October 29, 2012

Murdoch tries to “scupper” Random House deal for Penguin, starts bidding war

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One of the UK’s most despised media moguls is making a move for one of the UK’s most beloved media properties: Rupert Murdoch has made an offer to buy Penguin. This, just hours after Penguin’s corporate owner, Pearson, admitted that the company was in talks with the world’s biggest publisher, Random House, about a merger, as a MobyLives report detailed Friday. But the first report [subscription] on the bid — from Murdoch’s own Sunday Times — described the bid from Murdoch’s HarperCollins as an attempt to “scupper” the Random House – Penguin deal.

As the Times reported,

Glen Moreno, Pearson’s chairman, will put the approach to directors in the next few days. Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and chief executive of News Corp, parent company of The Sunday Times, is understood to have indicated he will make a substantial cash offer — thought to be about £1 billion — for Penguin, subject to due diligence.

A bid by News Corp, which owns one of Penguin’s big rivals, Harper Collins, could torpedo the planned merger of Penguin and Random House, owned by Germany’s Bertelsmann. Bertelsmann would own 60% of the combined group, which would have nearly 30% of English-language book sales. A union of Penguin and HarperCollins would have a market share of 20%.

A New York Times report put Murdoch’s bid at $1.6 billion.

A report in another newspaper owned by Murdoch, the Wall Street Journal, nicely clarified that the Murdoch offer isn’t the same as the merger deal between Penguin and Random House (or, technically, between Random House corporate parent Bertelsmann and Penguin corporate parent Pearson).

According to WSJ reporter John Jannarone,

Under the deal being discussed by Bertelsmann and Pearson, Penguin and Random House would be combined into a joint venture that would be majority-owned by Bertelsmann, people familiar with the situation said last week.

If News Corp. were to buy Penguin outright, by contrast, it could give Pearson cash it could use pursuing its strategy of expanding in educational publishing, said a person familiar with the situation.

Moreover, this person said, a HarperCollins-Penguin deal would create a smaller company that might face fewer antitrust issues than a combination of Random House and Penguin. HarperCollins probably has around 8% to 10% of the English-language consumer-book market, while Penguin’s share is estimated at 11% or 12%, the person said. That suggests their combined market share would be smaller than the 25%-plus share represented by a combination of Random House and Penguin.

Moreover, this person said, a HarperCollins-Penguin deal would create a smaller company that might face fewer antitrust issues than a combination of Random House and Penguin. HarperCollins probably has around 8% to 10% of the English-language consumer-book market, while Penguin’s share is estimated at 11% or 12%, the person said. That suggests their combined market share would be smaller than the 25%-plus share represented by a combination of Random House and Penguin.

To thee and me, it makes no nevermind. One way or another, there is soon to be a giant Godzilla, stomping through our personal Tokyo, crushing all and sundry. The Department’ of Justice’s support for Amazon has left the Big Six with no other alternative to freaking out, and trying to become big enough to deal with the government-supported monopoly that is Amazon. Soon we’ll be hearing about others — Simon & Schuster will no doubt be jettisoned by CBS at any minute, for example.

But in the meantime, in the UK, the news that Rupert Murdoch has turned the demise of Penguin into a bidding war has not gone down well. As a Guardian report details,

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, described by Labour MP Tom Watson as a “toxic institution”, could soon be publishing his book on the phone-hacking scandal as the publisher considers a bid for Penguin.

The reported £1bn offer could leave Penguin’s reputation in tatters … authors and literary agents, who declined to be named for fear of future publishing prospects, were … concerned to be associated with the Murdoch brand. One agent, who represents authors across all three publishing houses, said: “Authors have told me they are frightened by a Random House takeover, but terrified by a HarperCollins one.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives

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