The future of books in limbo as judge decides whether to give the nod to $2.2B publishing merger

August 22, 2022, 12:38 PM UTC
The Department of Justice's antitrust trial over the Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster merger came to a close Friday.
Sam Mellish—Getty Images

Let’s do a little Monday-morning math.

Jessica read 18 books last calendar year. Eleven of those titles were published by either Penguin Random House or Simon & Schuster. That means approximately 61% of the books Jessica read last year were printed by two publishers that happen to be trying to join forces as we speak. 

This is the exact issue that has had the publishing world—and the Department of Justice—all up in a tizzy. Two years ago, Penguin Random House’s parent company, Bertelsmann, announced its plans to scoop up one of the publisher’s top competitors for approximately $2.2 billion, in what would be one of the largest deals ever for the industry, creating a trade publisher with some $3 billion in annual revenue. The deal had initially been projected to close last year, but the DOJ challenged it—arguing that, as a result of the deal, PRH would have “outsized influence over who and what is published, and how much authors are paid for their work”. After all, the regulator argued that Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster would collectively control 49% of top-selling titles. 

All of this has been playing out very publicly the past three weeks as the relevant parties took it to court. The antitrust trial began the first day of this month and came to a close this past Friday after attorneys for both sides gave their closing arguments. The trial revealed some of the inner workings of a highly competitive, high jargon industry, and showcased some inside tellings of how titles such as Where the Crawdads Sing or The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up ended up—or didn’t—at two of the biggest hitters in the industry. As an Esquire reporter recently put it, the trial “spilled more industry tea than at the National Book Awards afterparty.”

Now it’s up to a federal judge to decide whether the deal will move forward or be struck down. And that decision could have enormous implications on the books we read.

The book industry is currently comprised of five major publishers (the “Big Five”) that dominate the business by a landslide: Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, Macmillan Publishers, and Simon & Schuster. After the mega-deal, that number would slide to four.

Industry insiders have argued that writers would get paid less by publishers and that less-popular or burgeoning authors would struggle to get attention doled out to top-performing peers. That could end up having an intimate effect on the variety, diversity, and ideas filling up the pages we read. 

As the professional writers organization, the Authors Guild, put in a statement back when the deal was announced: “Authors, even best-selling authors, wouldn’t have many options, making it harder to walk away. The history of publishing consolidation has also taught us that authors are further hurt by such mergers due to editorial layoffs, canceling of contracts, a reduction in diversity among authors and ideas, a more conservative approach to risk-taking, and fewer imprints under which an author may publish.” 

Earlier this month, It and The Shining author Stephen King testified on behalf of the government and said that it had become more challenging for authors without a track record to make money, as less publishing competition has shrunk advance payments. “It becomes tougher and tougher for writers to find enough money to live on,” King said.

Meanwhile, Penguin Random House says it will be able to operate more efficiently as a result of the deal—and therefore be able to offer more authors more money.

Interestingly, this whole debate is eerily reminiscent of the one had nine years ago—when Penguin and Random House were merging.

“Consolidation carries costs you won’t find on a price sticker,” wrote New York Magazine’s book editor Boris Kachka in an OpEd on the merger at the time, pointing out that dozens of independent firms had been folded into one conglomerate and that imprints were losing their unique flare. Kachka noted there were “fewer options for writers to get the kind of painstaking attention—from editors, marketers and publicists—that it takes to turn their manuscripts into something valuable.”

That was 2013, when the Big Six was becoming the Big Five.

And then there were four. Or I suppose the judge will decide that.

See you tomorrow,

Jessica Mathews
Twitter: @jessicakmathews
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