WASHINGTON (AP) – Stephen King did not take legal action at the booth on Tuesday when he testified against his own publisher’s efforts to merge with Penguin Random House. But he knew how to please a crowd and even get the judge to thank him for his time.
“It was a real pleasure to hear your testimony,” otherwise no-nonsense US District Judge Florence J. Pan told the author after he finished speaking as a government witness in a federal antitrust case against the Penguin Random House-Simon & Schuster merger. King’s longtime publisher.
The 74-year-old King had a haunting but gregarious appearance, his gaunt features accented by his gray suit and sneakers, and his timid gait, as he had been since he was hit by a van and seriously injured in 1999. But once sworn in there, he was relaxed and happy to talk and was always intent on telling a story.
“My name is Stephen King. I’m a freelance writer,” King said when asked to identify himself. The Justice Department is trying to persuade Pan that the proposed combination of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, two of the world’s largest publishers, would thwart competition and hurt the careers of some of the most popular authors — a status King like few others holds .
King’s remarkable career, with so many bestsellers that he could only give an estimate, has come amid waves of industry consolidation. As he noted in his remarks, there were dozens of publishers in New York when his seminal novel carriecame out in 1974, and he’s seen many of them either taken over by larger companies or put out of business.
Today, New York’s publishing industry is often a story of the so-called Big Five: Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins Publishing, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan. The publisher of carrie, Doubleday, is now owned by Penguin Random House. So did another former King publisher, Viking Press.
During the first two days, the lawyers from both sides presented remarkably contrasting views on the book industry. The Justice Department sees an increasingly limited market for bestsellers, with the Big Five dominating. Penguin Random House sees book publishing as dynamic and open to many, with limited impact from the proposed merger.
King’s appearance before the US District Court in Washington – highly unusual for an antitrust case – set a narrative on the evolution of book publishing towards the dominance of the Big Five companies. As prosecutor Mel Schwarz guided King through his story, beginning as a new unknown author in the 1970s, and his relationships with agents and publishers, King focused on a critique of the industry as it is today.
King answered Schwarz’s questions sharply, with a few moments of humor and brief beginnings of mild outrage, as he testified on day two of the trial, which is expected to last two to three weeks.
“The Big Five are pretty entrenched,” he said.
When questioned later, Jonathan Karp, CEO of Simon & Schuster, described a world of highly competitive bidding among publishers – including between his firm and Penguin Random House – for author’s works, sometimes exceeding each other by millions of dollars for high-profile authors.
With his potential future boss, Penguin Random House Markus Dohle, among the courtroom onlookers, Karp dismissed the “Big Five” moniker, calling it “ecclesiastical and ethnocentric.”
“I think there are a lot of good publishers across the country. It’s not just about us,” Karp said.
As an example, he said that nearly 100-year-old Simon & Schuster has recently faced more aggressive competition from Amazon’s book publishing business.
But Justice Department attorney Jeff Vernon brought up a message Karp sent to John Irving, his favorite author, saying he didn’t think the government would allow Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House to merge. “That assumes we still have a Justice Department,” Karp wrote in the message.
At one point, the judge appeared to support a key government argument — that greater concentration in the industry could reduce the compensation paid to authors. After two days of testimony, Pan said, “One feels that competition increases the level of advances” and less competition decreases them.
King’s displeasure with the proposed merger prompted him to volunteer to testify for the government.
“I came because I think consolidation is bad for competition,” King said. Of the way the industry has evolved, he said, “it’s getting harder and harder for writers to find money to live on.”
King expressed skepticism about the two publishers’ commitment to continue bidding separately and competitively on books after a merger.
“You might as well say that a man and a woman will bid against each other for the same house,” he joked. “It would be kind of very gentlemanly and kind of ‘after you’ and ‘after you’,” he said, gesturing with a polite arm movement.
King’s was entertaining and informative, although he had little specific to say about how the merger could hurt best-selling authors, with the government’s case focusing on those receiving advances of $250,000 or more. Attorney Daniel Petrocelli, representing the publishers, told King he had no questions for him and declined cross-examination. Instead, he hoped they could have coffee together sometime.
Long a crowd pleaser, King spoke warmly on Tuesday about “living the dream” of paying all the bills while working on something he loves. But the author of the booth, The glow and many others wonder who else could have the chances he had. He was chosen by the government not just for his fame, but for his public criticism of the $2.2 billion deal announced in late 2021, which potentially constitutes what rival Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch called ” gigantic prominent” company.
“As publishers consolidate, it becomes harder for indie publishers to survive,” King tweeted last year.
King’s affinity with smaller publishers is personal. While continuing to publish with the Simon & Schuster imprint Scribner, he has written thrillers for the independent Hard Case Crime. Years ago, the publisher asked him to contribute a blurb, but King offered to write a novel for them instead. The Colorado kidpublished in 2005. He has also written fiction for other small businesses, stating that some of his work does not have the kind of commercial clout that the Big Five might expect.
King himself would likely benefit from the Penguin Random House-Simon & Schuster deal, but he’s had priorities other than his material well-being in the past. He has long been a critic of tax cuts for the rich, though “the rich” certainly includes Stephen King, and openly calls on the government to raise its taxes.
“In America, we should all have to pay our fair share,” he wrote for The Daily Beast in 2012.