The Monster Publishing Merger Is About Amazon

An illustration of books pushing an Amazon box off the shelf
Shutterstock / The Atlantic

In 1960, Dwight Eisenhower’s attorney general, William Rogers, read the paper with alarm. He learned that Random House intended to purchase the venerable publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Rogers began making calls to prod his antitrust division into blocking the sale. In those days, monopoly loomed as a central concern of government—and a competitive book business was widely seen as essential to preserving both intellectual life and democracy. After checking with his sources, Rogers discovered that the merger would yield a company that controlled a mere 1 percent of the book market, and he let the matter drop.

Not so long ago, Democratic and Republican administrations alike wouldn’t hesitate to block a merger like the one proposed today, which intends to fold the giant publisher Simon & Schuster into the even more gigantic Penguin Random House. How big would the combined company be? By one estimate, it might publish a third of all books in the U.S. This deal is so expansive that it’s hard to find an author to write about it who isn’t somehow implicated. Based on the odds, I suppose, it’s not terribly surprising to reveal that I’m published by Penguin Random House.

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On paper, this merger is deplorable and should be blocked. As book publishing consolidates, the author tends to lose—and, therefore, so does the life of the mind. With diminished competition to sign writers, the size of advances is likely to shrink, making it harder for authors to justify the time required to produce a lengthy work. In becoming a leviathan, the business becomes ever more corporate. Publishing may lose its sense of higher purpose. The bean counters who rule over sprawling businesses will tend to treat books as just another commodity. Publishers will grow hesitant to take risks on new authors and new ideas. Like the movie industry, they will prefer sequels and established stars. What’s worse, a giant corporation starts to worry about the prospect of regulators messing with its well-being, a condition that tends to induce political caution in deciding which writers to publish.

But this merger is not the gravest danger to the publishing business. The deal is transpiring in a larger context—and that context is Amazon. The rise of Amazon accelerated the demise of Borders and the diminishment of Barnes & Noble. If it’s correct to worry about a merged company that publishes perhaps 33 percent of new books, then surely it’s correct to worry more about the fact that Amazon now sells 49 percent of them.

In the face of Amazon’s dominance, book publishers have huddled together in search of safety. Amazon’s size gives it terrifying leverage over the industry. Amazon, with its heavily visited home page, its emails to consumers, and its control of the search box on its site, has the power to make or break a title. To counter Amazon, publishers have sought to increase their bargaining power. They believe that they can match Amazon’s size only by growing their own.

When the government intervenes in a market, its actions are never neutral. One of the greatest mistakes of the Obama administration was the 2012 suit it brought against book publishers for working in concert to cut an e-book deal with Apple. The issue is not that the publishers were acting virtuously: They behaved like a cartel, which is illegal. It’s that the publishers were hardly the worst offenders. The government flogged the publishers for a technical violation of antitrust laws rather than constraining the most egregious monopolist, in spirit if not in letter.

It must not repeat the same mistake. The arrival of a new administration represents a moment to finally address Amazon’s lock on the book business; it’s a moment to focus on the core of the problem. Yes, publishers are oligopolistic and hardly sympathetic, but their continued health is essential to the survival of the book business, and thus the intellectual life of this country. If the government constrains publishers without constraining Amazon, then the government will merely accelerate the accumulation of untenable power in one single company.

Amazon has used the crisis of 2020, and the collapse of retail, to further consolidate itself, to create a business that owns the future of nearly every industry. Books were Amazon’s initial enterprise; they were the seemingly innocuous starting point for its plan to secure the economy’s commanding heights. The government’s treatment of the publishing industry is, therefore, a signal that it sends to every other sector of the economy. Nothing less than the survival of competitive capitalism is at stake.