DOJ files an antitrust suit to block the purchase of S&S by Penguin Random House

“The U.S. Department of Justice has sued to block Penguin Random House parent company Bertelsmann’s proposed acquisition of Viacom CBS subsidiary Simon & Schuster, arguing that it “would result in substantial harm to authors.” The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on November 2. With it, the DoJ alleges that the proposed acquisition would “enable Penguin Random House, which is already the largest book publisher in the world, to exert outsized influence over which books are published in the United States and how much authors are paid for their work.” (Penguin Random House is the world’s third largest publisher, but its largest trade publisher.) The full lawsuit can be read here.” – Publishers Weekly

I wish things were as simple as the 15th century Gutenberg letter press shown in the graphic.

I hope the merger is successfully blocked because consolidation reduces competition and is generally viewed as harmful to authors and readers. Among other things, media conglomerates (books, news, films) reduce options, a negative scenario in any era but especially bad at a time when public sentiment is leaning toward diversity in both news coverage as well as entertainment. And,  of course, the corporate home of the proposed company remains Bertelsmann, placing more U.S. media assets under the control of a multinational German corporation.

Franklin Foer, writing in The Atlantic, believes that “as book publishing consolidates, the author tends to lose—and, therefore, so does the life of the mind. With diminished competition to sign writers, the size of advances is likely to shrink, making it harder for authors to justify the time required to produce a lengthy work. In becoming a leviathan, the business becomes ever more corporate. Publishing may lose its sense of higher purpose. The bean counters who rule over sprawling businesses will tend to treat books as just another commodity.”

The big five already control 80% of U.S. book sales. If the DOJ suit fails, we’ll have the big four and, some say, we’ll lose a few more small presses and a few more publishing jobs.

Foer believes that the real problem in the mix is Amazon, and I agree. But that’s a discussion for another post other than to say that publishing conglomerates believe size will make then less vulnerable to Amazon control.

Writing for the New Republic (Pretty Soon There’ll Be Just One Big Big Book Publisher Left),  Alex Shephard says, “Further consolidation won’t just lead to layoffs, it will also likely put authors in a worse position, as they have fewer potential buyers to negotiate with. Though it is not solely responsible, the bottom has fallen out of the market for midlist books over the last decade, creating a system in which bestselling authors are making millions, while publishing’s middle class has been decimated. The conglomerate publishing industry’s increasing obsession with bestsellers has also left many more adventurous projects to wallow.”

I’m not sure who to blame for this mess.