Simon and Schuster

The entrance to Simon & Schuster publishing house is seen in New York City on April 27, 2022. (Photo: Lindsey Nicholson/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

'Major Milestone' as Judge Halts Mega-Merger Between US Publishing Giants

The ruling could foretell future antitrust enforcement against Amazon, advocates said.

Authors and antitrust advocates alike on Tuesday celebrated a federal judge's ruling that blocked publishing company Penguin Random House from buying one of its top competitors, marking what one observer called a "major milestone" in anti-monopoly enforcement and potentially signaling future actions against retail giant Amazon.

Judge Florence Y. Pan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the proposed $2.175 billion merger would "substantially" harm competition as publishing houses compete for the rights to publish new books, which the U.S. Justice Department had argued would drive down compensation for authors.

"This decision is an enormous win for America's book publishing business--especially readers, authors, and editors," said Barry Lynn, executive director of the Open Markets Institute, which works to combat monopolization. "This is also a huge win for America's system of antitrust law--designed to protect creators, workers, independent businesses, and consumers from consolidated power and control."

The Biden administration focused its arguments on the effects the merger would have on the authors of highly-anticipated books, and government attorneys were supported by literary agents and renowned authors including Stephen King, who expressed concern for writers who are just starting out in their publishing careers.

"Publishing should be more focused on cultural growth and literary achievement and less on corporate balance sheets," King told The New York Times after the ruling was announced late Monday.

Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said the DOJ's focus on potential lost income for authors was significant.

"This ruling begins to lay a path to solve our monopoly problem--a path in which enforcers and the courts block mergers and break up monopolies because they understand that concentrated power inevitably harms people, whether as consumers, producers, or citizens," said Mitchell.

The DOJ also argued that the merger could ultimately cut down on the number and diversity of books published each year--countering Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster's claim that the merged companies would be able to reduce their costs and spend more money on books.

"Today's decision protects vital competition for books and is a victory for authors, readers, and the free exchange of ideas," Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter said in a statement Monday. "The proposed merger would have reduced competition, decreased author compensation, diminished the breadth, depth, and diversity of our stories and ideas, and ultimately impoverished our democracy."

Antitrust advocates noted that the ruling could foretell antitrust enforcement against Amazon, which controls 80% of the ecommerce market share across numerous products including books.

"There's extensive evidence that Amazon's stranglehold in books has pushed down authors' incomes and reduced the range of titles that find their way into print and into readers' hands--exactly the arguments the DOJ made in this case," said Mitchell.

While Penguin Random House and its parent company, Bertelsmann, said they would appeal Pan's ruling, Lynn called on the publishers to devote their "money and time to working in tandem with other publishers to help the U.S. government prepare a winning case against Amazon's book business."

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