As the Justice Department tries to persuade a federal judge that the proposed merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster would harm the careers of some of the world’s most popular authors, it is relying in part on the testimony of a writer who has been more successful than few others: Stephen King.
As the author of “Carrie,” “The Shining,” and many other favorites, King has willingly – even eagerly – taken a stand against Simon & Schuster, his longtime publisher. 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 that will combine two of the world’s largest publishers into one company, which rival CEO Michael Pietsch will own described as “gigantically prominent” by the Hachette Book Group.
“As publishers consolidate, it becomes harder for indie publishers to survive,” King tweeted last year.
One of the few widely recognizable authors, known for his modest glasses and gaunt features, King is expected to take the witness stand Tuesday, the second day of a federal antitrust investigation expected in the last two to three weeks.
He may not have the business knowledge of Pietsch, the DOJ’s first Witness, but he’s been a published novelist for almost 50 years and knows exactly how much the industry has changed: some of his own former publishers have been taken over by larger corporations. “Carrie,” for example, was published by Doubleday, which merged with Knopf Publishing Group in 2009 and is now part of Penguin Random House. Another former King publisher, Viking Press, was a Penguin imprint that Penguin Random House joined after Random House merged in 2013.
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 instead offered to write a novel for them, The Colorado Kid, which was published in 2005.
“I was spinning a wheel inside me,” Charles Ardai, Hard Case co-founder, recalled the thought when King contacted him.
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, although “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.
On Monday, lawyers for both sides offered opposing views of the book industry. Prosecutor John Read cited a dangerously narrow market, strictly governed by the “Big Five” – Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins Publishing, Macmillan and Hachette – with little chance for small or startup publishers to break through.
Lawyer Daniel Petrocelli argued in defense that the industry is actually diverse, profitable and open to newcomers. Publishing means not only the Big Five, but also medium-sized companies such as WW Norton & Co. and Grove Atlantic. The merger, he claimed, would in no way upset the ambitions so many have for literary success.
“Every book begins as an expected bestseller in the gleam of an author’s or an editor’s eyes,” he said.