A week in books

Outside the realms of cartoons and satire sketches, firms don't often name themselves after their prime traits. Sadly, you don't come across too many banks called GreedCorp or builders run by the Ripemoff Brothers. As ever, publishing is the exception. One hungry German-run conglomerate wields the alarming monicker Transworld. Paul Hamlyn - the original champagne socialist - used to call his multi-tentacled network Octopus. Best of all is Si Newhouse's New York-based assemblage of miscellaneous imprints: Random House.

This week, the House got even more Random as it acquired (subject to the usual legal checks) the trade books division of Reed Elsevier. So what, you ask. Well, buy any book that carries the colophon of Cape, Secker, Methuen, Chatto, Vintage, Hutchinson, Heinemann, Mandarin, Minerva, Century or Sinclair-Stevenson - and you will enrich a single set of suits. If publishers were airlines, Richard Branson (who is one himself, though he often forgets it) would be taking out ads to curse this monopoly.

Reed's deal follows a long-running debacle in which its management tried and failed for an entire year to offload its imprints. It emerged that City folk didn't give the proverbial monkey's toss for Reed's classy stable of novelists: John Banville, Peter Ackroyd, Rose Tremain, Gunter Grass und so weiter. No - what really rang their bell were the merchandising spin-offs from Reed's children's books, such as Thomas the Tank Engine.

As my colleague John Walsh wrote, the Random-Reed takeover looks like "a brontosaurus slowly, and pointlessly, ingesting a triceratops". But it has changed the ecology of publishing's Jurassic Park. Random House now looks a sight taller than other Anglo-American beasts: Viking Penguin, Little,Brown and Murdoch's HarperCollins. Meanwhile, a German axis now controls Bantam-Black Swan (through Bertelsmann's Transworld) and Macmillan- Picador (via Holtzbrinck).

An iron law of business history shows that leviathans grow slow and stupid until bits fall off them. But book buyers can still choose to feed the trim velociraptor tendency: quick-witted independents such as Faber, Fourth Estate, Harvill and the smart infant, Granta. Indeed, on Thursday night, Fourth Estate picked up the title of Publisher of the Year at the British Book Awards. And it was Dava Sobel's surprise blockbuster Longitude - Book of the Year at the same event - that ensured the firm's triumph. Longitude suffered a dozen rebuffs from bigger, duller houses before Fourth Estate spotted its potential. In publishing, there's a heap of evidence that huge equals dumb. How long before the latest Titanic combine veers off course and hits an iceberg?

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