Stephen King testifies in favor of the government in the book merging trial

Washington (AFP) – Renowned author Stephen King cautiously stepped before the witness stand Tuesday in a federal antitrust trial. Tracing his own history, he painted a picture of a publishing industry that has become increasingly concentrated over the years while rewarded in abundance for his creative endeavors.

“My name is Stephen King. I am a freelance writer,” King said as he began his testimony as a witness for the US Department of Justice. The government is trying to persuade a federal judge that the proposed merger between Penguin Random House and rival Simon & Schuster, two of the world’s largest publishing houses, would thwart competition and detrimental to the professional careers of some of the most famous authors.

King has been published for years by Simon & Schuster. Some of his previous publishers were acquired by Akbar. The $2.2 billion merger of Penguin Random House, the largest US publisher, and the fourth-largest Simon & Schuster, will reduce the number of US “Big Five” publishers to four.

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.

Dressed in an all-gray suit, shoes and tie, King vividly answered 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.

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

“I came because I think merging is bad for competition,” King said. The way the industry developed, he said, “it became difficult for writers to find money to live on.”

“The Big Five are pretty well established,” he said.

King expressed doubts about publishers’ commitment to continue to compete for books separately and competitively after the merger.

“You might also say that you would have a husband and wife competing against each other for the same house,” he said sarcastically. “He’ll be kind of polite and nice after you, and after you,” said he, pointing with his hand politely combing.

In another surprising move, corporate attorney Daniel Petroselli told King he had no questions for him, and objected to cross-examination.

King has had around 60 bestsellers starting with his first book in 1974, and has thrived like few other writers.

The author of “Carrie”, “The Shining” and many other favorite books, King willingly – even eagerly – put himself in opposition to Simon & Schuster, his old publisher. He was not chosen by the government just for his fame, but for his public criticism of the $2.2 billion deal Announced in late 2021, it joins two of the world’s largest publishers in what rival CEO Michael Beach of the Hachette Book Group described as a “significantly outstanding entity.”

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

He may not have the commercial knowledge of Beech, 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 of his former publishers have been acquired by bigger companies. “Carrie,” for example, is published by Doubleday, which in 2009 merged with Knopf Publishing Group and is now part of Penguin Random House. King’s other former publisher, Viking Press, was a Penguin imprint that joined Penguin Random House when Penguin and Random House merged in 2013.

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.

Charles Arday, co-founder of Hard Case, remembered thinking when King called him: “Inside I was turning the wagon wheels.”

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, although the “rich” certainly include Stephen King, and he 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.

On Monday, lawyers for the two sides offered opposing views on the book industry. Government prosecutor John Reed invoked a dangerously narrow market, tightly governed by the Big Five – Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins Publishing, Macmillan and Hachette – with little chance for smaller or emerging publishers to penetrate it.

Petrucelli argued for the defense that the industry was in fact diversified, profitable, and open to newcomers. He emphasized that publishing means not only the Big Five, but also medium-sized companies such as WW Norton & Co. and Grove Atlantic. He claimed that the merger would not upend the writers’ ambitions for literary success.

“Every book begins as a bestseller in the eye of the author or editor,” he said.

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