Stephen King Testifies Before Government in Book Merger Trial

WASHINGTON — Stephen King broke no legal ground on Tuesday when he testified against his own publisher’s attempts to merge with Penguin Random House. But he managed to please a crowd and even get the judge to thank him for his time.

“It was a pleasure to hear your testimony,” otherwise corporate 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 Penguin Random House and Simon merger. & Schuster, King’s longtime publisher.

The 74-year-old King had an eerie but sociable presence, his skinny features accentuated by his gray suit and gray sneakers, his gait hesitant, as it has been since he was hit by a van in 1999 and badly injured. But once sworn in, he was relaxed and happy to talk, and always attentive to 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 attempting to convince 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 stature King has like few others.

King’s remarkable career, with so many bestsellers that he could only give an estimate, came amid waves of consolidation in the industry. As he noted in his comments, there were dozens of publishers in New York when his seminal novel, “Carrie,” came out in 1974, and he has seen many of them either taken over by larger companies or forced to disappear.

Now the New York publication 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 part of Penguin Random House, as is another former King publisher, Viking Press.

For the first two days, lawyers from both sides presented remarkably different views on the book industry. The Justice Department sees an increasingly limited market for bestsellers, with the Big Five leading the way. The Penguin Random House side sees book publishing as dynamic and open to many, with the proposed merger having a limited impact.

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King’s appearance in US court in Washington — highly unusual for an antitrust lawsuit — set a narrative on the evolution of book publishing toward the dominance of the Big Five companies. As government attorney Mel Schwarz guided King through its history, starting as a new, unknown author in the 1970s and his relationships with agents and publishers, King began to criticize the industry as it is today.

King answered Schwarz’s questions sharply, with some moments of humor and brief flashes of soft indignation, as he testified during the second day of the trial, which is expected to last two to three weeks.

“The Big Five are quite entrenched,” he said.

Under questioning later in the day, Simon Jonathan Karp, CEO of & Schuster, outlined a world of fiercely competitive bidding between publishers — including between his company and Penguin Random House — for authors’ work, sometimes beating each other by millions of dollars for high-profile writers.

With his possible future boss, Penguin Random House Markus Dohle, among those watching in court, Karp dismissed the Big Five name, calling it “parochial and ethnocentric.”

“I think there are a lot of good publishers all over the country. It’s not just about us,” said Karp.

As an example, he said the almost 100-year-old Simon & Schuster has recently faced more aggressive competition from Amazon’s book publishing company.

But Justice Department attorney Jeff Vernon put forward a message Karp sent to John Irving, his favorite author, saying he didn’t think the Simon government was & Schuster and Penguin Random House to merge. “That’s assuming we still have a Justice Department,” Karp wrote in the post.

At one point, the judge seemed to support a core government argument — that greater industry concentration could reduce the fee paid to authors. After two days of testimony, Pan said, “there is a sense that competition is increasing the amounts of advances” and that less competition is decreasing them.

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King’s displeasure with the proposed merger led him to voluntarily testify before the government.

“I came because I think consolidation is bad for the competition,” King said. The way the industry has evolved, he said, “is getting harder and harder for writers to find money to live on.”

King expressed skepticism about the two publishers’ commitment to continue bidding on books separately and competitively after a merger.

“You might as well say your husband and wife are bidding against each other for the same house,” he joked. ‘ he said, gesturing with a polite wave of the arm.

King’s was entertaining and informative, though he had little to say specifically about how the merger could harm bestselling authors, with the government’s case centering on those receiving advances of $250,000 or more. Attorney Daniel Petrocelli, who represents the publishers, told King he had no questions for him and resisted cross-examination, instead saying he hoped they could have coffee together for a while.

A long-time crowd favorite, King spoke heartily on Tuesday about “living the dream,” paying all the bills while working on something he loves. But the author of ‘The Stand’, ‘The Shining’ and many others wonders who else has the chances he did. He was elected by the government not only for his fame, but for his public criticism of the $2.2 billion deal announced in late 2021, which could potentially make him a “hugely prominent” entity, which rival CEO Michael Pietsch of Hachette Book Group has mentioned.

“The more publishers consolidate, the harder it is for indie publishers to survive,” King tweeted last year.

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King’s affinity with smaller publishers is personal. Even while you keep publishing 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 instead offered to write a novel for them, “The Colorado Kid,” released in 2005. He has also written fiction for other minor companies, and says some of his work doesn’t have the kind of commercial strength the Big Five would expect.

King himself would probably benefit from the Penguin Random House-Simon & Schuster deal, but he has a history of favoring priorities other than his material well-being. He has long been a critic of tax cuts for the rich, even though “the rich” certainly includes Stephen King, and has openly called on the government to raise its taxes.

“In America we should all pay our fair share,” he wrote in 2012 for The Daily Beast.

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