Stephen King testifies for government in book merger trial

Stephen King broke no legal ground on the stand Tuesday when he testified against his own publisher’s efforts to merge with Penguin Random House. But he did know how to please a crowd and even get the judge to thank him for his time.

“It was a real pleasure hearing your testimony,” US District Judge Florence J. Pan, otherwise behaving like a businessman, told the author after he finished speaking as a government witness in a federal antitrust lawsuit. against the merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. King’s longtime editor.

King, 74, had an eerie but gregarious presence, his gaunt features accentuated by his gray suit and gray sneakers, his gait unsteady, as he has been since he was hit by a pickup truck and critically injured in 1999. But once he swore in, he was relaxed and happy to talk, and always on the alert on how to tell a story,

“My name is Stephen King. I’m a freelance writer,” King said when asked to identify himself. The Justice Department is trying to convince Pan that the proposed combination of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, two of the world’s largest publishers, would thwart competition and damage the careers of some of the most popular authors, a status that King has like few. .

King’s remarkable career, with so many bestsellers that he could only offer an estimate, came amid waves of consolidation in the industry. As he pointed out in his comments, there were dozens of publishers in New York when his groundbreaking novel “Carrie” was published in 1974, and he has seen many of them taken over by larger companies or forced out of business.

Now, New York publishing is often a story of the so-called Big Five: Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins Publishing, Hachette Book Group and Macmillan. “Carrie” publisher Doubleday is now part of Penguin Random House. So is another former King publisher, Viking Press.

During the first two days, lawyers from the two sides have presented remarkably contrasting views of the book industry. The Justice Department sees a shrinking market for bestsellers, with the Big Five in command. The Penguin Random House side sees book publishing as dynamic and open to many, and the proposed merger has limited impact.

King’s appearance in the US District Court in Washington, highly unusual for an antitrust trial, brought a narrative of book publishing’s evolution toward Big Five dominance. As government attorney Mel Schwarz guided King through the story of him starting out as a new and unknown author in the 1970s and his relationships with agents and publishers, King focused on a critique of the industry such as is now.

King responded forcefully to Schwarz’s questions, with some moments of humor and brief flashes of mild indignation, as he testified during the second day of the trial that is expected to last two to three weeks.

“The Big Five are pretty entrenched,” he said.

When questioned later that day, Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp detailed a world of fiercely competitive bidding between publishers, including between his firm and Penguin Random House, for authors’ works, sometimes outbid each other. yes for millions of dollars for high profile writers. .

With his possible future boss, Penguin Random House Markus Dohle, among those present in the courtroom, Karp rejected the Big Five moniker, calling it “parochial and ethnocentric.”

“I think there are a lot of good publishers across the country. It’s not just about us,” Karp said.

As an example, he said that nearly 100-year-old Simon & Schuster has recently endured more aggressive competition from Amazon’s book publishing business.

But Justice Department attorney Jeff Vernon presented a message Karp had sent to John Irving, his favorite author, saying he didn’t think the government would allow Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House to merge. “That’s assuming we still have a Justice Department,” Karp wrote in the message.

At one point, the judge appeared to endorse a central government argument: that further concentration in the industry could reduce the compensation paid to perpetrators. Through two days of testimony, Pan said, “there is a feeling that competition increases advance amounts” and less competition reduces them.

King’s discontent with the proposed merger led him to voluntarily testify for the government.

“I came here because I think consolidation is bad for competition,” King said. The way the industry has evolved, he said, “it becomes more and more difficult for writers to find money to live on.”

King expressed skepticism about the two publishers’ commitment to continue to bid for books separately and competitively after a merger.

“You could also say you’re going to have a husband and wife competing with each other for the same house,” she joked. ‘” she said, gesturing with a polite wave of her arm.

King’s was entertaining and informative, though it had nothing specific to say about how the merger might hurt best-selling authors, and the government’s case focused on those who received advances of $250,000 or more. Attorney Daniel Petrocelli, who represents the publishers, told King he had no questions for him and demurred under cross-examination, saying he hoped they could have coffee together at some point.

King has long been a crowd favorite and spoke warmly Tuesday of “living the dream,” paying all the bills while working on something he loves. But the author of “The Stand,” “The Shining” and many others wonder who else could have the opportunities he did. He was chosen by the government not just for his fame, but for his public criticism of the $2.2 billion deal announced in late 2021, which could form what rival CEO Michael Pietsch of Hachette Book Group has called a “gigantically prominent” entity.

“The more publishers consolidate, the harder it will be for independent publishers to survive,” King tweeted last year.

King’s affinity for smaller publishers is personal. Even as he continues to publish with Simon & Schuster’s Scribner imprint, he has written thrillers for the independent Hard Case Crime. Years ago, the publisher asked him to contribute a publicity note, but King offered to write a novel for them, “The Colorado Kid,” published in 2005. He has also written fiction for other small businesses, saying some of his work no I don’t have the kind of business power the Big Five might expect.

King himself would likely benefit from the Penguin Random House-Simon & Schuster deal, but he has a history of favoring other priorities beyond his material well-being. He has long been a critic of tax cuts for the rich, even as “the rich” surely includes Stephen King, and has openly called on the government to raise taxes on him.

“In America, we should all have to pay our fair share,” he wrote for The Daily Beast in 2012.

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