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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.

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.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture