Put authors, readers first in ruling on merger of big publishers

On Tuesday, best-selling author Stephen King testified he opposes the merger because “It becomes tougher and tougher for writers to find enough money to live on.”

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If Penguin Random House acquires Simon & Schuster, book titles such as these would be published by a single company.

If Penguin Random House acquires Simon & Schuster, book titles such as these would be published by a single company.

Thomas Frisbie/Sun-Times

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

The largest publisher in America, German-owned Penguin Random House, itself the product of a merger, wants to take over one of the other so-called Big Five publishers, Simon & Schuster. Authors, who already are finding it ever-harder to make a living, worry the merger will make things worse.

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

On Tuesday, best-selling author Stephen King testified he opposes the merger because “It becomes tougher and tougher for writers to find enough money to live on.”

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Authors’ incomes already suffer from the increasingly common practice of readers buying used books online, sales for which authors get no royalties. The smaller royalties for ebooks also hurt authors, as do counterfeit copies sold online. And because publishers have a harder time making 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 of authors who were turned down for years, for books that ultimately were successful. Authors rightly fear that one fewer publishing company will make it that much harder to succeed, even though Penguin Random House says Simon & Schuster would remain free to compete with it.

“The loss of publishers big and small over the last decade has decreased the ability of serious authors to get published,” author and University of Illinois Chicago political science professor Dick Simpson told us. “ … [I]t is very difficult for authors, especially those in the Midwest, to get published and develop an audience. It harms not only authors but also the public because it is hard for the public to get [access to] some of the best and most thought-provoking ideas.”

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As happens in other industries where consolidation in one area encourages counter-balancing mergers in another, book publishers may feel they need to be bigger to be on a firmer footing vis-a-vis Amazon, which sells most of the books in America.

But even if the acquisition helps publishers, authors fear their concerns are being edited out.

“Anytime there is a corporate merger of publishing houses, it is a setback for authors because it further diminishes publishing opportunities,” Chicago author Richard Lindberg said. “ … Fewer publishers equates to fewer chances for writers.”

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

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