DOJ v PRH: Agents Have Their Say

From Publishers Weekly:

Thursday’s proceedings in the Department of Justice’s efforts to block Penguin Random House’s acquisition of Simon & Schuster started with the remainder of testimony from Norton’s John Glusman and ended with the testimony of literary agent Gail Ross of Ross/Yoon. In this first full day for the defense, a great deal of time was spent on the submission and acquisition processes in publishing and how these affect book advances, from the perspectives of publishers (Glusman, and later Putnam’s Sally Kim), authors (Charles Duhigg), and agents (Elyse Cheney, Ross, and Andrew Wylie).

Glusman, who in Wednesday’s testimony said he didn’t believe the merger would hurt advances, quipped that the Big Five “regularly overpay for books” and that Norton is impacted directly “because we end up losing authors. We don’t overpay for books. We pay on the basis of what we project for sales.” In his opinion, midlist authors will be harmed by the proposed merger.

Next, The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg took the stand, testifying that he did not start writing books for advances, but instead “to sell millions of copies… because that’s what allows you to make money,” adding: “You make so much money from things beyond the advance.” While Duhigg acknowledged the importance of money to a writer’s career, he also spoke at length about the power of “the right editor.”

In his case, the editor is PRH’s Andy Ward, and Duhigg also talked about the importance of author support from all members of an imprint and publishing house. “These people worked tirelessly [for my book],” said Duhigg in reference to everyone from PR teams to sales staff. “If this merger goes through,” he said, “I believe PRH wants to make the world a better place for writers. The thing I know about Andy Ward and PRH is that they love authors and want to give us the freedom to write what we want to write.”

Next on the stand was Sally Kim, senior v-p and publisher of Putnam, who has been in acquiring roles for 25 years. The defense took Kim through a long back-and-forth about the acquisition process, but Kim—like others in this trial—said that when it comes to predicting sales, “things can’t be calculated exactly.” “How common is it for different imprints to value the same book differently?” the defense asked; Kim replied, “Very different.” And, again like other who appeared before her at the trial, Kim spoke of publishing as “a relationship business,” between publishers, editors, and agents.

During its cross, the government asked Kim why she is always thinking about Putnam’s reputation, and she answered: “Because we want to be known for publishing… books of prestige and of quality, books that people are still going to be reading 10, 20 years from now.”

Despite more questions about the acquisition process that involved advance payments and proportion of books won by and lost to PRH and S&S, all witnesses for the defense, including the three literary agents who testified Thursday afternoon, emphasized matters of literary prestige, taste, experience, and “nuance.” Elyse Cheney said, “I want to go to an editor who’s going to get the best book out of my client.” She also told the government, when asked about pricing a deal, that she cares less about advances and marketing spending than about reputation overall: “In general, PRH has made a real commitment to books over a long period of time,” said Cheney. “Whereas a company like S&S that is a shareholder driven cannot develop the same tools as a company like PRH, and could post-merger.”

The judge asked if Cheney was saying “competition doesn’t matter in book publishing because you are hand-selecting these editors?” and Cheney replied that competition is not the primary thing.” Her authors, she told the defense, are “very sophisticated clients, and the editor who can help them make the richest, most robust project? It’s huge. How that editor communicates what that book is about, is essential to success of a book.” She wants “ very particular people” when she’s submitting a manuscript. “Of course, everybody wants to make a lot of money, I do as well, but that doesn’t mean I suggest everyone take the largest advance.”

Next, Andrew Wylie of the Wylie Agency told the defense that his agency “doesn’t conduct auctions” and he is satisfied that he’s getting the best deal for his clients because “I’ve been doing it 42 years and I can predict with a high degree of accuracy whether it might be best to do a multiple submission or a single submission.” He believes a merger would have “a positive result” for his clients and that the highest advances he’s negotiated have been with Big Five publishers “because I think they have the broadest talent editorially, they are generally well financed, and their production and distribution is expert.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG notes that any agent who didn’t toe the Big Publishing line would be out of business well before the inevitable appeals of the trial court’s decision in this case are over.

He also wonders how Judge Florence Pan, who is hearing the case without a jury, feels about “competition is not the primary thing” and “literary prestige, taste, experience, and ‘nuance'” being at the heart of an agent’s daily concerns when dealing with publishers.

4 thoughts on “DOJ v PRH: Agents Have Their Say”

  1. One suspects that a little bit of outside research would disclose to Judge Pan similar statements from agents all across the entertainment industry, with both sport agents and Nashville-focused music agents (for both performers and writers) often saying much the same thing. It took me about 45 seconds, but my internet connection is slow today for some reason.

    Because I’ve had… dealings… with a named individual in the article, I will not say more than I’m thankful for my investment in a snorted-coffee-resistant keyboard.

  2. “And, again like other who appeared before her at the trial, Kim spoke of publishing as “a relationship business,” between publishers, editors, and agents.”

    Nothing about the authors’ role, I note.
    (Authors are just a natural resource to be exploited, like iron ore.)
    Must’ve taken seriously the part about “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.

    I presume it was the defense who brought in agents because if anybody at DOJ was clueless enough to think Agents would dare go against the interests of S&S and Penguin they need a transfer to janitorial duties.

    And then there is the truthful part about corporate publishing not being a competitive business. (As demonstrated by tbe Agency conspiracy.) If the five, soon to be four, act as one then the number of nominal players has no effect on their behavior and role in the marketplace and trying to apply competition rules is futile.

    Doesn’t sound like a good day for DOJ.

  3. Competition is the last thing most companies want. They would much prefer cooperation, price setting, market allocation, etc. Guaranteed return and little risk.

Comments are closed.