Cormac McCarthy, who died last week at 89, had a famously unusual career. His first five novels, published over two decades, earned him considerable critical respect but were commercial failures. At one time, all of his books, including his 1985 masterpiece, “Blood Meridian,” fell out of print.
Then something remarkable happened. In 1992, after a career spent eking out a living, Mr. McCarthy had a hit. “All the Pretty Horses,” which won the National Book Award and was adapted by Hollywood, set him squarely on a path to literary stardom and an outsize reputation as one of the greatest novelists of his time.
This improbable trajectory — writer toils for decades in obscurity before finding international renown — is the stuff of legend. But it did not occur by accident or happenstance. Mr. McCarthy’s career was made possible by a tectonic shift that was happening in the publishing industry as it moved from the boutique model of the early 20th century to an era of conglomeration. If the first part of his career was illustrative of publishing’s old model, the second half was made possible by a new approach. With his famed reclusiveness and idiosyncratic prose style, Mr. McCarthy might seem like an obdurate anachronism. But his career arc reveals that he was serendipitously of his time.
Mr. McCarthy began his career in 1965 in unpromising circumstances. He was a 32-year-old University of Tennessee dropout with no literary agent who’d submitted a poorly typed manuscript of his first novel by mail to Random House. From the slush pile, it found its way to Albert Erskine’s desk. Mr. Erskine had edited Ralph Ellison, Robert Penn Warren and, most pertinently, the writer Mr. McCarthy had most closely styled his work on: William Faulkner. Mr. Erskine liked the manuscript, and Random House published the novel, “The Orchard Keeper,” a gnarled, strange and decidedly uncommercial debut.
Mr. Erskine doggedly championed the book, sending advance copies to the Random House writers Truman Capote and James Michener. According to the literary researcher David Robert King, Mr. Erskine penned a letter to Saul Bellow, stating that he’d never “solicited you like this before” but that he felt that the book deserved “all the support it could get.” Nevertheless, it sold poorly. Mr. McCarthy’s next novel, “Outer Dark,” was published in 1968 and did no better.
When Random House asked Mr. McCarthy whether he had any connections who could help sell his third novel, “Child of God,” about a necrophiliac serial killer, he replied in a letter, “Ed McMahon (of ‘The Tonight Show’) is an acquaintance. We went fishing off Bimini together back in the spring and went partying together at Cat Cay (until he fell off the dock and had to be flown to Lauderdale to the hospital). You might try to place a copy in his hands. He does read. (Not like he drinks, of course, but some.)”
If Random House contacted McMahon, it didn’t help. “Child of God” did not sell, either. Neither did his fourth novel, “Suttree,” published in 1979.
Mr. McCarthy had, however, earned the support of prestigious literary awards and fellowships: the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1981 he won an inaugural MacArthur fellowship, which in a letter to a friend he called “a little windfall from a foundation” that would allow him to “stay in the business awhile longer.” It supported the writing of “Blood Meridian,” an extraordinarily violent book about American mercenaries exterminating Indigenous populations in northern Mexico. That book fared poorly, too.
By the late ’80s, his prospects remained bleak. In 1987, Mr. Erskine retired. In 1989, Mr. McCarthy wrote to a friend, “I’ve been a full-time professional writer for 28 years, and I’ve never received a royalty check. That, I’ll betcha, is a record.”
The fact that the world is now celebrating the arc of Mr. McCarthy’s monumental career is a testament to the novelist’s undeniable talent. But it’s also due to his timely recognition that, without his protector, Mr. Erskine, and the vanished world of publishing that Mr. Erskine represented, he would need to change the way his books were published.
In the 1960s, large corporations began acquiring publishing houses, consolidating the industry into fewer and fewer conglomerates. In the 1970s, inflation increased the price of books even as wages stagnated and consumers had less to spend. Shareholder value became corporate scripture, inducing managerial demands for quarterly growth. For publishing, this meant marketing, publicity and sales departments grew and gained influence. Editors spent more time in meetings and filling out profit-and-loss forms. Literary agents became essential intermediaries, as publishing houses no longer riffled through submissions to find emerging talents. A poorly typed manuscript like Mr. McCarthy’s debut would struggle to make it into, let alone be rescued from, a slush pile.
Random House had a guardian against these forces of change in its chief executive Robert Bernstein, who in the 1970s buffered the publisher from the interference of its corporate parent, RCA. In the 1980s, he did the same when ownership shifted to S.I. Newhouse. But in 1989, Mr. Newhouse replaced him with Alberto Vitale, a businessman who’d spent most of his career at the typewriter company Olivetti and the carmaker Fiat. As recounted in an interview Mr. Vitale gave to Publishing Perspectives, he told the staff members that they “needed to make money.” His new policy, according to the author André Schiffrin, “was that each book should make money on its own and that one title should no longer be allowed to subsidize another.” It was a credo that would have made the long gestation of Mr. McCarthy’s early career impossible.
