Student Opinion: Should Money or Writers Speak?


PC: Penguin Classics

By Michelle Lin

LOS ANGELES — The proposed merger of Simon and Schuster and Random Penguin House, two of the largest publishing houses in the United States, is receiving backlash from authors, booksellers and the Department of Justice. While the two publishing houses and Department of Justice are facing an antitrust trial, authors and independent booksellers consider the social consequences of this merger.

The publishing industry is dominated by the “Big Five,” which Simon and Schuster and Random Penguin are part of. If these two industry titans merge, there will be little competition left. 

Competition’s role in the economy is significant because it creates industry and consumer standards. The Department of Justice and the publishing houses have different ideas of what the elimination of a major competitor would do for book consumers and producers.

Simon and Schuster and Random Penguin House are far from the first to try to consolidate more of the book industry. In 1999, the American Booksellers Association petitioned and wrote to the Federal Trade Commission, to prevent Barnes and Noble from buying Ingram Book Group. In 2014, the American Booksellers Association worked to prevent Amazon from eliminating competition.

The publishing houses say that the merger will benefit consumers by lowering costs. By lowering costs, they will be able to slow down Amazon’s growth, as it occupies a large part of the bookselling industry. 

The Department of Justice is suing the publishing houses because the merger would allow the combined publishing houses to have a monopoly over the publishing industry. They argue that the lack of competition will be detrimental to authors, who typically earn below the poverty line.

In the Department of Justice’s statement, US Attorney General Merrick B. Garland says, “If the world’s largest book publisher is permitted to acquire one of its biggest rivals, it will have unprecedented control over this important industry. American authors and consumers will pay the price of this anticompetitive merger – lower advances for authors and ultimately fewer books and less variety for consumers.”

The trend of bookselling or publishing companies trying to monopolize the industry through mergers or acquisitions shows that the book industry is made of a few but powerful groups. When few but powerful groups make up the majority, mergers and acquisitions can easily topple the balance of power. 

Competition makes publishing economically balanced, but it also brings in diverse voices and creative ideas. In an industry that identifies as 76% white, representation is important to keep in mind, especially considering its diverse American readers. 

Both Simon and Schuster and Random Penguin House have made statements about the merger not affecting their intent on furthering BIPOC in publishing, but that cannot be guaranteed, according to Douglas Preston, president of the Authors Guild. Preston says, “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.”

If the “Big Five” become four, authors will likely receive lower advances because there are fewer bidders. The Department of Justice says, “As the complaint makes clear, this merger will cause harm to American workers, in this case authors, through consolidation among buyers – a fact pattern referred to as ‘monopsony.’”

However, Random Penguin House argues that merging with Simon and Schuster will bring the publishers more resources, ultimately allowing them to make greater advances for writers. Random Penguin House, the larger of the two publishers, also argues that adding Simon and Schuster’ products to their supply chain would make their books more available domestically and internationally.

Despite much of the antitrust trial being based in economics, the merger will undoubtedly have a cultural and social message. 

Books are cultural pieces that express the creativity and social issues of the time they were written in. If the merger does lower the advances of authors, Americans will lose a valuable part of their cultural history. If the merger does not lower, or go through, it will set a precedent by allowing smaller writers and publishers to survive in a difficult industry.

Ultimately, no matter who sells or publishes, authors and their unique voices should be properly compensated. Creativity and hard work should not be undervalued or prevented by economic constraints.

About The Author

Michelle Lin is a fourth year English major at UCLA. She enjoys writing and hopes to work in the legal field someday.

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