Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

The pen may indeed be mightier than the sword, but why not hedge your bets and make a healthy profit out of both? Until recently, that seemed to be the philosophy that drove the Lagardère network of companies in France. This week, Hachette Livre - the literary arm of the missiles-to-magazines combine, and already the owner of the Orion and Hodder Headline groups - added another "Anglo-Saxon" scalp to its conquests when it revealed a deal to buy Time Warner's book imprints for $537.5m (see Cover Stories, p33). So, along with Abacus and Little, Brown, Virago's feminist tomes will now belong to the same broad commercial family as the Exocet missile. Was that a rocket in your pocket, M. Lagardère, or were you just pleased to see them?

To be fair, Hachette has proved a stable and supportive parent to its British publishers so far. In the future, Time Warner UK may well enjoy a smoother ride than it did under American control, when it formed part of a tottering multi-media giant hobbled by the disastrous outcomes of a shotgun marriage with AOL. In any case, the ghost of Napoleon Bonaparte can crow. Hachette Livre will take over from the German firm Bertelsmann, owner of Random House, as effectively the biggest British book publisher. Factor in the 5 per cent or so of the UK market currently controlled by the Holtzbrinck family firm, via Pan Macmillan, and almost four out of every ten books sold in Britain will soon come from a company with French or German parents.

Talk to many French and German writers, and you will never hear the last of the way that "Anglo-Saxon" cultural capitalism is crushing distinctive European identities under its brutal corporate heel. The balance-sheets tell a very different story. It now seems clear that, at the same time as these guys were making a career out of defensive complaint, their friends from university who went into business had decided to buy into - and buy up - as much of "Anglo-Saxon" cultural capitalism as they could lay their eager hands on. On the whole, I'm rather glad they did. Literary publishing in Britain has hardly enjoyed fair weather in recent years. Yet a scene dominated solely by US rather than European conglomerates might have felt an even chillier place.

Meanwhile, the Time Warner acquisition confirms the long-term strategy of managing partner Arnaud Lagardère to swap his outfit's swords for words. This week, he welcomed the deal as evidence of "my willingness to develop our book publishing unit". Although a media enterprise above all these days, his group still retains a 15.1 per cent stake in EADS, the heavy-hitting European aerospace coalition created in 2000. Lagardère himself remains its co-chairman, along with Manfred Bischoff from Germany.

EADS manufactures kit that ranges from the Airbus A380 and the Galileo sat-nav system to (more controversially) the new M51 French nuclear missile, due to come into submarine service in 2010. With a $3bn. state contract in place since 2004 to pay for the project, EADS Space Transportation boasts proudly that the M51 "will feature multiple warheads, with far greater payload mass and volume (including... penetration aids)". Scary stuff for literary types.

But the mood music from Lagardère of late has been all about an accelerated exit from EADS, possibly as early as this year. Understandably enough, most publishers - and the writers they support - never show much appetite for biting the hand that feeds them. Still, some will think that a corporate link (however tenuous) to the delivery of nuclear warheads looks like a bridge too far.

Arnaud Lagardère, after all, will now rank as the British book publisher with the most firepower. For that reason, if no other, his boys should be asked to consider the merits of a final separation from their hi-tech toys. I'm perfectly happy to submit to this French-led literary force de frappe, so long as Lagardère rapidly rethinks its exposure to the world of WMD - and takes the zero option pretty soon.