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.

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The City of London was never the same after the "Big Bang"

Michael Howard reviews Iain Martin's new book on the legacy of the financial revolution 30 years on.

We are inundated with books that are, in effect, inquests on episodes of past failure, grievous mistakes in policy decisions and shortcomings of leadership. So it is refreshing to read this lively account of a series of actions that add up to one of the undoubted, if not undisputed, successes of modern ­government action.

Iain Martin has marked the 30th anniversary of the City’s Big Bang, which took place on 27 October 1986, by writing what he bills as the inside story of a financial revolution that changed the world. Yet his book ranges far and wide. He places Big Bang in its proper context in the history of the City of London, explaining, for example, and in some detail, the development of the financial panics of 1857 and 1873, as well as more recent crises with which we are more familiar.

Big Bang is the term commonly applied to the changes in the London Stock Exchange that followed an agreement reached between Cecil Parkinson, the then secretary of state for trade and industry, and Nicholas Goodison, the chairman of the exchange, shortly after the 1983 election. The agreement provided for the dismantling of many of the restrictive practices that had suited the cosy club of those who had made a comfortable living on the exchange for decades. It was undoubtedly one of the most important of the changes made in the early 1980s that equipped the City of London to become the world’s pre-eminent centre of international capital that it is today.

But it was not the only one. There was the decision early in the life of the Thatcher government to dismantle foreign-exchange restrictions, as well as the redevelopment of Docklands, which provided room for the physical expansion of the City (which was so necessary for the influx of foreign banks that followed the other changes).

For the first change, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, at the Treasury at the time, deserve full credit, particularly as Margaret Thatcher was rather hesitant about the radical nature of the change. The second was a result of Michael Heseltine setting up the London Docklands Development Corporation, which assumed planning powers that were previously in the hands of the local authorities in the area. Canary Wharf surely would not exist today had that decision not been made – and even though the book gives a great deal of well-deserved credit to the officials and developers who took up the baton, Heseltine’s role is barely mentioned. Rarely is a politician able to see the physical signs of his legacy so clearly. Heseltine would be fully entitled to appropriate Christopher Wren’s epitaph: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”

These changes are often criticised for having opened the gates to unbridled capitalism and greed and Martin, while acknow­ledging the lasting achievements of the new regime, also explores its downside. Arguably, he sometimes goes too far. Are the disparities in pay that we now have a consequence of Big Bang? Can it be blamed for the increase in the pay of footballers? This is doubtful. Surely these effects owe more to market forces, in the case of footballers, and shortcomings in corporate governance, in the case of executive pay. (It will be interesting to see whether the attempts by the current government to address the latter achieve the desired results.)

Martin deals with the allegation that the changes brought in a new world in which moneymaking could be given full rein without the need to abide by any significant regulation. This is far from the truth. My limited part in bringing about these changes was the responsibility I was handed, in my first job in government, for steering through parliament what became the Financial Services Act 1986. This was intended to provide statutory underpinning for a system of self-regulation by the various sectors of the financial industry. It didn’t work out exactly as I had intended but, paradoxically, one of the main criticisms of the regulatory system made in the book is that we now have a system that is too legalistic. Rather dubious comparisons are made with a largely mythical golden age, when higher standards of conduct were the order of the day without any need for legal constraints. The history of insider dealing (and the all-too-recently recognised need to legislate to make this unlawful) gives the lie to this rose-tinted picture of life in the pre-Big Bang City.

As Martin rightly stresses, compliance with the law is not enough. People also need to take into account the moral implications of their conduct. However, there are limits to the extent to which governments can legislate on this basis. The law can provide the basic parameters within which legal behaviour is to be constrained. Anything above and beyond that must be a matter for individual conscience, constrained by generally accepted standards of morality.

The book concludes with an attempt at an even-handed assessment of the likely future for the City in the post-Brexit world. There are risks and uncertainties. Mercifully, Martin largely avoids a detailed discussion of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive and its effect on “passporting”, which allows UK financial services easy access to the European Economic Area. But surely the City will hold on to its pre-eminence as long as it retains its advantages as a place to conduct business? The European banks and other institutions that do business in London at present don’t do so out of love or affection. They do so because they are able to operate there with maximum efficiency.

The often rehearsed advantages of London – the time zone, the English language, the incomparable professional infrastructure – will not go away. It is not as if there is an abundance of capital available in the banks of the EU: Europe’s business and financial institutions cannot afford to dispense with the services that London has to offer. As Martin puts it in the last sentences of the book, “All one can say is: the City will survive, and prosper. It usually does.”

Crash Bang Wallop is not flawless. (One of its amusing errors is to refer, in the context of a discussion of the difficulties faced by the firm Slater Walker, to one of its founders as Jim Walker, a name that neither Jim Slater nor Peter Walker, the actual founders, would be likely to recognise.) Yet it is a thoroughly readable account of one of the most important and far-reaching decisions of modern government, and a timely reminder of how the City of London got to where it is now.

Michael Howard is a former leader of the Conservative Party

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood