WASHINGTON (AP) — Stephen King broke no legal ground on the stand Tuesday as he testified against his own publisher’s efforts to merge with Penguin Random House. But he knew how to please a crowd and even make the judge thank him for his time.
“It was a real pleasure to hear your testimony,” the otherwise businesslike U.S. District Judge Florence J. Pan told the author after he finished speaking as a government witness in a federal antitrust suit against the merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. King’s longtime publisher.
The 74-year-old King had a haunted but unusual presence, his gaunt features accentuated by his gray suit and gray sneakers, his walk tentative, as it had been since he was hit by a truck and seriously injured in 1999. But he once vowed inside, he was relaxed and happy to talk and always on the alert how to tell a story,
“My name is Stephen King. I’m a freelance writer,” King said when asked to identify himself. The Justice Department is offering to convince Pan that the proposed combination of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, two of the world’s largest publishers, would stifle competition and hurt the careers of some of the most popular authors—a position he holds King like few others.
King’s remarkable career, with so many bestsellers he could only offer an estimate, came amid waves of consolidation in the industry. As he noted in his remarks, there were dozens of publishers in New York when his breakthrough novel, “Carrie,” was published in 1974, and he has seen many of them either bought out by larger companies or forced out of business.
Now, New York publishing is often a story of the so-called Big Five: Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins Publishing, Hachette Book Group and Macmillan. “Carrie’s” publisher, Doubleday, is now part of Penguin Random House, as is another former King publisher, Viking Press.
In the first two days, lawyers on both sides presented sharply contrasting views on the book industry. The Justice Department sees an increasingly limited market for bestsellers, with the Big Five in good command. The Penguin Random House side sees book publishing as dynamic and open to many, with the proposed merger having limited impact.
King’s appearance in US District Court in Washington – highly unusual for an antitrust trial – brought out a narrative of book publishing’s evolution towards the dominance of the Big Five. As government attorney Mel Schwarz walked King through his story starting out as a young, unknown writer in the 1970s and his relationships with agents and publishers, King criticized the industry as it is now.
King answered Schwartz’s questions bluntly, with a few moments of humor and brief flashes of mild anger, as he testified during the second day of a trial expected to last two to three weeks.
“The Big Five are pretty established,” he said.
Under questioning later in the day, Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp described a world of fiercely competitive bidding between publishers — including his company and Penguin Random House — for authors’ works, sometimes outbidding each other. another by millions of dollars for high profile writers. .
With his likely future boss, Penguin Random House’s Markus Dohle, among those looking on in the courtroom, Karp dismissed the Big Five moniker, calling it “parochial and ethnocentric.”
“I think there are a lot of good publishers around the country. It’s not all about us,” Karp said.
As an example, he said the nearly 100-year-old Simon & Schuster has recently endured more aggressive competition from Amazon’s book publishing business.
But Justice Department lawyer Jeff Vernon produced a message Karp had sent to John Irving, his favorite author, saying he didn’t think the government would allow a merger between Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House. “That’s assuming 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 industry concentration could reduce the compensation paid to authors. Through two days of filing, Pan said, “there’s a sense that competition is driving up advance amounts” and less competition is driving them down.
King’s displeasure with the proposed merger led him to voluntarily testify for the government.
“I came here because I think consolidation is bad for competition,” King said. The way the industry has evolved, he said, “it’s becoming harder and harder for writers to make a living.”
King expressed skepticism about the two publishers’ commitment to continue bidding on books separately and competitively after a merger.
“You might as well say you’re going to have a husband and wife bidding against each other on the same house,” he quipped. he said, gesturing with a polite sweep of the hand.
King’s was entertaining and informative, though he didn’t have much concrete to say about how the merger might hurt best-selling authors, with the government’s case focusing on those who receive advances of $250,000 or more. Attorney Daniel Petrocelli, representing the publishers, told King he had no questions for him and declined cross-examination, saying he hoped they could have coffee together sometime.
King has long been a crowd favorite and spoke passionately Tuesday about “living the dream,” paying all the bills while working at something he loves. But the author of “The Stand,” “The Shining” and many others wonders who else might have the odds he did. He was chosen by the government not just for his reputation, but for his public criticism of the $2.2 billion deal announced in late 2021, potentially forming what rival CEO Michael Pietsch of Hachette Book Group has called a “giant prominent” entity.
“The more publishers consolidate, the harder it is for indie publishers to survive,” King wrote last year.
King’s affinity for smaller publishers is personal. Even while continuing to publish with the Simon & Schuster imprint Scribner, he has written thrillers for the independent Hard Case Crime. Years ago, his publisher asked him to contribute a synopsis, but King instead offered to write a novel, “The Colorado Kid,” which came out in 2005. He has also written novels about other small companies, saying that some of his works don’t have the kind of commercial power that the Big Five would expect.
King himself will likely benefit from the Penguin Random House-Simon & Schuster deal, but he has a history of favoring other priorities than his material well-being. He has long been a critic of tax cuts for the rich, even when “rich” certainly includes Stephen King, and has openly 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.