The Short Life of Publishing Tradition

What are the eras of publishing history? Are they literary eras?

I’d like to expand on our discussion of John Thompson’s sociology of contemporary publishing by posing some literary-historical questions. In his post on Thompson, Lee Konstantinou framed some questions about contemporary book publication and promotion which Merchants of Culture can help us to ask. I’m particularly enamored of his statement that the “big book”—the potential bestseller, as certified by large advances and publisher buzz—is the “great white whale” of the study of recent literature. (The discussion in comments also focused on the big book, but it turned out that it was hard to keep straight the distinction between the big book—an only potential hit—and the literary sensation.) I had been worrying that my own training in literary studies gave me much less purchase than I wanted on the world of agents, publishers, and retailers that Thompson describes. But Lee argues that literary studies can and should undertake research on the gatekeeping and filtering mechanisms of publishing: “What are the filters, norms, expectations, and constraints that distinguish the unpublishable from the publishable?” Or, to borrow a phrase from a forceful theoretical essay by Rachel Malik, what are the “horizons of the publishable” in the present, and how and why have they shifted over time? To follow Lee’s program, we will have to look into the different kinds of “platform” authors have; we will have to pay attention to the construction of “voice”; and we will have to understand how actors in the publishing field organize books into series of comparable items—“comps” or, to use our own term of art, genres. I would also add that we need to find out who has access to the means to write—education, time, desire—as well as the means to even have a chance at publication—social capital, geographic location, and so on.

Problem solved! Or anyway, problem posed. I fervently hope to see that kind of work in literary studies—and I hope to do some of it myself. But I am also interested in using Thompson’s argument in the context of literary history. Despite its empirical focus on the present, I think Merchants of Culture is also a powerful provocation to rethink the literary history of the twentieth century. In the rest of this post, I’m going to speculate about the eras of publishing as Thompson’s account suggests them.

Thompson’s periodization of publishing history stems from his claim that the rise of large publishing corporations, literary agents, and big retailers has transformed the logic of the field into the highly polarized world he describes. Publishing consolidation began, for Thompson, in the 1960s; the first round of large-scale retail bookselling, in American mall bookstores, also dates to the 1960s (and links this transformation of publishing to postwar white flight and suburban development). Though literary agents have been around for more than a century, they acceded to their current status as independent actors (rather than close collabators with publishers) later, in the late 1970s; Andrew Wylie, the archetypal “super-agent,” started his business in 1980.

What was the publishing world like before the 1960s? Thompson and his interviewees repeatedly refer to this previous publishing era as a different age, which they often describe as the “traditional” way of publishing. We might, if we lock our eyebrow firmly in the raised position, call the image of this pre-consolidation publishing field “the heroic age of trade publication”:

In the 1950s and before, there were dozens of independent publishing houses in New York, Boston and London….Many of these houses were run by individuals who either owned the company outright or had a substantial stake in it, and other members of the family were commonly involved in the business. These publisher-owners were often men of strong character and opinion—and they nearly always were men. They knew what they wanted to publish and they built their lists on the basis of their own judgement and taste—and, as they grew larger and delegated more responsibility to editors, on the basis of the judgement and taste of their editors. (101)

Bestriding the world of books like a colossus, the publisher-owner—Jonathan Cape, Horace Liveright, Bennett Cerf (of the house of Random), Geoffrey Faber—followed his (“nearly always” his) taste as he pursued long-term success, idiosyncratically choosing authors to cultivate. Perhaps he had a few skilled editors (another figure of “tradition,” though one with a short history) who did the same. “Traditionally,” Thompson remarks, “good publishing was about acquiring books that sold well over a long time period” (369)—but that was before the era of big retail, shrinking windows of marketplace visibility, the polarized field, and the pursuit of Big Books.

Now this picture is almost certainly mythic, false to history, limited by its fantasy of a time before corporatization and its nostalgia for a different kind of commerce in books (if there ever was such a thing). (I imagine Thompson knows this well—he is very careful to avoid both nostalgic gestures and “O tempora, O mores” lamentation—but his ethnographic method means keeping close to the vocabulary of the people he interviews, for whom “tradition” is a frequently recurring term.) The myth reflects a distaste for organizational actors in the literary world, which we wish were still understandable in terms of personalities. And, most importantly, it sees only a narrow slice of the publishing world—the part that survived by selling up—and thus misses the “polarization of the field” that has existed at least since the 1890s, when the industrialization of book production really took off and distinctions between cheap-book publishing and serious publishing crystallized, together with the category of “bestseller.” (See Peter McDonald’s British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice, 1880–1914. Polarization is one of those “escalator”-like historical shifts that seem to always have already been in progress.) Periodicals are another major blindspot of this nostalgic account of heroic-age publishing; I wonder whether one of the major post-1960 shifts has to do with the declining availability of venues in serial print media for fiction or (to a lesser degree) the kind of extended non-fiction that trade publishing publishes. The imagined contrast between the long-termism of heroic publishing and present-day short-termism occludes the importance, in the heroic age, of an entire medium devoted to the short term: the print periodical.

