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Stephen King takes the stand in fed fight against publishing world merger

WASHINGTON — Bestselling author Stephen King gingerly stepped up to the witness stand Tuesday in a federal antitrust trial. Tracing his own history, he laid out a portrait of a publishing industry that has become increasingly concentrated over the years.

“My name is Stephen King. I’m a freelance writer,” King said as he began his testimony as a witness for the Justice Department.

The government is trying to trying to convince a federal judge that a proposed merger of Penguin Random House and rival Simon & Schuster, two of the world’s biggest publishers, would thwart competition and damage the careers of some of the most popular authors.

King has been published for years by Simon & Schuster. Some of his former publishers were acquired by larger ones. The $2.2 billion merger of Penguin Random House, the biggest U.S. publisher, and fourth-largest Simon & Schuster would reduce the “Big Five” U.S. publishers to four.

As government attorney Mel Schwarz walked King through his history starting as a new, unknown author in the 1970s and his relationships with agents and publishers, King homed in on a critique of the industry as it is now.

Wearing all gray — suit, shoes and tie — King crisply answered Schwarz’s questions, with some moments of humor and brief flashes of gentle outrage.

“I came because I think that consolidation is bad for competition,” the master of the horror genre testified. The way the industry has evolved, King said, “It becomes tougher and tougher for writers to find money to live on.”

“The Big Five are pretty entrenched,” he said.

King expressed skepticism toward the two publishers’ commitment to continue to bid for books separately and competitively after a merger.

“You might as well say you’re going to have a husband and wife bidding against each other for the same house,” he quipped. “It would be sort of very gentlemanly and sort of after you, and after you,” he said, gesturing with a polite sweep of the arm.

Attorney Daniel Petrocelli, representing the publishers, told King he had no questions and demurred on a cross-examination.

Petrocelli argued for the defense that the industry was actually diverse, profitable and open to newcomers. Publishing means not just the Big Five, he contended, but also such medium-size companies as W.W. Norton & Co. and Grove Atlantic.

“Every book starts out as an anticipated bestseller in the gleam of an author’s or an editor’s eye,” he said.

King has said, however, that it’s the small and medium publishers most at risk by the deal.

“The more the publishers consolidate, the harder it is for indie publishers to survive,” King tweeted last year.

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