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Are there any buyers?

27 January 2003

A flurry of activity from big corporations threatens once again to change the face of publishing. The sudden firing in the New Year of Ann Godoff, President and Publisher of the Random House division of Random House Inc (often referred to as 'little Random') took everyone by surprise. Her division, often seen as the flagship, had been falling short of its profit targets and has now been combined with the mass market division Ballantine to form Random House Ballantine. The corporate owners, Bertelsmann, are taking a noticeably harder line as regards imprints which do not produce the required level of profitability.

AOL Time Warner, beset by huge debts caused by the merger with AOL (and before that Time Inc's merger with Warner), has now put Time-Warner Publishing up for sale. This affects the commercial Warner Books and its more upmarket Little Brown division in the States and what is now called Time-Warner Publishing (until recently Little Brown) in the UK.

In Europe, things have only just calmed down after the excitement surrounding the break-up of the French conglomerate Vivendi and the sale of its publishing assets, extensive in France but also including Houghton Mifflin in the US and Chambers Harrap and the children's publisher Kingfisher in the UK.

These corporate reshufflings do not bode well for publishing, a business where continuity is important. The author, who should be at the centre of the equation, has been pushed aside in the search for the now outmoded 'synergy'. Now the focus is on corporate profits, which are hard to achieve in the low margin, slow-return-on-investment world of book publishing. Trade (or general) publishing is especially vulnerable because it is so risky. Further attempts to offload publishing units may follow, but the real question of the moment is: are there any buyers?