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Authors worry about the proposed merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster

ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:

One of the largest antitrust trials ever to hit the publishing industry is unfolding in a federal courthouse in Washington, D.C. The Department of Justice says that a merger between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster would stifle competition. NPR's Chloe Veltman looked into what that would mean for booksellers, authors and others if the government does not stop the merger from going ahead.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: The corporate case might not have attracted so much attention if it weren't for Stephen King's appearance as the government's star witness. The author took the stand recently to speak out against the proposed $2.2 billion deal announced two years ago.

SAIRA RAO: Good on Stephen King for going up there.

VELTMAN: That's Saira Rao. She's an author based in Richmond, Va. Rao says she welcomes the government's pushback against the merger because celebrity writers like King aren't the ones who are really going to suffer if this deal goes through. It would affect people like Rao, who is South Asian American. Penguin Random House is her publisher. But she says selling her books has been tough because of the publishing industry's overwhelming lack of diversity.

RAO: I have a white agent. The editors of our books are white. The heads of the marketing are white. It's white, white, white, white, white.

VELTMAN: A study released in 2020 by major children's book publisher Lee & Low Books says three-quarters of people in the industry identify as white. A spokesperson for Penguin Random House says the company is committed to fostering diversity and will continue to invest in titles by authors who are people of color and to recruit and retain diverse editors. A Simon & Schuster spokesperson says it will continue to work towards, quote, "being a publisher whose books and staff represent the breadth and depth of our diverse population." But Authors Guild president Douglas Preston says reduced competition will likely make the sector even less diverse, and that's bad not just for authors, but for readers, too.

DOUGLAS PRESTON: The readers are served by a maximum diversity of authors and voices, especially authors from overlooked communities. These are authors who don't make a lot of money but who have very important things to say.

VELTMAN: Preston says author advances are also likely to take a hit with more consolidation.

PRESTON: The fewer publishers there are bidding against each other for an author's work, the lower the advance. It's Economics 101.

VELTMAN: But Penguin Random House has said that, actually, the merger would increase author advances, and some industry insiders don't consider the potential union of two of the five biggest publishing houses in the country a threat to a robust sector that puts out a million titles a year.

BRIAN O'LEARY: I don't see this as anything other than a blip in terms of the ability of the book publishing industry to meet the needs of readers.

VELTMAN: Brian O'Leary is executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, which provides supply chain research for around 200 publishing industry members, including Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. O'Leary says even if the judge rules in favor of the merger, book lovers still benefit from the hundreds of thousands of titles released each year by thousands of independent publishers.

JOSIAH LUIS ALDERETE: You know, the fiction is over here. The poetry's over here.

VELTMAN: Medicine for Nightmares is an airy, independent bookstore in San Francisco with cozy armchairs, typewriters and a table set up for chess. Co-owner Josiah Luis Alderete gives a tour of the stacks. They carry plenty of books by indie presses, as well as titles by the big five publishing houses.

ALDERETE: The Simon & Schuster and Penguin titles - there are many, but they're kind of dispersed through the shelves.

VELTMAN: Alderete thinks consolidation will provide fewer opportunities for writers, but he says he wouldn't be surprised if the merger goes through anyway.

ALDERETE: This is America. Money talks.

VELTMAN: The trial in D.C. is expected to go on for another couple of weeks with a decision likely in November. Chloe Veltman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.