Who’s picked up a Penguin?

The merger of Penguin and Random House shows that our publishing industry is following the music industry into consolidation and quasi-monopoly.

Penguins have been a staple of British bookshelves since the 1930s.
Penguins have been a staple of British bookshelves since the 1930s. Photograph: Getty Images

In the mid-1930s, George Orwell wrote that “the Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence. So splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.”

Of course, other publishers never did manage to suppress Allen Lane’s colour-coded paperbacks (orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime). After the first ten Penguins appeared in 1935 under the Bodley Head imprint, and sold in their tens of thousands, Lane never looked back. Penguin was established as a separate company the following year and by the time Lane died in 1970, it was, in the words of his biographer, “an institution of national importance, like the Times or the BBC”.

That’s the reason there has been such an anguished reaction to the news that Penguin’s parent company, Pearson, has agreed a deal with the German conglomerate Bertelsmann in which the publisher will merge with Random House (reuniting it in the process, incidentally, with the Bodley Head).

The new entity will be known as “Penguin Random House” – not, as every man and his dog on Twitter had hoped, “Random Penguin” – and according to a Pearson press statement, it will be “the world’s leading consumer publishing organisation”. Bertelsmann will own 53 per cent, Pearson 47 per cent.

Brand and deliver

Philip Jones, editor of the industry bible the Bookseller, thinks Pearson has got a good deal (it will retain the right to use the Penguin brand in its education publishing arm). “Pearson comes out of this quite well,” Jones tells me. “Especially given that over the past nine months, Penguin’s sales have declined marginally.”

Whether it’s a good deal for Penguin editors and authors is much less clear. In a letter to his staff, Random House’s chief executive, Markus Dohle, insisted that the new company “will build on the history and heritage of each of our storied brands”. But when Pearson employees hear the word “synergy” and other corporate euphemisms falling from the lips of their boss, Marjorie Scardino, they could be forgiven for fearing for their jobs.

And whatever happens to the “brand”, one thing is clear – the publishing industry in this country, like the music industry before it, is tending ineluctably towards consolidation and quasi-monopoly, as the shadow cast by internet giants such as Amazon and Google grows larger by the day. “I think we’ll end up with three big players,” Jones tells me. “Rupert Murdoch will probably go after Simon & Schuster or Macmillan. And I expect Hachette to bulk up, too.”

Andrew Franklin, founder of the successful independent publisher Profile Books, argued in an op-ed piece that the result of consolidation will be “a loss of choice for readers and authors”. As I finished Franklin’s article, an email appeared in my inbox; it announced that Profile had acquired the small, Birmingham based Tindal Street Press. Some mergers, it seems, are better than others.

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