The American Booksellers Association wrote a letter — under my signature, as I was board chair at the time — to Attorney General Janet Reno and Robert Pitofsky, who was then the Federal Trade Commission chair, stating our opinion that the proposed merger of Barnes & Noble and Ingram was “a devastating development that threatens the viability of competition in the book industry and limits the diversity and availability of books to consumers” and calling for investigative action. After a June 1, 1999, report in The Times indicating that the Federal Trade Commission staff would recommend to the commission that it challenge the proposed $600 million purchase, Barnes & Noble terminated its deal, presumably, in part, to avoid the embarrassment of being denied.
Interestingly, it wasn’t just associations of authors and booksellers who opposed the Barnes & Noble and Ingram consolidation but also a company that then had nearly 60 percent of its order fulfillment provided through Ingram: Amazon, which would continue to grow and flex its own ability to negotiate. Fifteen years later, in 2014, over 900 authors, including Stephen King, Anna Quindlen and John Grisham, signed a full-page ad in The Times asking Amazon to stop its “selective retaliation” against authors whose publishers had not capitulated to Amazon’s demands. Today the American Booksellers Association, on behalf of indie stores, continues to challenge Amazon’s anticompetitive behavior, lobbying for antitrust legislation like the American Innovation and Choice Online Act. This bipartisan bill, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 16-to-6 vote in early 2022, creates rules for fair competition online by banning monopolistic behavior by large online platforms.
According to the Justice Department, Penguin Random House argued that the potential acquisition of Simon & Schuster “will provide a counterweight to Amazon’s alleged buying power,” but the Justice Department countered that “internal documents tell a different story: Penguin Random House plans to embrace Amazon even more closely after the merger.”
Publishers are by necessity gatekeepers. They can accept only as many manuscripts or writers as they can afford to publish and sell. They are limited by their competition, however, because only so many books may be published and purchased. Today there are roughly 2.5 books sold per person in the United States every year.
In the world of bookselling today, a customer may be left with a book less well made, less appealing, less diverse, more expensive, and whose author makes less money. No two books are the same, you say? Yes, and every day I see buyers choosing one book rather than another. While Amazon has siphoned off an enormous share of the physical book market and almost the entire e-book market, our customers at Square Books constantly express thanks for our actual presence and what they tell us is a better, more pleasurable way to shop. The language they use to express their preferences is money.
I hesitate to speak critically of Penguin Random House. After all, William Faulkner, published almost entirely by Random House, is a longtime resident of Oxford, Mississippi — where I live — and Penguin Random House published my wife’s novel, “Summerlings,” for heaven’s sake, so of course our store does business with it. And a whole lot of business it is. Penguin Random House, even without including Simon & Schuster, has a larger share of our business than all of Square Books’ other accounts — combined.