Barnes & Noble's dangerous merger bid

The power to contract, publish, distribute, and retail books all atonce is a monopoly that threatens free speech

In an era when major corporate mergers make headlines almost weekly, why does Barnes & Noble Corporation's (B&N) bid to buy Ingram Book Group, the world's largest book wholesaler, demand our attention?

Recall 1989, when Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini called for the execution of Salman Rushdie because of his book, "The Satanic Verses." The two largest book chains quickly yanked it from shelves, but scores of independent booksellers rallied in defense of free speech by prominently featuring the book, even after threats and vandalism, to defeat this censorship by terrorism. The existence of those independent bookstores that serve our freedom of speech and the diversity of published thought is now threatened by the B&N/Ingram conglomerate. This merger would not merely influence where we buy books, but what books we are able to buy.

Any given store out of the 1,000-plus that B&N and their subsidiary, B. Dalton own, can stock more titles than a single competing independent. However, a wealth of independent bookstores, each serving their owners' and community's respective tastes, create greater overall diversity and provide access to a variety of ideas and opinions. Independent booksellers often promote little-known books, creating opportunities for new authors and ideas that the chains often carry only after success in independent stores. In a world of chain stores and Internet sales, where books are simply a commodity, this important source of opportunity for unknown writers would suffer. In the words of novelist Barbara Kingsolver, "Authors like me would not have a career if it were not for independent booksellers."

In a direct threat to the diversity created by a variety of independents, we now face complete vertical integration by B&N. This means one corporation holding the power to contract, publish, distribute, and retail their own books - and power to monopolize the field as a result. Just months after merging their Internet sales division with $14 billion German media giant Bertelsmann AG, B&N now wants to swallow Ingram.

Ingram is by far the largest wholesaler of books nationwide, and often serves as independent retailers' only source for many titles. Far beyond supplying stock, Ingram has enormous power by possessing a virtual lock on the sales and maintenance of the software used by almost all booksellers for their ordering. More ominously, Ingram has detailed sales and financial information about these stores, facts that B&N could use to target independent stores with devastating effect. If there were ever a case to validate the need for antitrust laws, this is it. Competition is fading quickly, as independent bookstores sold just 19 percent of our books last year, an all-time low.

Less obvious than the vanishing stores, the number of publishers and book distributors has plummeted, and we may never have the chance to know many great books and authors as a result. Dr. Seuss's work was rejected 24 times, and Alex Haley reported over 100 rejections before "Roots" found a willing publisher. Today, these authors would run out of options before discovering a publisher that would allow us to enjoy their gifts.

We already have the disturbing precedent of publishers consulting book buyers from the B&N and Borders chains prior to printing a book, to see if the chains will buy sufficient quantities. Some authors now receive suggestions for "improvements" from the chains to make their work marketable, while others are simply not published due to lack of interest by those few buyers. If the chain stores were predominant in 1860 and ready to censor the hugely controversial and influential anti-slavery book "Uncle Tom's Cabin," how much longer might slavery have persisted?

IF this merger is approved, we will all lose out as the diversity of published thought - so essential to free speech - erodes.

The fate of our future choices now lies in the hands of the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which are responsible for investigating the anticompetitive nature of this proposed merger.

Recognizing the harm this merger would do to literature in general, the 7,700-member Authors Guild recently wrote to urge the FTC to halt creation of this conglomerate. We all should insist the FTC uphold our consumer protection laws by blocking any integration of the companies until the investigation is completed. Ultimately the merger should be denied - not for the sake of independent bookstores, but for the freedom of expression we all cherish and which we should never take for granted.

*Jeff Milchen is the director of Epicenter, a project to restore corporate accountability. He lives in Boulder, Colo.

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