and proliferation of fantasy, arguably the two most important genres today. Just look at the massive phenomenon of self-publishing, fan fiction, and TikTok. We didn’t use the phrase “literary fiction” before the 1980s. It was in the 1980s that the writers we now think of as literary began playing with techniques from genres of fiction, which have become ubiquitous. Think of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road or Colson Whitehead’s zombie apocalypse Zone One. We lived in a different book world before 1980. There are good and complex reasons for why everything changed.

3. Danielle Steel is complex.

I love Danielle Steel. I’m even a little obsessed. But I admit she’s not famous for being a complex writer. Her books are considered beach reads, light and entertaining. This is neither fair nor accurate. The more I studied her, the more I came to believe her novels reveal a fascinating dilemma brought about by the conglomeration of publishing.

She was born Danielle Fernandes Dominique Schuelein-Steel. She had a lonely childhood living with her father in Manhattan. She attended an elite high school and fantasized about becoming a nun. She eventually found work at a women-run PR firm, Super Girls, where one of her clients told her she had a knack for writing and should try to be a novelist. She wrote three modestly successful novels before an editor at Dell decided to make her famous. He asked her to write a novel based on a screenplay that was a rip-off of Erich Segal’s Love Story. It was a huge success. That’s when Danielle Steel became Danielle Steel.

But it was a Faustian bargain. She became a brand, and to become a brand is to worry that your readers will forget that you are a human being, a creative individual, an artist. Ever since, the struggle between Danielle Steel the person and Danielle Steel the brand has been the engine powering her extraordinary production, a struggle played out in her characters and plots across almost 200 books and counting.

4. Decline is a useful narrative.

No one reads books anymore. The novel is dead. Publishers just want to publish celebrity memoirs and self-help books. If you spend time around literary types, you’ve probably heard these complaints. They are as perennial as complaints about kids these days.

People have probably been saying similar things since publishing became an industry in the first place. The gripes took on their modern form in the late 1970s when writers began to freak out about conglomeration. Ever since, narratives of decline have been linked to the conglomeration of publishing. But one group took these narratives and put them to good use.

“The rise of conglomerations empowered nonprofits to leverage the narrative of decline to justify donations to their cause.”

This is the story of nonprofit publishing, a movement that solicits donations from the government, private foundations, and individual donors to subsidize literature so it can loosen its dependence on the market. It didn’t exist before the 1980s. The rise of conglomerations empowered nonprofits to leverage the narrative of decline to justify donations to their cause. “Literature is in decline. You can help save and protect it with your financial support.” These publishers include Coffee House, Milkweed, and Graywolf, and they publish some of the great writers working today, such as Percival Everett, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Karen Tei Yamashita.

5. There is still room for the weirdos.

I hear a lot of people complain that books feel homogenous these days, like books all seem the same. I disagree, but I understand where they’re coming from. Conglomeration has led to conservatism in publishing. Literary agents sell books, and editors acquire them on the basis of comparative titles, or comps. You have to choose three successful, recently published titles that resemble the new one. Comps encourage a cycle where we just get more of the same.

But even as conglomerate publishing was becoming more conservative and predictable back in the 1990s, other pathways opened for surprising books that didn’t fit elsewhere. The biggest and most successful of these was W.W. Norton. If you were an English major, you probably remember Norton’s anthologies, those big, Bible-like tomes full of classic literature. Norton turns out to be a really interesting company. It is employee-owned and the largest remaining independent publisher in the United States.

Since Norton’s college division is so successful, it frees it up to take risks with its fiction. Some of those risks paid off big time. It published Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club—books that would have had difficulty getting published elsewhere. In recent years, we’ve seen a flourishing of small presses publishing really exciting books. I’m thinking about Deep Vellum, Dorothy, New York Review Books, and Transit, to name a few. Despite everything, people continue to make amazing books. It is a good time to be a reader.

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