Boyd Tonkin: Jewels in Rupert'starnished crown

The week in books
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How much – if at all – should we care that Rupert Murdoch's company controls the fourth largest book publisher in Britain, and has done for 21 years? The road that led a high-minded Glasgow Bible printer founded by William Collins in 1819 to integration into Murdoch's News Corporation was a winding and eventful one. Collins finally joined the family in 1990, when News Corp merged the newly purchased UK firm with American outfit Harper & Row.

HarperCollins later acquired the illustrious independent imprint Fourth Estate, in 2000. Bucking the industry norm, the taken-over party, Fourth Estate's founder Victoria Barnsley, then took charge of the entire business. A decade later, she still serves – with distinction – in that role.

According to the latest figures, HarperCollins has a market share of books in Britain of around 7.5 per cent – nothing like Murdoch's hold on the press or subscription TV. Three bigger beasts easily outpace it: French-controlled Hachette UK, the German-owned Random House, and the native Penguin (which also has family ties to newspapers via parent group Pearson's ownership of the Financial Times). HarperCollins does not disaggregate its results, which makes the UK – as opposed to the US - performance hard to gauge. But, after a period of decline, its prospects do seem to have brightened in recent months.

With delicious irony, last autumn Murdoch's HC made some serious money out of a BBC brand when it published a bestselling Top Gear spin-off: The Man in the White Suit by driver Ben Collins, "The Stig". The BBC squandered licence-payers' money on a doomed effort to take out an injunction to kill the book. I'm afraid that I'm with Murdoch on this one.

So far, so routine. The burning question is whether the Murdoch empire has abused its controlling interest in a publishing group to limit diversity or pursue sectional interests. There was a time, under the larger-than-life former chief Eddie Bell, when HC did offer a feather-bedded rest-home for the unread and unreadable memoirs of Tory ministers. It also hosted the autobiographies of both Margaret Thatcher and John Major. That era has long passed. Readers will judge whether it represents an improvement that the company's big political hit of late has come within the Hammer Horror covers of Peter Mandelson's The Third Man.

In the past, China has raised the deepest doubts. Notoriously, Murdoch broke a contract and refused to allow HC to publish Chris Patten's East and West in 1998 at a time when his group was expanding fast in China and feared offending the Beijing government. HC had to issue an apology after claiming that the book was binned because it was "boring". But some of Murdoch's Chinese projects turned sour or went south, and the market ceased to preoccupy him: Bruce Dover's book Rupert's Adventures in China (Mainstream) has the full story.

I have no evidence of any such interference on Victoria Barnsley's watch. Especially in the Fourth Estate and HarperPress lists, the HC stable covers a broad spectrum of outlooks and convictions. The former imprint has just released Mark Lynas's revisionist green manifesto, The God Species – our Book of the Week today (see p.26). If anyone can spot a hidden agenda, do let me know. The issue on which HC has outraged the free-expression lobby this year concerns the sale of e-books to public libraries. The firm unilaterally decided to issue e-editions that self-destructed after 26 loans. That was mean and cheap. Taking this restriction as further proof of the "dangerous and awful" nature of Digital Rights Management for e-books, cyber-campaigner Cory Doctorow denounced the HC policy as "batshit insane crap". And who publishes his own rip-roaring radical SF satires? HarperCollins, of course – a point Doctorow himself made loud and clear, by the way.

As I write, Murdoch has just withdrawn his bid for the complete takeover of BSkyB. The empire's fragmentation now looks unstoppable. But the HarperCollins imprints can tell a relatively upbeat story about News Corp stewardship over the past decade. Call them a flimsy fig-leaf, if you will, or the jewels in a tainted crown. They do embody a set of values and commitments distinct from the Murdoch red-tops. Might he cling more tightly to them now?

Small nuggets of African gold

Over its 12 outings, the stories shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing have offered readers a one-stop shop window of the continent's brightest new talents. On Monday, NoViolet Bulawayo from Zimbabwe (right) took the £10,000 award for "Hitting Budapest", published in The Boston Review. Hisham Matar, chair of the judges, praised the "moral power and weight" of a story about a gang of vulnerable kids from a author who "takes delight in language". Once again, the entire shortlist – plus other stories from the Caine Prize workshops – is published in a single volume: To See the Mountain (New Internationalist, £8.99). Once again, it's a revelation.

Libraries face their day in court

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the threat to Friern Barnet Library in London N11 – the local haven that, during my childhood, helped make me into a voracious reader. The battle to save it from Barnet Council's closure plan – which, of course, would mean a longer journey to a library – has gathered pace, with support from writers as varied as Michael Morpurgo, Lisa Jewell and Mark Billingham. On Saturday, the campaigners will host a party at the library (Friern Barnet Road, N11 3DS) from 2-4pm. Across London, the pioneering push to save six Brent libraries from the axe will go to the High Court on 19 July for a judicial review whose outcome may well set a precedent for anti-cuts activism. On 20 July, Philip Pullman will be talking to Maggie Gee in a fund-raising event at Queen's Park Community School, NW6 7BQ: And apologies for this metropolitan bias – for news of library campaigns around the country, consult