The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Justice Department’s move to block a major publishing merger supports authors — and the marketplace of ideas

STOCK PHOTO: A sign outside a bookstore reads BOOKS. (iStock)

Douglas Preston, an author of fiction and nonfiction books, is president of the Authors Guild.

In its latest antitrust action, the Justice Department sued last week to block the merger between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. In its complaint, Justice focused on the harm the merger would do to authors, writing: “Authors are the lifeblood of book publishing. Without authors, there would be no stories; no poetry; no biographies; no written discourse on history, arts, culture, society, or politics.”

As president of the Authors Guild, the nation’s oldest and largest association of authors, all I can say is: Amen.

Since the 1970s, authors have watched with alarm as corporate consolidation reduced the number of major publishing houses. The 2013 merger between Penguin and Random House created the country’s largest publisher (outside of Amazon) and cut the number of big traditional publishers to five — the Big Five. The merger of Penguin Random House with Simon & Schuster, the country’s third-largest publisher, would have reduced this to the Big Four — leaving only two publishers controlling more than two-thirds of the anticipated top-selling book market. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said that “If the world’s largest book publisher is permitted to acquire one of its biggest rivals, it will have unprecedented control over this important industry.”

The Authors Guild has always championed maximal diversity in books and ideas, and our membership includes authors in every conceivable genre. We stand for a literary ecosystem that supports writers from all communities, especially underserved ones; encourages authors with unusual or controversial ideas; and creates space for experimentation in literary forms. But this ecosystem depends on one thing: the ability of authors to earn a living from selling their work in the marketplace. This is exactly what consolidation among publishing houses threatens.

Fewer publishers mean less competition for an author’s work, and thus a lower advance. If authors can’t make enough money to support themselves during the years it takes to write a book, they’ll earn a living elsewhere, and those books won’t be written. This form of economic censorship deprives the public of potentially important works and ideas. It silences, in particular, voices from impoverished and marginalized communities — voices we absolutely need to hear. It hurts debut authors, who are struggling to connect with an audience. It affects literary authors, journalists, biographers, historians, poets, children’s authors and others whose books may not make a lot of money. Corporate consolidation encourages a publishing culture that eschews risk and chases after sure-fire megasellers and celebrity authors, at the expense of taking chances with smaller books and lesser-known writers.

Consolidation also affects editors. “I was at Viking when it was taken over by Penguin. They fired dozens of editors — including mine. I was at Harper & Row in 1989 after it was acquired by News Corporation and then became HarperCollins. They fired my editor,” a member wrote to me. “Your editor is the one person who has invested in you and when s/he is gone you are set professionally adrift. Your work is not promoted, which means your sales figures drop, which means that the next house views you as a poor earner, which means your advance is smaller. These shifts cause permanent damage to a career.”

The Justice Department lawsuit is a turning point because it finally recognizes that monopsonies — where there is a single dominant buyer (as opposed to seller) — can pose as much danger as monopolies. They do so in this case by reducing the number of potential buyers of an author’s work, thus stifling competition, which in the end harms the vigorous and free exchange of ideas through books.

Blocking this merger, however, is only the beginning. In the final paragraph of a letter we sent in January to the Justice Department, we pointed to the elephant in the room: Amazon. The merger was partly a reaction to Amazon’s immense concentration of power in the publishing industry, especially in bookselling. [Amazon founder Jeff Bezos own The Post.]

Amazon has a long history of extracting bigger margins and higher marketing fees from publishers with the threat of slowing or stopping sales of their books. Publishers who cave to Amazon — and they must, given that Amazon controls 80 percent of the e-books market, a significant portion of the audio market and far more than half of all print books sold in the United States — make up the shortfall by paying authors less.

Now that Justice is recognizing that authors are harmed when there are fewer big publishers, the next logical step is to recognize that authors are similarly harmed when Amazon uses its market dominance to extract ever more money from the publishing ecosystem.

It’s worth pointing out that the steady consolidation of publishing houses, like Amazon’s anticompetitive practices, are taking place not in the oil or telephone markets, but in the marketplace of ideas. That alone should be of concern to the Justice Department — and to every American.

Loading...