Friday, 26 October 2012

Pick up a Penguin.

There are few publishers so influential as to define an age, or even a household, but they do exist. For a generation the yellow spines of the Left Book Club were common on the shelves of politically aware working class households. More recently, no feminist household would be without a shelf or three of the green-liveried Virago books. Somewhere in between the two there was Penguin. Penguin was not the first publisher to publish mass market paperbacks (that's another posting sometime) but it might as well have been because for a generation Penguin was both the epitome of cool and, with their green crime jackets and red fiction jackets, the standard of good reading. When I came to book buying properly in the early seventies Penguin was of great cultural importance. For a period I rarely left the house without a Penguin book in my bag or pocket. Some of them I even read.
Significantly, today's Guardian illustrates their report on the Random House/Penguin merger talks with a view of a shelf of Penguin books from the 1960s - perhaps their heyday, in the wake of the Lady Chatterley trial and the cultural changes in the 1960s. Of the sixteen books in the illustration there are, I think, nine in my house.
There were also the black spined classics, the blue spined Pelicans, and some hugely important Penguin Specials including EP Thompson's Protest and Survive which alone almost defined an era. Yet I can't remember the last Penguin book I bought. Probably it was a Puffin picture book.
Penguin lost its cool, outscored by Picador, and, rather than remaining a market leader, the sign of quality, it became just another publisher. The Random House group is, if anything, much better. Leaving aside Fifty Shades of Money, Random's Vintage list alone is fantastic.
It is hard not to be sad about the merger. Though it makes sense. Leaving aside that the ultimate owner of the Random Group, Bertelsmann, was set up by a Nazi (something Random does not boast about) both publishers still have a kind of liberal veneer. Penguin, despite publishing Jeremy Clarkson, still stacks up that way. I suppose if I could put this in American terms, Penguin and Random are Democrats while the Rupert Murdoch owned HarperCollins is Republican. Does that analogy work?
Thee is no doubt that size matters. It is not so long ago that the significant fiction publisher Serpent's Tail moved in with Profile, the two independents being stronger together. And the Independent Alliance, and Faber's sub-alliance are mergers in many ways. I know there will be more of this as publishers big and medium seek succour in a market dominated by Amazon and one centralised chain. But it might all be good news for the smaller indies. The presence of three of them on the Booker list was a sign of the times. I hope.

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