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.
Sinykin points to the illustrative example of Cormac McCarthy, who was lucky enough to start publishing under the old regime. For 28 years, starting in the mid-1960s, he put out dense, difficult novels with Random House without ever selling well enough to get a single royalty check. When his old-school editor retired in 1987, McCarthy—aware he was navigating a new world—hired a literary agent for the first time. Fortunately for him, he piqued the interest of rising super-agent Amanda “Binky” Urban, who moved him over to Knopf, where his next novel would be overseen by editor Sonny Mehta and others, the new generation. Relocated to a new imprint, with a new editor and an agent, McCarthy changed his style; he abandoned his abstract plots and instead wrote a Western, the story of a young cowboy mourning the death of his world, embracing many of the techniques of genre novelists as he did so. That novel, All the Pretty Horses, soared to the bestseller lists upon its publication in 1992; it sold 100,000 copies and was adapted into a blockbuster movie. Cormac McCarthy became and remained a star.