And then there were five

Yesterday morning, the publishing world woke up to the biggest news since the launch of the Kindle. Two of the “big six” publishers are merging to become Penguin Random House, the world’s largest English language publisher.

Between them, Penguin and Random House have combined revenues of around £2.5bn, which will give them a 25 per cent share of trade publishing in the UK and the US. And when the entire industry is on the brink of seismic change, there is only one thing for the conscientious publishing professional to do: tweet about it.

@stubbleagent Ah well, guys. At least it’s not NewsCorp, hey?

Literary agent Sam Copeland has a point, as there were rumours that Rupert Murdoch’s company, which already owns HarperCollins, was going to attempt an outright buy-out of Penguin for £1 billion. But since “Penguin Random House” and “Random House Penguin” were both incorporated on 26th October, it’s safe to say that NewsCorp was too late.

@samjordison Very sad news about Penguin and Random House. Fucking The Man ruining fucking everything.

Guardian books writer Sam Jordison expresses his dismay at, if I might rephrase, the corporate nature of the takeover.

@misdaisyfrost Please post a congratulatory penguin biscuit to Gail Rebuck at Random House 20 Vauxhaull Bridge Road SW1A

Anonymous publishing insider Miss Daisy Frost begins the inevitable slide from serious discussion to best joke competition, as is customary on Twitter.

@LeeRourke Penguin x Random House = more celebrity authors, bigger 3 for 2 tables and fewer truly literary novels. #endtimes

Author Lee Rourke laments the move in publishing towards “big books” and “prizewinners,” which has decimated the prospects for a literary career author in recent years. As the big publishing companies consolidate further, many see this as the swan song of the “midlist” of authors who could sustain a living from writing literary novels for a gradually building audience, without being pressed to tailor their work for a book club or a prize panel.

@drmabuse Is it possible that E.L. James is single-handedly responsible for publishing conglomeration?

The answer to this is no, of course not—especially since Random House’s parent company, the Bertelsmann Group, has been buying out other publishers since 1977. But, as author @holland_tom pointed out, “It’s estimated that E. L. James boosted Random House’s profits by sthg like 5 per cent this year—giving them the, ahem, whip hand over Penguin.” Random House will have a 53 per cent stake in the new company and Penguin 47 per cent, so a boost in sales this past year may have given them the edge.

@Harkaway Wait! There’s a secret political subtext in the Random Penguin deal! 47% Pearson – 53% Bertelsmann! It’s a giant financial Romney reference!

I suppose it’s possible, but the merger will probably mean massive changes to the back office staff (including redundancies), so it would be a cruel price to pay for a joke.

@benjohncock A strong mega-publisher might be just what the doctor ordered to combat the transmogrifying snake that is Random Penguin #randypenguins

This is a good point from novelist and blogger Ben Johncock. Although many are instinctively afraid of conglomeration, no single publishing company currently has the influence to stand firm—much less dictate terms—when it comes to battling with the new generation of online and digital booksellers.

@DigitalDanHouse A necessary corollary to the formation of uber-publishers must be the emergence of exciting new indies.

Random House digital publisher Dan Franklin (who may soon have to change his name to @DigitalDanPenguinHouse) reminds us that these companies are made up of people who care deeply about books and are keen to protect the industry, as well as to compete.

For some, this merger is the last nail in the coffin, if one were needed, of old world publishing, hammered in by corporate bureaucrats obsessed with the bottom line. Others see it as the stand that publishers have needed to make for some time, creating a paladin to defend their cause against digital bullies like Google, Apple and the arch nemesis of traditional publishing, Amazon.

There’s room for a big company that takes on this role, but publishing needs to remain diverse. Looking at recent prize lists, I can see a place in the ecosystem for the kind of smaller, nimbler publishers willing to take risks on books that don’t fit into an existing paradigm. If it hadn’t been shortlisted for the Booker, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy wouldn’t necessarily look good on a balance sheet. But for me, that sort of book is the reason why anyone bothers to write—or read.

If this new mega publishing company protects its editors’ right to take risks and to publish high quality books whilst holding its own in the digital age, it could win the hearts of authors and publishers alike. In the meantime, the industry is not standing still. We may yet see more consolidation among the big six—or rather, big five—before long.

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