The announcement of the publisher’s merger with Random House came the same week that Scotland Yard’s headquarters and the Admiralty Arch in London were sold off, a sign of what post-industrial decline has done to ‘Great’ Britain

Deep anguish and nostalgia, but ultimately there is a weary sense of déjà vu: “so, there goes another British cultural icon.” No, not the BBC. Not yet, though with its licence fee frozen and the pressure to find alternative sources of income mounting nobody is betting on its future.

For now, the concern is over the loss of Penguin, Allen Lane’s revolutionary paperback invention about which George Orwell said that they were such “splendid value for six pence...that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.” It is not, perhaps, widely known that Penguin has a historic Indian connection which pre-dates Penguin (India); V.K. Krishna Menon was the founding editor of its non-fiction imprint, Pelican, launched way back in 1937.

By this time next year, Penguin would have ceased to be an independent stand-alone imprint having merged with German-owned Random House as a junior partner. Under a deal, announced recently, Penguin’s current owners Pearson, who also publish The Financial Times, will have a minority stake in the merged company “Penguin-Random House” while Random House’s proprietors, Bertelsmann, will control 53 per cent.

The official spin is that the two imprints will “continue to enjoy independence” and the “freedom to decide which books to publish and how best to publish them.” But even those who understand the business logic behind the merger are not convinced that Penguin’s identity will be protected.

“Pure guff,” is how one prominent critic dismissed the claim even as he acknowledged the pressure on the publishing industry to “consolidate” the market for printed books as it struggles to overcome increasing competition from digital books, notably Amazon which now sells 114 ebooks for every 100 printed books.

The fears

Fears that Penguin will be “swallowed” by its bigger partner may be exaggerated, but critics point out that to pretend that nothing will change and it will be business as usual is to miss the point that the aim of the merger is to achieve economies of scale by shedding jobs and “streamlining” (read “cutting down”) editorial output. They reckon that Penguin, as a junior partner in the new company, is bound to lose its identity — as invariably happens in an unequal union.

“The myth is when you combine two great companies you get one even greater company. This will end up a complete takeover of Penguin. It isn’t by chance that every Tesco looks the same,” said Andrew Franklin of Profile Books, a leading British independent publishing house. Big publishers, he said, claimed to promote diversity and localism but “that’s not how it works.”

Writers fear that the merged company, billed as the world’s “largest consumer publisher” with a 25 per cent share of the U.K. and U.S. markets, will reduce competition and result in a narrow range of books being published — besides driving down advances and royalties. There have been calls for competition authorities to look at the deal closely, given the size of the merger.

Commentary on Britain

But what will it mean to Penguin readers? After all, this is not the first time that a popular publisher has been poached. Corporate mergers and takeovers involving some of the biggest names in publishing — Jonathan Cape, Secker & Warburg, Macmillan and, of course Random House itself, to name just a few — have been going on for years with most readers barely noticing the change. So, why the fuss over Penguin?

“But Penguin is different,” according to Ian Jack, former editor of Granta.

“No other imprint in the world has meant so much to its readers — to the point where at one time, the penguin colophon was as big a recommendation as the author’s name. It was the ‘first serious attempt to introduce branded goods to the books trade,’ wrote Edward Young, the artist who drew the Penguin from life at London zoo, and it was a glorious success from the start...Penguin marked their owners out as progressives as well as cultural self-improvers,” Mr. Jack commented in The Observer.

If a book was ever judged by its cover, then a Penguin cover was a winner from the moment it rolled off the printing presses. Will it ever be the same again?

But a more important question raised by Mr. Jack and others is: what does Penguin’s merger with Random House say about Britain?

The move was announced the same week that we were told that Scotland Yard, Metropolitan Police’s historic Central London headquarters, was to be sold as part of a £500 million savings plan, and another of London’s tourist landmarks — the 100-year-old Admiralty Arch on the Mall just yards from Buckingham Palace — was sold to a Spanish investor for £60 million to build a luxury hotel. It is a sign of what the post-industrial decline has done to this once great imperial power that it is busy selling off some of its most precious assets from marquee names in car manufacturing and high street banks to retail stores and premier football clubs. According to the Government’s own Office for National Statistics, 41 per cent of British businesses are now owned by foreigners and, with no respite from the economic crisis in sight, more are waiting to be flogged to the highest bidder.

In England, England, Julian Barnes’s brilliant farce on Britain’s future, a tourist theme park — a replica of the “old” country in all its past glory — goes on to become a thriving independent country while real Britain regresses into oblivion. Although Barnes’s novel failed to win the Booker Prize for which it was shortlisted in 1998, his dystopian view could well yet prove prophetic given Britain’s current trajectory. With its status as a political and economic power in seemingly terminal decline, a Barnes-style theme park might be a good idea to preserve the memories of a Britain that didn’t need a £500,000 global campaign to put the “Great” back into “Great Britain.”

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