The other, even more consequentially mythic feature of this idea of “traditional” publishing is the idea that it is traditional, handed down from time immemorial. But most aspects of this tradition are limited to a short period, from about 1895 to 1960. When Thompson discusses the kinds of charismatically led American publishing houses that were bought up in the 1960s and after, he mentions Random House (founded 1925), Knopf (founded 1915), Simon & Schuster (founded 1924). But more telling still is this remark about British publishing:

By the 1960s and early 1970s, a generation of entrepreneurial British publishers—Jonathan Cape, Michael Joseph, Jamie Hamilton, Stanley Unwin, Victor Gollancz and Allen Lane, among others—were reaching the ends of their productive careers and the publishing companies they had started or reinvigorated faced succession problems and uncertain futures. At the same time, North American corporations with existing interests in publishing began to look acquisitively at British trade houses, attracted by the common language and a weakening pound. (118)

Especially after reading Claire Bowen’s two excellent recent posts, I am struck by the figure of the “generation” here. All of these “traditional” publishers had in fact just started their businesses in their lifetimes. These are the great names of modernist Bloomsbury; like the Americans, many of these represent the institutionalizing publishers of modernism, those who brought the experimental, small-press vanguards into a larger sphere: Cape, Unwin, Gollancz, Lane. The nineteenth century did not have comparable figures because nineteenth-century English publishing, with its triple-deckers and circulating libraries, was configured completely differently. (I must leave to the nineteenth-centuryists to explain exactly how.)

What is the meaning of this “generation”? Is it really “tradition”? I suggest that it is just the opposite: it represented, in itself, a decisive structural transformation of the publishing and literary fields from what had come before. If nineteenth-century publishers were individual rather than corporate, they operated in a field in which their choices were less significant in shaping taste, in part because the hierarchization of literary taste was less marked than it was later on. And the whole field was less densely populated by books and producers. Furthermore, that other treasure of “traditional,” heroic publishing, the literary editor of the Max Perkins type, is also distinctively of the twentieth century. And if we literary readers and writers find ourselves speaking elegiacally of the acquisition of those publishing “houses” by the big corporations—the sale of Random to RCA, or the merger of Allen Lane’s Penguin with Pearson Longman—we are really speaking elegiacally, as we seem to do all the time, about the modernist epoch in book history, which turned out to be only one “generation” long.1

So we should stop talking about the 1960s corporate consolidation of publishing and book retail, with all its consequences, as the death of a “tradition” in publishing and start seeing it instead as the unsurprising dissolution of an unstable formation. Thompson’s remark that those heroic publishers all “faced succession problems” as the owners of the houses got older is telling. It suggests that there was nothing traditional, in the sense of transmissible or iterable, about them. Instead, the transformation of book publication in the 1890s probably marked the beginning of the end for the (genuinely long-standing) organization of publishing as a family business. The so-called “traditional,” i.e. the modernist and early-twentieth-century, model of publishing was the system’s new attempt to adapt. A cohort—a “generation” by age and taste—of innovators founded firms that took advantage of the expansion of the reading public and its fragmentation into taste strata, so that “literary” publishing could be a market for an independent business—but only for the lifetime of one Roger Straus or Allen Lane. Even though (some of) their production was (in our present-day imaginary version of “tradition”) aimed to sell in the long-term, maybe as organizations these publishers were more like startups destined to be acquired by larger firms. The real question is: why did they evanesce? Did they simply lack the organizational capacity to stay independent?

If the “traditional” publishing era was shorter than Thompson’s interviewees or any one else assumes,2 it may also be that the whole system of value which “tradition” suggests needs to be understood historically itself. Notice the close relation between the idea of a long publishing “tradition” and the nostalgia for the pursuit of the long-lasting backlist. The denunciation—which Thompson avoids, but which is common among “literary” book people—of corporate publishing for its failure to valorize books that will endure over the long term starts to seem complementary to this myth of a long golden age in which gentlemen publishers sought to erect monuments of lasting literary value. Is long-termism itself part of that unstable, short-term early-twentieth-century formation? Certainly the meaning of “long-term” literary value underwent an enormous shift after 1890. The practice of regarding any vernacular novel as a “serious” cultural object dates only from the late nineteenth century. Even later comes the selection of the products of recent and contemporary publishing for the school and university syllabus—a decisive new institution for “lasting literary value” and long-term publishing. Perhaps this institutional development is incomplete, even stalled. Literary historians should, I suggest, try to identify the conditions which made long-termism turn out not to be the most successful long-term strategy around the midcentury.

