A publishing powerhouse

Could a merger between Penguin and Random House stop Amazon in its tracks?

After the FT reported that talks had been held between two of the world’s “big six” publishers, Penguin and Random House, an official statement has finally been made. Pearson, the UK-listed education specialist (and the world’s single largest book publisher), who owns both Penguin and the FT, released the following announcement: “Pearson confirms that it is discussing with Bertelsmann a possible combination of Penguin and Random House. The two companies have no reached an agreement and there is no certainty that the discussion will lead to a transaction. A further announcement will be made if and when appropriate.”

Random House is owned by the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann, whose ill-fated merger with Sony (creating Sony-BMG) has left them anxious to take the lead on any potential deal. Thomas Rabe, Bertelsmann’s chief executive, commented on the “pitfalls of putting creative businesses together”, which mean that one side must take ultimate control. “We have the ambition to lead,” he said.

A merger between the two companies – whose brands, it should be noted, are distinct and unlikely to be hastily dissolved – would create a 25 per cent market share, large enough to come under scrutiny from the OFT and Competition Commission. A second factor which may hinder a potential merger is the ongoing allegations of price-fixing in the US, a suit which Penguin has repeatedly contested.

The elephant in the room, as ever, is Amazon. The internet retailer, whose UK business operates from the company’s base in Luxembourg, continues to plough millions into its ebook infrastructure despite huge losses. Described by Waterstones head James Daunt as a “ruthless, money-making devil” and of “using authors as a financial football” by Curtis Brown chairman Jonathan Lloyd, the company facilitates and encourages self-publishing, which perhaps signals the endgame of their repeated attempts to undermine present publishing models. “Penguin House” may just have the reputation, power and resources to stop the internet giant in its tracks.

Phil Jones, editor of the publishing trade magazine The Bookseller, said: “The merger of Penguin and Random house would create a powerhouse of a consumer publisher across books, ebooks and apps.” Analyst Lorna Tilbian from Numis Securities concurs: “Consolidation is the order of the day,” she said. “Technology and tablet computers have given it extra momentum. They [publishers] have got to gang together to have enough clout to take on the technology giants that have transformed the industry.”

Update: This morning the merger between Penguin and Random House was confirmed. Check out The Bookseller for more information.

Berthold Lubetkin's Penguin Pool at London Zoo (Photograph: Getty Images)

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear