Stephen King testifies for government in book merger trial

WASHINGTON (AP) — Best-selling author Stephen King cautiously took the witness stand Tuesday in a federal antitrust lawsuit.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Best-selling author Stephen King gingerly took the witness stand Tuesday in a federal antitrust lawsuit. Tracing his own history, he portrayed a publishing industry that has become increasingly focused over the years while richly rewarding its creative efforts.

“My name is Stephen King. I’m a freelance writer,” King said as he began his testimony as a witness for the US Department of Justice. The government is trying to convince a federal judge that the proposed merger of Penguin Random House and its rival Simon & Schuster, two of the world’s largest publishers, would hinder competition and hurt the careers of some of the most popular authors.

King has been published for years by Simon & Schuster. Some of its former publishers have been taken over by larger ones. The $2.2 billion merger of Penguin Random House, the largest US publisher, and fourth-largest Simon & Schuster would reduce the “Big Five” of US publishers to four.

King’s appearance in the United States District Court in Washington – highly unusual for an antitrust lawsuit – provided an account of the evolution of book publishing towards Big Five dominance. As government attorney Mel Schwarz walked King through his story beginning as an unknown new author in the 1970s and his dealings with agents and publishers, King focused on a critique of the industry as it is today.

Dressed in gray – a suit, shoes and tie – King answered Schwarz’s questions sharply, with a few moments of humor and brief flashes of mild indignation, as he testified during the second day of the trial which should last two to three weeks.

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

“I came because I think consolidation is bad for competition,” King said. The way the industry has evolved, he said, “It’s getting harder and harder for writers to find money to live on.”

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

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

“You might as well say you’re going to have a husband and wife bidding against each other for the same house,” he joked. “It would kind of be very gentlemanly and kind of after you, and after you,” he said. , gesturing with a polite gesture of the arm.

In another surprising move, attorney Daniel Petrocelli representing the companies told King he had no questions for him and objected to cross-examination.

With around 60 bestsellers from his first book in 1974, King flourished like few other writers.

Author of “Carrie”, “The Shining” and many other favorites, King willingly, even impatiently, opposed Simon & Schuster, his longtime publisher. He was not chosen by the government solely for his fame, but for his public criticism of the $2.2 billion deal announced in late 2021, joining two of the world’s largest publishers in what rival CEO Michael Pietsch of Hachette Book Group called a “gigantic” entity.

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

He may not have the business knowledge of Pietsch, the Justice Department’s first witness on Monday, but he’s been a published novelist for nearly 50 years and knows well how much the industry has changed as some former publishers were acquired by larger companies. “Carrie,” for example, was published by Doubleday, which in 2009 merged with Knopf Publishing Group and is now part of Penguin Random House. Another former King publisher, Viking Press, was a Penguin brand that joined Penguin Random House when Penguin and Random House merged in 2013.

King’s affinity for small publishers is personal. While continuing to publish with Scribner, publisher Simon & Schuster, he wrote thrillers for the independent Hard Case Crime. Years ago, the publisher asked him to contribute a blurb, but King instead offered to write a novel for them, “The Colorado Kid,” released in 2005.

“Inside, I was doing cartwheels,” Hard Case co-founder Charles Ardai recalled thinking when King contacted him.

King himself would likely benefit from the Penguin Random House-Simon & Schuster deal, but he’s used to prioritizing other priorities beyond his material well-being. He has long been critical of tax cuts for the rich, even though “the rich” surely include Stephen King, and has openly called on the government to raise taxes.

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

On Monday, lawyers for both sides offered contrasting views on the book industry. Government lawyer John Read cited a dangerously thin market, narrowly led by the Big Five – Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins Publishing, Macmillan and Hachette – with smaller or start-up publishers unlikely to break through .

Petrocelli argued for the defense that the industry was in fact diverse, profitable and open to new entrants. Publishing doesn’t just mean the Big Five, he argued, but also mid-sized companies such as WW Norton & Co. and Grove Atlantic. He argued that the merger would not upset the writers’ ambitions for literary success.

“Every book begins as an expected bestseller in the glint of an author’s or publisher’s eye,” he said.

Hillel Italy and Marcy Gordon, The Associated Press

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