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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

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 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism