Ecologies of Neoliberal Publishing

Edited by Jeremy Rosen

Introduction to Ecologies of Neoliberal Publishing

Jeremy Rosen

Megativity and Miniaturization at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Beth Driscoll and Claire Squires

Bibliologistics: The Nature of Books Now, or A Memorable Fancy

Matthew Kirschenbaum

America’s Next Top Novel


Simone Murray

The Many Books of the Future: Print-digital Literatures

Élika Ortega

Penguin Random House, Co-opted Values, and Contemporary Cli-Fi

Jeremy Rosen


Right about now, you might be thinking: "not more neoliberalism!" Come to think of it, you might be getting a little tired of "ecologies" too. But pulling together these two somewhat played-out keywords has generated through a disproportionate mix of Contemporaries' foresight, my dumb luck, and the fidelity to nuance in favor of grandiosity in the scholarship of the authors featured here a salutary corrective to the potential for "neoliberalism" to serve as a catch-all bogeyman for all sociocultural critiques in the contemporary moment.1

This cluster of essays evades the tendency to use "neoliberalism" as a singular explanatory cause by exploring in detail the workings of various ecologies of today's publishing industry. Quite simply, these essays ask: how do neoliberal market forces and ideologies play out in practice, in the field of literary production? What does the bogeyman look like up close and on the ground: in the factories, on the Twittersphere, in the corporate initiatives and junkets? As the word "ecology" in our title implies, these essays analyze the workings of various interconnected processes in the publishing system, and proceed not so much in search of holistic accounts of that system as in efforts to discover a series of local changes in the ways literature gets produced today. 2 These changes are sometimes manifestations or effects of neoliberal logics and practices, sometimes interventions and irruptions in them; other times these practices shape and alter the neoliberal whole, in unexpected ways that make it look increasingly hard to offer a totalizing account.

The other thing these essays do particularly well, and what is salutary for literary and cultural scholarship on the relation between literature and neoliberalism, is to favor attention to forms of mediation and production over representation. That is, these essays are less concerned with how writers or filmmakers are representing neoliberal conditions or ideologies and their effects on human psychology and social action. Instead, the writers in this cluster ask how these conditions and ideologies manifest in the practices and relations of often unseen and understudied parties in the field of contemporary literary production.

Beth Driscoll and Claire Squires bring the discerning wit and playful perspicacity of their conceptual school "Ullapoolism" to the Frankfurt Book Fair, examining its performance of "megativity," and come home with miniature models of the Fair's layout in their wheelie-bags. These models help Driscoll, Squires, and us see how the Buchmesse replicates, in miniature form, the structure, varied scales, and hierarchical divisions of today's industry, dominated by mega-publishers. Meanwhile the Fair's festive atmosphere obscures the retracting size of the industry, as well as its dependencies on the pseudo-neutral politics of the European liberal order and, of course, on industrial labor and the wasteful practices of contemporary corporate events.

Matthew Kirschenbaum makes a heroic journey to the site of that unseen labor, a print production facility in Kendallville, Indiana, population 9,682. (How many literary and cultural scholars actually grace the doorstep of a factory?) Kirschenbaum hopes that this inside view will allow him to trace the intricacies of the supply-chains on which the production and distribution of books, like all contemporary global commodities, depend. But even as an insider some things are kept from view. The supply-chains are still invisible in their totality, as well as increasingly interdependent, and hence vulnerable. In the case of Kendallville, they are under threat from decreased demand and corporate mergers that lead to the shuttering of facilities, in the pursuit of efficiency and the purging of redundancies.

Laura McGrath crashes the "pitch parties" that agents have been throwing for aspiring novelists on the Twittersphere a test-case for claims about the internet's ability to democratize access to the literary field. Using topic modeling to analyze the language of thousands of would-be-authors' pitch tweets, McGrath shows us what up-and-coming writers and agents think the market wants, and thus one way perceived demand gets built into authors' writing process and agents' selections of potential clients.

Simone Murray surveys the broader world of the digital literary sphere, debunking myths about the antagonism between the digital and traditional literary values, as well as about the purported democratizing effects of the internet. Murray's insights into the inescapable interpenetration of market forces, media platforms (owned by huge global technology corporations), and literary production processes offer sharp provocations for the ways literary theory and political economy need to rethink the roles of living authors, romantic refusals, and the notion that commodities are neatly separable from platforms.

Élika Ortega takes us into the fascinating world of hybrid and "binding media" works that combine print codices with digital applications, showing in detail how independent presses express more tolerance for experimentation with textual form and even willful obsolescence, than do large-scale corporate publishers. In Ortega's work, the literary object becomes paradoxically more ethereal, as it lives in the interstitial shuttling between media, book and pixels at the same time, and ever more rooted in the material practices of publishers and their efforts to differentiate their products and this is even and especially true of the independents who trade on art books with high production value.

My essay tracks some of the global ventures of Penguin Random House since its 2013 merger, and endeavors to show how its corporate strategies preserve, in coopted form, literary, ecological, and other non-market values, which have been swallowed but survive, like Jonah, in the belly of the penguin. It concludes with a short reading of Chang-Rae Lee's On Such a Full Sea, a dystopian cli-fi novel that, I argue, expresses skepticism about the efficacy of the swallowed artistic producer, if you will, and about the power of fictions to undermine hegemonic structures from within.

Jeremy Rosen is Associate Professor of English at the University of Utah. His first book, Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace, was published as part of Columbia’s “Literature Now” series in 2016, and his current project “Genre Bending” considers the adoption of forms of popular genre fiction by acclaimed writers of literary fiction.


  1. For wariness about the tendency for scholars to use "neoliberalism" as an all-encompassing explanatory force and straw-man, see, for example: Mitchum Huehls and Rachel Greenwald Smith, "Four Phases of Neoliberalism: An Introduction," in Neoliberalism and Contemporary Literary Culture, edited by Mitchum Huehls and Rachel Greenwald Smith (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017); and Sharae Deckard and Stephen Shapiro, "World-Culture and the Neoliberal World-System: An Introduction," in World Literature, Neoliberalism, and the Culture of Discontent, edited by Sharae Deckard and Stephen Shapiro (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave MacMillan, 2019). []
  2. For an efficient summary of media-ecology thinking, see Élika Ortega, "Media and Cultural Hybridity in the Digital Humanities," PMLA 135, no. 1 (January 2020): 59-164; 160.[]

Past clusters