under oath

Stephen King, ‘Freelance Writer,’ Testifies Against Book-Publishing Merger

Stephen King. Photo: Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

As expected, Stephen King knows a thing or two about The Stand. The author testified for the government today in the antitrust trial that will decide if two of the country’s biggest publishing houses can merge. King has been openly critical of Penguin Random House’s proposed $2.2 billion acquisition of his publisher, Simon & Schuster. After introducing himself as “Stephen King, a freelance writer,” the author was questioned for about 45 minutes by the Department of Justice’s attorney. “I came because I think consolidation is bad for competition,” he told the court, per journalist John Maher. “That’s my understanding of the book business, and I’ve been around it for 50 years.”

Penguin Random House, the largest publisher in the country, is itself the result of a 2013 merger between Penguin and Random House. The DOJ is arguing that allowing Simon & Schuster to also be absorbed would create a monopsony, which is when a single buyer substantially controls the market. The court claims fewer rivals for book rights would mean lower compensation for authors, especially those who earn advances of $250,000 or more for anticipated best sellers.

In his testimony, King contrasted the current publishing industry’s “Big Five” — Penguin Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan — with the competitive-bidding landscape from earlier in his career. Now that there are fewer publishers, he claimed that getting rights for books is less of a competition and more of what he described as an “‘After you.’ ‘No, after you’” situation. He added that new writers who get their start at independent publishers struggle to make a living with advances, referencing a 2018 study by the Authors Guild that put the median income of full-time authors at $20,300.

Penguin Random House has argued that the deal would actually increase competition because increased efficiency would let it pay its authors more. The publisher has also pledged that Simon & Schuster would be allowed to bid against other Penguin Random House imprints after the merger. (According to Deadline, the publisher already allows internal competition when an outside bidder is involved.) Still, the DOJ and its highest-profile witness aren’t buying this line of reasoning. “You might as well say you are going to have a husband and wife bidding against each other for a house,” King testified. “It’s a little bit ridiculous.”

Freelance Writer Stephen King Testifies in Antitrust Trial