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Profitable transatlantic synergy?

3 March 2003

Publishers on both sides of the Atlantic are nervous about what 2003 will bring. Consumer spending has slowed down abruptly in the early months of the year and this is inevitably damping down book sales. The book business is no less affected by world events as everyone waits to see whether there will be war with Iraq and, if so, exactly what the outcome will be.

The British Book Awards last week were celebrity-oriented but also unusually political. There were standing ovations for veteran parliamentarian Tony Benn, who recently visited Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and for American author Michael Moore, whose book Stupid White Men unexpectedly won the Butler & Tanner Book of the Year award.

Some brave souls continue with their plans for expansion. The British publisher Hodder-Headline has abandoned its efforts to find a suitable American general publishing house to acquire. It has decided to go for a start-up in the US, working with Simon and Schuster, one of the houses it was trying to acquire. Organic growth worked for Headline in the UK, so why not try it in the US? It has usually been thought too slow an approach to satisfy the corporate need for rapid growth, but perhaps it will create a more solid publishing company, more based on the rhythms of writing and the publishing seasons than the corporate drive for acquisition?

The US company may also prove an attractive prospect for the authors published by the company in the UK, who now have a greater chance of effective US publication. It will be interesting to see if Hodder Headline US, as a start-up, manages to develop closer working relations with its British parent than other publishing corporations have done in the past. The elusive goal of profitable transatlantic synergy could turn out to be an achievable proposition in the long run.