Fifty years ago, almost every publisher in the United States was independent. Beginning in the late 1960s, multinational corporations consolidated the industry. By 2007, four out of every five books on bookstore shelves were published by one of six conglomerates: corporate entities that hold businesses from different industries under one governing financial structure. I call this period—from, roughly, RCA’s purchase of Random House at the end of 1965 until the release of the Amazon Kindle and the 2007–8 financial crisis—the conglomerate era.
The conglomerate era was full of prophecies about the coming death of literature, or, on the other hand, its continued flourishing. Literature, said the doomsayers, needed some freedom from commerce to survive. Otherwise we’d be left with only cookbooks and celebrity memoirs. Novelists, especially, rattled their swords. They even convinced the US Senate, in 1980, to hold a hearing about breaking up the conglomerates. E. L. Doctorow argued on behalf of PEN that “the concentration into fewer and fewer hands of the production and distribution of literary work is by its nature constricting to free speech and the effective exchange of ideas and the diversity of opinion.” Publishers countered that—either in spite or because of their consolidations—more and more diverse literature was being published than ever.