Book Publishers Just Spent 3 Weeks In Court Arguing They Have No Idea What They’re Doing

By Constance Grady, Vox

On August 22, oral arguments ended in the Justice Department’s antitrust trial to block the book publisher Penguin Random House from merging with rival Simon & Schuster. The result of the trial, which is expected to be decided later this fall, will have a massive impact on both the multibillion-dollar book publishing industry and on how the government handles corporate consolidation going forward. Perhaps fittingly for a case with such high stakes, the trial was characterized by obfuscation and downright disinformation nearly the whole way through.

Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster are two members of what’s called the “Big Five” of publishing, with the other three slots filled by HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan. The Big Five control roughly 80 percent of the trade market for books in the US, and Penguin Random House, with a market share of 25 percent in 2020, is the biggest one of all. Penguin Random House is itself the product of many mergers, with one independent publishing imprint after another joining together to form a massive conglomerate, culminating in the merger of Penguin and Random House in 2013 that brought the then-Big Six down to the Big Five.

When parent company ViacomCBS put Simon & Schuster up for sale in 2020, the smart money was on another one of the major publishers acquiring the house, and the Big Five becoming the Big Four. PRH and HarperCollins were indeed the final bidders in the auction, and PRH won the day with a reported bid of $2.2 billion.

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