It did, however, make the next phase of his career possible.
After Mr. Erskine retired, Mr. McCarthy wrote to the agent Lynn Nesbit (who represented Robert Caro, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison and Tom Wolfe, among many others) to seek representation. “I’ve never had an agent before,” Mr. McCarthy wrote, as recounted in The Cut, “but I’m thinking now of getting one, and if you’re interested in talking to me, please call me before noon Rocky Mountain time.” She passed his letter along to an ambitious protégée, Amanda “Binky” Urban — who, as it happened, had read “Suttree” and considered it “an amazing book.”
Ms. Urban took Mr. McCarthy on and engineered a move from Random House to Knopf, where a new editor in chief, Sonny Mehta, had recently replaced the legendary Robert Gottlieb (who also died last week). The New York Times called Mr. Mehta’s arrival at Knopf “tortuous” as he struggled to learn the house’s “mysterious traditions.” He needed a big win, and when Ms. Urban pitched him on publishing Mr. McCarthy, an esteemed MacArthur recipient who had not yet had a commercial hit, he replied, “I’d love that.” She called the head of Random House to approve the move and, as she told The Cut, he replied, “I can’t believe I’m picking up the phone to talk about an author who’s never sold more than 2,500 copies.”
At Knopf, Mr. Mehta and Ms. Urban tasked a hotshot team (including the editor Gary Fisketjon, the publicist Jane Friedman, the designer Chip Kidd and the portrait photographer Marion Ettlinger) with the challenge of releasing Mr. McCarthy’s new book. They recognized that “All the Pretty Horses” — which tells the story of a teenage cowboy who travels to Mexico, falls in love, kills a man and mourns the loss of the West — had decidedly more commercial potential than Mr. McCarthy’s previous work. It was, among other things, the first novel of his career with a hero readers could root for.
Published in 1992, “Horses” was the kind of hit that had long evaded Mr. McCarthy. It initially sold 100,000 copies and was adapted into a movie starring Matt Damon. Mr. McCarthy’s commercial success continued, and soon he became a monumental figure in the wider culture. A later novel, “No Country for Old Men,” was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie, and his novel “The Road” became a best seller after receiving the imprimatur of Oprah Winfrey.
Mr. McCarthy was twice the beneficiary of the then-dominant industry ethos. His early career was sustained by an editor who stuck with him despite commercial struggles. His latter career was buoyed by the surge in marketing power ushered in by the conglomerate era.
The industry’s trend toward conglomeration has only intensified: Bertelsmann, a German media conglomerate, acquired Random House in 1998. In 2013, Random House merged with Penguin, forming the world’s largest publisher. In 2020, Penguin Random House won a bid to acquire Simon & Schuster, the third-largest publisher in the United States, but the deal was blocked by the Department of Justice on antitrust grounds. When Mr. McCarthy mailed his first manuscript to Random House, the company’s entire staff could be listed on a postcard. Now it employs more than 10,000 people.
A career like Mr. McCarthy’s, with its long gestation before a blockbuster second act, would be nearly impossible to repeat now. An author without an agent or a track record of book sales would never gain a hearing at a major publishing house. And a state-school dropout in his early 30s would face slim odds of becoming a prizewinning author, as an M.F.A. from a prestigious writing program has often become the price of entry for splashy literary fiction debuts.
It’s impossible to know what kind of writer Mr. McCarthy would have developed into without decades in which to hone his singular voice. But contemporary success stories about novelists tend to have a very different aspect: They’re stories like that of Colson Whitehead, who followed up his well-received 1999 debut, “The Intuitionist” with novels that deftly navigated genres before reaching a new plateau by winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for “The Underground Railroad.” Or Bonnie Garmus, the author of “Lessons in Chemistry,” whose very first book became a runaway hit in 2022.
The job of nurturing voices like Mr. McCarthy’s has largely shifted to the parallel world of independent and nonprofit publishing, where many writers — like Percival Everett, who wrote more than 20 novels for small presses before his 2021 novel, “The Trees,” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and who recently jumped to the publisher Doubleday for a six-figure deal — have found their home.
As for Mr. McCarthy, he’ll be remembered as a writer whose career we can admire. But he’s not a writer whose path to success anyone writing today should hope to replicate.
Dan Sinykin is an assistant professor of English at Emory University and the author of the forthcoming “Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature.”
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