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One of the largest antitrust trials ever to hit the publishing industry is unfolding in a federal courthouse in Washington. The Department of Justice says that the proposed merger announced in 2020 between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster would stifle competition.
But what would a successful merger mean on a practical level for booksellers, authors and others in the industry?
Saira Rao, an author in Richmond, Va., has been watching the case closely. Even though Penguin Random House is her publisher, she said she welcomes the government’s pushback against the behemoth’s attempt to grow even bigger. Rao said it’s sending a message about the need for more diversity in the publishing industry, which has traditionally excluded writers of color like herself, and which has made her books harder to sell.
“I have a white agent. The editors of our books are white. The heads of the marketing are white,” said Rao, who is South Asian American. “It’s white, white, white, white, white.”
A study, released in 2020 by major children’s book publisher Lee & Low Books in collaboration with Boston University, says 76% of people in the industry identify as white (down from 79% the last time the company conducted its survey in 2015).
Authors Guild President Douglas Preston said reduced competition will likely make the sector even less diverse, and that’s bad not just for authors, but also for readers.
“The readers are served by a maximum diversity of authors and voices, especially authors from overlooked communities,” Preston said. “These are authors who don’t make a lot of money, but who have very important things to say.”
A spokesman for Penguin Random House said in a statement it was “committed to fostering diversity and providing BIPOC opportunities across the literary world, from editors to authors.” And that after the merger, this would continue.
Simon & Schuster said something similar in an emailed statement from a spokesperson: “Simon & Schuster is committed to working with our employees, authors and the publishing community to make our company and our industry a safe and inclusive environment for all.” He said that the company, merger or not, would continue “working toward being a publisher whose books and staff represent the breadth and depth of our diverse population.”
Authors Guild president Preston, who said some of his own books have been published by Simon & Schuster, added that author advances are also likely to take a hit with more consolidation.
“The few publishers there are bidding against each other for an author’s work, the lower the advance,” Preston said. “It’s economics 101.”
But Penguin Random House contends the merger would increase author advances. The pre-trial brief, shared with NPR, stated: “This is a pro-consumer acquisition that will allow Simon & Schuster and its editors and authors to become part of PRH with its industry-leading supply chain, giving readers and book sellers across the world greater access to their books. It will also enhance competition by enabling the combined company to offer increased advances and marketing support to authors. Competition will increase — not decrease — as a result of these investments.”
A spokesperson for Penguin Random House said the company could not share data on author advances since the last major publishing industry merger occurred between Random House and Penguin in 2013, owing to legal constraints.
A spokesperson for Simon & Schuster said the company could not discuss author advances because they were at issue in the trial.
Some industry insiders agree with the publishers that the potential union of two of the five biggest publishing houses in the country does not pose a threat to a robust sector that puts out a million titles a year.
“I don’t see this as anything other than a blip in terms of the ability of the book publishing industry to meet the needs of readers,” said Brian O’Leary, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, which provides supply chain research for around two hundred publishing industry members — including Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster.
O’Leary said even if the judge rules in favor of the merger, book lovers still benefit from the hundreds of thousands of titles released each year by thousands of independent publishers.
“There are plenty of outlets for writers and not just in the US market, but worldwide,” O’Leary said.
But like other critics of the acquisition, Josiah Luis Alderete, co-owner of Medicine for Nightmares, an independent bookstore in San Francisco which stocks books by both indie presses and the Big Five publishing houses, said consolidation will reduce all kinds of diversity and provide fewer opportunities for writers.
“It worries me,” Alderete said. “It’s gonna be a lot less people deciding what’s what.”
But he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the merger goes through anyway.
“This is America,” Alderete said. “Money talks.”