The Authors Guild, along with five other writers’ groups and the nonprofit Open Markets Institute, has sent a letter to the Department of Justice asking the government to block Penguin Random House’s pending acquisition of Simon & Schuster. In asking for the DoJ to step in, the organizations framed the proposed acquisition as part of the ongoing consolidation within the entire publishing industry—including in the bookselling field, which is now dominated by Amazon—that the letter writers say has gone too far.
“The time has also come to recognize that simply blocking takeovers is no longer sufficient,” the letter states. “The Department of Justice must begin today to proactively restructure the entire U.S market for books in ways that also deal with the danger posed by Amazon.”
As part of its reasoning to acquire S&S, PRH has said it needs to create a company that can work with Amazon on a more level playing field. The letter writers say that, while they agree that Amazon’s monopoly power “poses a variety of threats to authors, publishers, independent booksellers, and readers, and American democracy itself,” the organizations “absolutely disagree” that the answer is to let PRH buy S&S.
In addition to the Guild, the letter is signed by representatives from the Romance Writers of America, the National Writers Union, Sisters in Crime, Western Writers of America, and the Horror Writers Association.
The organizations contend that the combination of PRH and S&S, currently the largest and third largest trade book publishers in the country, will diminish the competition for authors’ manuscripts and drive down author advances. The letter further notes that, since the publishing industry plays an important role in the protection of free speech and the dissemination of ideas, “antimonopoly enforcement is of the most importance.” In addition, the letter argues, the S&S purchase would give the combined company significant market share in a number of categories, although it isn’t clear what the source is for that market share data.
Since the pending purchase of S&S has been announced, PRH has argued that even with the addition of S&S, its market share would still be below the level that would trigger an antitrust investigation. (Depending on what data someone uses, there are differing views on PRH's market share of the book market. PRH says, including the self-publishing market, its current share of sales is 14.2%, while S&S’s share is 4.2%.) PRH also maintains that S&S editors will be free to compete for manuscripts along with editors at PRH.
The letter also criticizes the deal for furthering PRH parent company Bertelsmann’s stake in both the book publishing and book printing markets, citing Bertelsmann Printing USA’s 2020 acquisition of two Quad printing plants. Those companies became available after the DoJ blocked the merger of Quad and LSC Communications. The Guild praised that decision, but following the DoJ action, LSC filed for bankruptcy—its assets were acquired by a private equity firm late last year—and Quad decided to get out of the book manufacturing business.
PRH believes its purchase of S&S is in the long-term best interests of book publishing. Bertelsmann has long had an interest in the book business, and has spent billions growing its presence in the U.S. The $2.2 billion Bertelsmann/PRH has agreed to pay for S&S is the company’s biggest bet yet on the U.S. book market. PRH execs argue that, once ViacomCBS put S&S up for sale in the spring, the odds were good that the trade publishing industry was in for another round of consolidation, and that PRH is the best positioned to implement a smooth transition.
Pending approval by regulators, the deal is expected to be completed some time this year.