April 15, 2014

Al Franken is to Comcast as who is to publishing?


Al Franken at the Minnesota State Fair via Shutterstock.

Al Franken at the Minnesota State Fair via Shutterstock.

Over the weekend, Ashley Parker of The New York Times reported that Senator Al Franken has been speaking out against the Comcast-NBC Universal merger. It’s not unheard of to move from comedy to politics (one of our authors made a similar political move, and former actors seem to flourish in the Republican party), and with his experience both in television and in policy, Franken’s in a prime position to talk to the public about antitrust law.

Franken’s profile can convince a publication like The New York Times to give a headline like this above the fold. Parker writes, “The man who created such famous Saturday Night Live characters as the self-help guru Stuart Smalley is now a serious policy wonk and a self-made expert in antitrust matters like price-fixing and monopolization.”

Franken says:

“We’ve got the biggest cable provider and biggest Internet provider, in Comcast, buying the second-biggest cable provider and third-largest Internet provider, and I’m very worried that will create a company that’s too big. They’re going to use their position to leverage higher cable prices and to dictate a lot of things that will make for fewer choices, and their service will be even worse.”

The idea of big companies merging, and eventually creating fewer choices in the marketplace, felt like a line that could have been plucked from an article on the book industry. It’s a lot to ask, but our industry could use an articulate representative who knows about anti-trust law, too.

Aren’t there any authors who can toe the line between their writing careers and speaking out about monopolies in publishing? Anyone knee-deep in research for a nonfiction project that’s relevant to the Penguin Random House merger? Franken’s got his hands full with Comcast and affordable text books, but there must be someone else.

Any author out there writing a sci-fi novel set in a world where one giant everything store ships packages to your door before you’ve realized you need more diapers? Isn’t there someone out in the Midwest who wants to bring up the DoJ case with strangers over some deep-fried bread pudding at the next Minnesota State Fair?

People outside the television industry know something’s wrong when their cable service slows down or their service charges go up. They hit the side of the TV; they call their service providers to complain. How will consumers know when a monopoly is affecting the book industry? When will they feel the effects of the DoJ trial?

Most ebook readers’ sole engagement with the trial was the reimbursement of $0.73 cents or more (which had to be spent with Amazon). But the suit cost the industry $166 million. Will anyone explain what kind of power shift is going on here —why publishers are worried about Amazon, and why there could be further mergers ahead?


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.