Photo: The Canadian Press
Author Stephen King signs a book as he leaves federal court after testifying before the Department of Justice as it tries to block the proposed merger of two of the world’s largest publishing houses, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, Tuesday, August 2, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Simansky)
Stephen King did not break any legal grounds on the platform on Tuesday as he testified against his publisher’s efforts to merge with Penguin Random House. But he knew how to please the crowd and even made the judge thank him for his time.
“It was really a pleasure to hear your testimony,” U.S. District Judge Florence J. Ban told the author after he finished speaking as a government witness in an antitrust lawsuit against the merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, longtime publisher King.
The 74-year-old had a agonizing but sociable presence, his emaciated touches sparkling in his gray mane and gray sneakers, and his career as tentative, as it has been since he was hit by a pickup truck and badly injured in 1999. But once he was sworn in, he was relaxed and happy to talk, and was Always alert to how to tell a story,
“My name is Stephen King. I am a freelance writer,” King said when asked to identify himself. The Department of Justice is trying to convince Ban that the proposed combination of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, two of the world’s largest publishers, would thwart competition and hurt careers. The professional career of some of the most famous authors – a position which King holds like few others.
King’s remarkable career, with so many bestsellers he could only give an appreciation for, has come amid waves of consolidation in the industry. As he noted in his notes, there were dozens of New York publishing houses when his novel Carrie was released in 1974, and he saw many of them either taken over by bigger companies or forced out of business.
Now, New York publishing is often the story of the so-called Big Five: Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins Publishing, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan. Doubleday’s publisher Carrie is now part of Penguin Random House, as is former King publisher Viking Press.
During the first two days, lawyers for both sides presented markedly contrasting views of the book industry. The Department of Justice sees an increasingly limited market for bestsellers, with the Big Five well in control. The Penguin Random House side sees book publishing as dynamic and open to many, with limited impact for the proposed merge.
King’s appearance before the US District Court in Washington – highly unusual for an antitrust trial – brought an account of the evolution of book publishing towards the dominance of the Big Five. When government attorney Mel Schwartz walked King through his history beginning with the little-known new author in the 1970s and his relationships with agents and publishers, King resumed criticism of the industry as it is now.
King responded sharply to Schwartz’s questions, with some moments of humor and short flashes of gentle anger, as he testified during the second day of the trial expected to last two to three weeks.
“The Big Five are pretty well established,” he said.
Under questioning later in the day, Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp detailed a world of fierce competitive bidding between publishers — including between his company and Penguin Random House — for the authors’ work, sometimes outstripping each other by millions of dollars for prominent writers. .
With his potential future boss, Penguin Random House Markus Dohle, among those looking in the courtroom, Karp rejected the Big Five moniker, calling it “narrow-minded and race-centric”.
“I think there are a lot of good publishers around the country. It’s not just about us,” Karp said.
For example, he said, nearly 100-year-old Simon & Schuster has endured fiercer competition recently from book publishing company Amazon.
But Justice Department prosecutor Jeff Vernon provided a letter Karp sent to John Irving, his favorite author, saying he did not believe the government would allow Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House to merge. “This is assuming we still have a Department of Justice,” Karp wrote in the letter.
At one point, the judge seemed to support a basic government argument – that greater focus in the industry could reduce the compensation paid to authors. Pan said that within two days of testimony, “there is a feeling that competition raises advance amounts” and that less competition reduces them.
King’s dissatisfaction with the proposed merger led to his voluntary testimony to the government.
“I came because I think consolidation is bad for competition,” King said. “The way the industry has developed, it has become difficult for writers to find the money to live.”
King expressed doubts about publishers’ commitment to continue competing for books separately and competitively after the merger.
“You might also say that you would have a husband and wife jostling for each other for the same house,” he said sarcastically. ‘ he said, gesturing by politely holding his arm.
King’s was entertaining and informative, though he didn’t have many details to say about how the merger might hurt best-selling authors, with the government’s case focused on those receiving advances of $250,000 or more. Attorney Daniel Petroselli, who represents the publishers, told King he had no questions for him, and objected to cross-examination, saying instead that he hoped they could have coffee together some time.
Long a fan favorite, King spoke warmly on Tuesday about “living the dream,” paying all the bills while working on something he loves. But the author of “The Stand”, “The Shining” and many others are wondering who might have the chances he did. Picked by the government not just for his fame, but for his public criticism of the $2.2 billion deal announced in late 2021, he likely constitutes what rival CEO Michael Beach of the Hachette Book Group has called a “significantly notable entity.”
“The more publishers are consolidated, the harder it is for independent publishers to survive,” King tweeted last year.
King’s affinity for small publishers is personal. Even while continuing to publish with Simon & Schuster’s Scribner, he wrote independent solid-state crime thrillers. Years ago, the publisher asked him to contribute to a blurb, but King instead offered to write a novel for them, “The Colorado Kid,” which came out in 2005. He also wrote a novel for other small businesses, saying that some of his work meant nothing. It has the kind of commercial power that the Big Five might expect.
King himself is likely to benefit from the Penguin Random House-Simon & Schuster deal, but he has a history of favoring priorities other than his material well-being. He has long been a critic of tax cuts for the rich, even though the “rich” certainly include Stephen King, and has publicly called on the government to raise his taxes.
“In America, we all have to pay our fair share,” he wrote for The Daily Beast in 2012.