A WEEK IN BOOKS

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The Independent Culture
Just as Granta magazine celebrates its 50th issue this month, the news breaks that its publishing wing, Granta Books, has gone - not broke, as most of the publishing trade were expecting, but suddenly ballistic.

Rea Hederman, the American owner of Granta Publishing UK (and of the stratospherically high-prestige New York Review of Books) announced on Monday that the imprint will expand to bring out at least 35 titles a year, rather than the meagre sextet that used to sit like skinny wallflowers in the middle pages of the Viking catalogue; and that he'd signed up Frances Coady from Random House to run the show.

Let me suggest the significance of this. Granta Books, despite its reputation for publishing nothing but cool, highbrow prose by some of the world's most limpid stylists (Amitav Ghosh, Romesh Gunesekera) has been ailing for some time. It has boasted only one best-seller (Blake Morrison's affecting memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father?), its trendiest signings, such as Nicholson Baker, tended to be stolen away by the larger houses, its relationship with its holding company, Viking Penguin, had become distinctly post-honeymoon and it offered its large partner nothing in the way of profits to share. Voices murmured that Granta Books had always been just too up itself to succeed; and rumours flew that Viking, tired of its tiny sidekick's chronic underachievement, was looking for a way to off-load it.

With one bound, everything has changed. The simple injection of Mr Hederman's cash (pounds 5 million? pounds 10 million?) means Granta's editors can take greater commercial risks with a more eclectic range of titles; but his appointment of Frances Coady suggests a stroke of genius. For Ms Coady, who combines the looks of a sexy marmoset, the demeanour of a regretful nun and the voice of late-period Marianne Faithfull, is a conglomerate player to her ankles. At Random House, she oversees the publishing strategies of Cape and Chatto, two hardback houses of ironclad reputation, and Vintage and Pimlico, two newish paperback imprints noted for their high production values. But more to the point, she inspires the trust of big-name authors. The grandest and most capricious (Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson) gravitate to her side. "She's superbly well-connected, very hands-on, works closely with her writers and gets on with the most difficult people,'' said Jason Cowley of The Bookseller. "And she has experience of selling, uniquely among literary publishers.''

Realism, in other words, has come to Granta Books. Overnight, a declining ivory-tower imprint will, barring accidents, turn into an independent mainstream force through the application of money, taste and charisma. Amazing that it can still be done. The question is - will Ms Coady bring her starry authors with her? If I were a betting man, I'd put a fiver on Alan Hollinghurst being first.

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