Putting Authors and Readers First in Ruling on Big Publisher Mergers

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Another chapter to make life harder for authors, readers, and the publishing of new ideas and voices is the last thing America needs.

The largest American publisher, the German Penguin Random House, itself the result of a merger, wants to take over one of the other so-called Big Five publishers, Simon & Schuster. The authors, who are already finding it increasingly difficult to earn a living, fear that the merger will make matters worse.

The US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to stop the acquisition, and the case is now on trial. Whatever the outcome, it should be based on what’s good for nurturing a wide range of voices, not corporate profits.

On Tuesday, bestselling author Stephen King said he opposed the merger because “it’s getting harder and harder for writers to find enough money to live on”.

Authors’ incomes are already suffering from the increasingly common practice of readers buying second-hand books online, for which the authors receive no royalties. Lower royalties for e-books also hurt authors, as do counterfeit copies sold online. And because publishers find it harder to make money for similar reasons, they tend to pay authors less.

Penguin Random House argues that even after a merger, authors would have a choice of publishers to approach with their book ideas. But the stories are legion from authors who have been turned down for years, for books that have finally succeeded. Authors rightly fear that one less publisher will make success even more difficult, even though Penguin Random House says Simon & Schuster would remain free to compete.

“The loss of publishers large and small over the past decade has reduced the ability of serious authors to get published,” said Dick Simpson, author and professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “… [I]It’s very difficult for authors, especially those in the Midwest, to get published and develop an audience. This harms not only the authors, but also the public, because it is difficult for the public to obtain [access to] some of the best and most thought-provoking ideas.

As happens in other industries where consolidation in one area encourages counterbalanced mergers in another, book publishers may feel they need to be bigger to be on a stronger footing. vis à vis Amazon, which sells most books in America.

But even if the acquisition helps publishers, authors fear their concerns will be suppressed.

“Any time there is a merger of publishing house businesses, it’s a setback for authors because it further reduces publishing opportunities,” said Chicago author Richard Lindberg. “…Fewer editors equals fewer chances for writers.”

Readers deserve a variety of titles to choose from. Industry consolidation should not restrict their choices.

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