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Stephen King takes stand for feds in antitrust trial over publishing merger

The bestselling author testified in support of the Justice Department's bid to block Penguin Random House from acquiring his publisher Simon & Schuster, saying the merger would be bad for the industry.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Testifying against his own book publisher, bestselling author Stephen King said Tuesday that it would stifle competition if Simon & Schuster is allowed to merge with its biggest rival, Penguin Random House.

The Justice Department’s star witness in its antitrust case seeking to block the $2.175 billion dollar deal told U.S. District Judge Florence Pan that he came to the Washington, D.C., federal courthouse to testify voluntarily because he thinks “consolidation is bad for competition.”

"That's my understanding of the book business and I've been around it for 50 years,” King said.

The bespectacled author wore a gray suit and testified before a packed courtroom, recounting his early book deals in the 1970s and ‘80s for bestsellers like “Carrie,” “The Shining,” and “Pet Sematary.”

“When I started in this business, there were literally hundreds of imprints and some of them were run by people who had extremely idiosyncratic tastes,” he said. “And those businesses, one by one, were either subsumed by other publishers or they went out of business.”

He added that “it becomes tougher and tougher for writers to find enough money to live on.”

With Penguin Random House as the top publisher in the U.S. and Simon & Schuster ranking fourth, a merger would give them “control of close to half the market for acquiring publishing rights to anticipated top-selling books, leaving hundreds of individual authors with fewer options and less leverage,” according to the Justice Department.

As the 74-year-old King tells it, loyalty and financial success from book advances as an up-and-coming author for his early works from then-independent publishers, including Double Day and Viking Press, played a part in his “willingness” to keep going with smaller publishers.

With rent paid, as well as college tuition for his children, King said he could “afford to do it.”

“There comes a point where – if you’re very, very fortunate – you’re able to stop following your bank account and start following your heart,” he said. “And that’s what I did, and it was wonderful, it was great ... to be able to do that.”

He then brought up a 2018 Authors Guild survey, which said full-time writers make an average of $6,080, which was below the $12,140 median income poverty line at the time.

“[It] stuck in my mind,” he said, adding that the “more companies there are … the better it is.”

“Artists are the artisans and the publishers ... take items on consignment and if they're able to sell them they're able to buy more from that particular artisan,” he said. “But the shops have closed, there are fewer and fewer.”

King also noted that Doubleday and Viking Press have since been acquired by Penguin Random House.

He discussed his son, Joe King, who wrote his graphic novel “Locke and Key” under a pen name and published it through IDW Publisher, which is not part of the so-called Big Five publishing companies that control the lion’s share of the literary publishing industry.

“Those publishers, the indies, who look at work like my son's work – who are new writers, who don't have a reputation ... those writers go to the independent book dealers,” he said. “And there are fewer and fewer of them.”

Independent book dealers, he said, are being squeezed out of bookstores because major book dealers – with deeper pockets and larger distribution networks – are taking “a lot of that shelf space up.”

“That’s where the minors learn,” he said. “And they step up to the Big Five ... which I think would become the Big Four if this deal goes though.”

King also rejected the idea that literary agents can take steps to keep competition the same if the merger goes through, which he said Is not a “viable” position.

“Let’s say if you’re an agent and your specialty is baseball teams, you have something like 32 different teams you could negotiate with – but when it comes to big publishers, there are five,” he said.

The promise of his own publisher, Simon & Schuster, to allow its agents to keep bidding under the merger, King said, “is a little bit ridiculous if you really think about it."

“You might as well say you’re going to have a husband and wife bidding against each other for the same house,” he said.

The trial, which is expected to last a few weeks, comes amid calls for stricter antitrust law enforcement and after the Justice Department’s 2019 failed attempt to prove – in the same federal court – that a $40.4 billion deal between major media conglomerates AT&T and WarnerMedia would stifle competition.

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