Random Penguin: A Product of the Digital Age

Random Penguin, as the merged Penguin and Random House has been affectionately labelled, will become the world’s biggest book publisher after the £2.4bn deal by the two companies, Pearson and Bertelsmann takes place in 2013. They have pledged to retain editorial independence and their imprints will maintain their individual identities.

After the merger, British-owned general publishers, led by Bloomsbury and Faber, will only retain approximately 7% of the market.

There have been murmurs that the competition authorities may look closely at the tie-up, given that: “In the UK the market share will be around 27%, so they may have to divest themselves of some non-core interests,” said Philip Jones from the Bookseller magazine. However, given Amazon’s dominance in digital books, which has 90% of the e-book market, such a move would be contentious.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which owns rival Harper Collins, was reported to have offered a last minute £1bn bid for Penguin in hopes of undermining the merger, but to no avail.

Despite the two companies’ pledge to maintain standards by sharing costs, Mr Murdoch said: “Two publishers trying to contract while saying the opposite. Let’s hear from authors and agents.”

It is evident that the merger has come about in the wake of our booming digital culture. From newspapers to novels, the general reading public are moving away from printed copies to the increasingly fast-paced web, where audio books and e-books can be downloaded in minutes and the news is updated in real time.

In light of the competition from the publishing giant Amazon, it’s easy to see how Penguin and Random have not kept up in terms of digital output. The merger is intended to strengthen the presence of the two publishers in emerging markets and the digital publishing industry. It could also mean that Penguin Random House will have greater resources to invest in independent authors and small businesses.

Pearson’s chief executive, Marjorie Scardino, said: “Together, the two publishers will be able to share a large part of their costs, to invest more for their author and reader constituencies and to be more adventurous in trying new models in this exciting, fast-moving world of digital books and digital readers.”

Although big publishers tend to be split into smaller teams to work on individual titles, long have publishing houses been criticised for not investing in authors and readers. A merger will inevitably result in cost-cutting ventures behind the scenes, such as redundancies where roles are doubled-up and warehouse redistribution. Authors will be keeping a close eye on standards, making sure that the excellence expected from these publishers in editing, design and marketing is maintained.

Gail Rebuck, Random House’s chief executive, promises that the two publishers will combine, “in a new home that continues to foster creativity, where our imprints will continue to enjoy independence, and our publishers and editors the freedom to decide which books to publish and how best to publish them”.

However, many will still be concerned that the two publishing houses will lose some of their individuality and that readers will be deterred by buying from such a monopolistic publisher.

Ian Jack said in the Guardian: ‘Readers… barely notice the publisher’s name. What interests them is the subject, author and title. They don’t say, “Oh, I see that’s published by Heinemann, it must be right up my street”. Big outfits such as Random preserve the names of the smaller publishers they have acquired for other reasons: because the relationship between author and publisher can flourish at this more intimate scale, and because publishing houses don’t want to look too monolithic.’

Mr Jack is right in saying that a bestseller is not going to be made by who has published it. Take the Harry Potter Series, published by Bloomsbury and the Stieg Larsson Millennium series published by Quercus. Neither of these global successes had a household publisher’s name attached to them.

In addition, Sameer Rahin in the Guardian wrote: ‘how many buyers really take much notice of the icon printed on the book’s spine: a penguin looks cute, that’s true, but much more important is the book itself. The author is the brand, not the publisher.’

I can’t help feeling, though, that the little penguin colophon will be tainted, at least on the periphery of the reader’s consciousness, knowing that this great, innovative publishing company has fallen into the hands of a German firm, that half a century ago was only a quarter of Penguin’s size. If not now a unique selling point, the symbol stands for the tradition of the publisher, dating back to 1936 when Edward Young first branded Penguin with it.

In concurrence with Mr Jack, I ask: “More generally, how is it that so many British publishers are owned in Germany and France, given that the English language is one of this country’s last great assets, and we should surely know more about its exploitation than others do?”

More startling still, Damian Reece, the Telegraph’s Head of Business, stated that: “the competitive threat of online retailers makes mergers such as this one logical, although to make it work one party must have control to unleash serious cost-cutting and streamlining in order to properly leverage its scale”. Random House is now the UK’s biggest publisher, whilst Penguin is the third largest and might well be concerned that “slashing and burning may ensue”.

I think the identity of the publisher has much more weight than the above journalists are suggesting. If I were to make a snobby suggestion, I think they are referring to the casual reader of bestsellers and light fiction, whose perusal of the 3 for 2 shelves in Waterstones results in an impulse buy. If I see something published by Faber and Faber, particularly poetry, I will be more inclined to purchase it, knowing the paper is gorgeously thick and the layout beautiful.

And you make assumptions based on the publisher too – particularly a house like Virago which pioneered the publishing of women’s fiction. I would always consider the publisher when buying a classic, because Oxford World Classics, Penguin Classics et. al, all have a different ‘flavour’ and actually for typeface I would really rather a Vintage copy, though will be off put by the lack of introductory essay.

Our relationship with novels and life in books is closely related to publishers, as we become more and more acquainted with the individual formats, which affect the reading experience. If the publishing didn’t matter, then why the so often quoted argument for printed texts that it is the feel, look and smell of a book that epitomises a great reading experience, one that digital copies can never reproduce.

As Random Penguin sets out to secure its place in the digital age, I just hope the revenue will shore up the fantastic print quality of these two publishers.