Op-Ed: How an antitrust trial could reshape the books we read — and who writes them

A shopper browses among the narrow rows of books
Shoppers browse among narrow rows of books at The Book Loft of German Village in Columbus, Ohio. (Jonathan Elderfield / Associated Press)
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The outcome of an antitrust trial currently underway in Washington could reshape the kind of books Americans read — and who writes them.

Last November, the Department of Justice sued to stop the proposed merger of two of the country’s largest publishers, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. At the time, U.S. Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland said: “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 consolidated company, according to Garland, would control half the market for top-selling books.

The Authors Guild, America’s oldest and largest association of published writers, opposes this merger. As we argued to the Justice Department in January 2021 — a position it adopted in its complaint — less competition in the industry, particularly allowing one publishing house to dominate all others, will be bad for authors and readers in general, and it could harm the free flow of ideas in our democracy.

Agents seeking a publisher for a book by one of their authors, especially those with commercial or other potential, often offer the manuscript up for auction to publishing houses, which bid against each other to acquire the right to publish it. When I first entered the publishing world 30 years ago, an auction might attract bidding from eight or nine major publishers.

Over the years, consolidation and mergers have reduced the pool of dominant bidders to five — known to insiders as “the Big Five.” The merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster would not only reduce that to four, it would create a company larger than the other three publishers in the Big Five combined. This could lead to further mergers, as publishing houses consolidate in reaction to their growing competitors in a kind of self-reinforcing cycle.

Fewer bidders for books, and fewer books that attract more than one bid, will likely drive down advances for authors. As Macmillan Chief Executive Don Weisberg testified: “Less competition is going to change the dynamic. Two of the major players becoming one — the prices, the advances, the type of competition at the auctions — I think it’ll have impact across the board.”

As an example, an author advance of $250,000 or more — which is higher than the majority of advances offered — often represents the total compensation for a book that took several years to write and usually has to cover the writer’s research, travel costs and other expenses. The Justice Department's attorney asserted in his opening statement that testimony would show the average advance for top-selling authors would go down $40,000 to $100,000 should the merger go through. As bestselling writer Stephen King pointed out in his testimony, book authors have already experienced severe declines in writing income, partly due to fewer publishers bidding for books.

But what should concern all Americans — not just authors — is the potential harm the merger might do to diversity in the marketplace of ideas. Fewer publishers would mean fewer voices — including marginalized voices — being published. It means a reduction in political and cultural viewpoints, which especially can have an impact on authors with unusual, unpopular or controversial ideas, whose books tend to be more of a financial risk for publishers.

As Ayesha Pande, a literary agent, testified at the trial: “Overall, I think it will limit the choice and number of editors and imprints and publishing houses that would be a good home for my clients.” She added the situation would be particularly challenging for her clients as her agency works mostly with writers of color and other underrepresented voices.

The book industry publishes vastly more books written by white authors than it does by authors of color. (The industry also has far more white employees than people of color.) A merger that is likely to slow progress in improving these disparities is a problem beyond the reduction of how much an author gets paid.

The possible merger also comes at a particularly perilous time for free speech. Books and ideas are under attack as never before, with book bans and self-censoring happening in many quarters. Fewer books is never good for the proliferation and discussion of ideas; reducing the amount that is published at a time when the freedom to choose what to read is already under threat seems likely to make a bad situation worse.

The history of publishing in America is the story of hundreds of scrappy publishers vying to get books of all kinds out to the reading public. The Big Five are already too few. When will this consolidation end? With the Big One? A diversity of ideas, voices and opinions are best served by a diversity of publishers — let’s hope the judge hearing this case rules accordingly.

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

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.