Even as I write all this I know how much I am leaving out of this speculative story. First, there is the transition, which Lee and I wondered about in our post on Wendy Griswold, from early-twentieth-century mass “reading culture” to the minority “reading class” of more recent decades. What are the feedback loops connecting different organizations of publishing to different organizations of the reading public?

Second, the last few years have taught all of us to ask questions of political economy: to what extent did the post-1960 reorganization of publishing owe itself to regulatory and/or market conditions favoring corporate consolidation in many industries? Does the increasingly unequal (“polarized”) structure of publishing track the growth of other kinds of inequalities? This hypothesis perhaps applies most plausibly to Thompson’s second phase of consolidation, in the 1980s. One of the strangest features of the field of trade publishing as Thompson describes it is the inviolability of the corporate growth imperative, or what he calls “the growth conundrum,” which “arises because every corporation needs to grow and to generate a good level of profitability” (109). This demand for growth—not just profit, mind you, but growth—drives the focus on big, short-term sales of books, regardless of the structural inability of publishers to fill the profit gap at the level corporate owners demand. Can this be explained in terms of legal and economic regimes? (A friend who works in a radical bookstore described his conclusion after reading Thompson: In order to transform publishing into a less crisis-bound, short-term-oriented system, we must end capitalism.)

Third, our intellectual problems as scholars of literature and society may well reproduce the dilemma of those “traditional” houses: individuals attempting to cope, using a too-individualistic optic, in a system in which mediators and big organizations shape interaction—a system in which other scales than that of the individual are most meaningful. The very interesting discussion in comments on Lee’s last post focused almost exclusively on the status of “literary” fiction, even though Thompson’s book is, as Lee and I both emphasized, really about trade publishing, a business that produces fiction and non-fiction, “literary” and non-“literary” writing for the general public. The world of “Big Books” and bestsellers isn’t just the world of the next Franzenoid novel; it’s the next book about French mothering or purpose-driven lives or the greatness of the founding fathers. It’s Dan Brown and the multipersonal entity known as James Patterson. And so on.

In the present-day publishing system, this variety of genres—a variety organized both by content (fiction, non-) and by symbolic capital or “quality”—is instantiated at the level of the imprint, which also means that the same corporate entity normally has multiple specialized divisions for “literary” and non-“literary” production. (For example, I had to look up Michael Joseph, and I found that the Penguin website describes it as publishing “highly commercial, popular fiction and non-fiction”; but Penguin also owns, say, Hamish Hamilton, which the same website proclaims “one of Britain’s most distinguished literary lists.”) Thompson is at pains to argue that these imprints often have considerable relative autonomy within their corporate organizations. But the literary-historical question is, what does going from “house” to “imprint” mean?

In short, we can’t read it all, but we can try to find an aggregate level at which we might understand how the changing organization of publishing has changed the nature of all that written production.3 As for me, I think the next windmill literary studies should tilt at is the history of the literary classification system—the history of the spectrum of genres as it is produced by publishers and other actors in the literary field. The recent invention and social organization of literary and publishing “traditions” will probably be a central part of the story.

  1. Thompson, in my reading, allows himself only one such elegiac moment, and it has a longer time-horizon. When he mentions the acquisition of John Murray by WH Smith’s Hodder Headline, he notes that Murray “had remained a family-run business for over two centuries and had published some of the greatest English authors, including Lord Byron, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, but with an annual turnover of around £8 million it was no longer in a position to compete with its larger and better-resourced competitors” (122).

  2. At one moment in Thompson’s analysis “tradition” telescopes down to a couple of decades: “However, developments in the field of trade publishing during the 1980s and 1990s began to erode the traditional emphasis on backlist publishing … The financial formula that had underpinned the industry in the 1950s and 1960s was being turned on its head: increasingly it was the frontlist hardcover, not the backlist paperback, that was the engine of growth for the industry” (370, emphasis mine). The backlist paperback was a creation of the 1940s—and went into eclipse with the reduction in hardcover prices and the emphasis on hardcover sales in the 1980s and after. Is “traditional publishing” the long lines of dog-eared, endlessly reread orange Penguin paperbacks sitting on my father’s shelves—a line which corresponds to nothing in earlier publishing history? (Paperbacks have a longer history, but the paperback-worth-keeping, the backlist-selling-paperback, is credited to Allen Lane among others in my book history textbooks.)

  3. Perhaps the “list” can itself become an object of analysis for the sociology of literature: publishers’ lists, agents’ lists, book club lists.

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