Boyd Tonkin: Whatever the fate of his papers, Murdoch craves a bigger share of books
The Week in Books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Saturday 01 December 2012
Readers of Antifragile, Nassim Taleb's intellectual blockbuster, may feel the urge to slot almost everything and everyone they come across into one of its basic categories.
Taleb plays this game himself, and recently contrasted "fragile" general David Petraeus - a stiff soldier broken by a single indiscretion - with the "antifragile" roll of Boris Johnson from one survivable scrape and pickle to another.
This may be the wrong moment to proclaim it, but Rupert Murdoch's business empire may soon prove its underlying antifragility. Whatever the political upshot of the Leveson report, and even if Murdoch quits the British newspaper market, the family concern may thrive.
Meanwhile Sky TV, still 40 per cent Murdoch-owned despite his withdrawal of the bid for complete control in the wake of the hacking revelations, can boast 10.6 million British customers. That looks robust.
And now we know that, far from writing off the book-related corner of his enterprise as a burdensome throwback, Murdoch wants to expand it. His News Corp, which owns HarperCollins, made a play for Penguin Books when it emerged that the Big Bird was open to offers.
He was thwarted by the rival deal between Penguin and Random House. Undaunted, he has now authorised negotiations for a possible merger between HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster - currently part of the CBS conglomerate - just as News Corp prepares to split its publishing from its film and broadcasting interests.
Despite his tabloid travails in the little old UK, Murdoch evidently still likes the look of books and wants to invest in them. And, as his ruthless execution of the News of the World shows, he has never hesitated to cut his losses, turn the page and begin a new story.
The new wave of consolidation in publishing looks unstoppable. Such is the overwhelming might of the deadly digital sisters - Amazon, Google and Apple - that even the bulkiest of traditional book businesses feel that they have to super-size themselves in order to compete. If HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster do converge, then the British book scene will soon feature a mere trio of leading players.
In the "German" corner of the triangle will stand Bertelsmann's Random House and its junior partner, Penguin; the "French" niche will host the Hachette group, currently the biggest UK publisher with imprints that range from Weidenfeld & Nicolson to Headline and Little, Brown; while Murdoch's combined interests will occupy the "American" end of the line.
What about British firms? Reduced to independent bit-players, small in size but strong in character: in many ways, home-grown indies may enjoy a relatively bright future so long as they can innovate and co-operate. Besides, those shotgun marriages between the global majors may fall apart in acrimony before too long.
So why do the Murdochs care about books? Whatever their platform, print or electronic, they still generate "content" - or just stories, if you prefer - more efficiently than any other medium. And recent developments have shown that giant publishers see the boom in DIY authorship as a potential new oil-field. This week Simon & Schuster launched a joint venture with Author Solutions - a Penguin owned-outfit - to offer self-publishing packages for wannabe writers. However much drilling it takes, they still think that it's worth hunting for treasure in the ink - or the pixels.
This Christmas, as at every holiday season, film-goers will queue to see stories - The Hobbit (Tolkien); Life of Pi (Martel); Jack Reacher (Lee Child); Midnight's Children (Rushdie) - that began as simple words on the page. Nothing, as Taleb forcefully reminds us, is as "antifragile" as a book and the tales it can tell. Indeed, Taleb diagnoses "an absence of literary culture" as the key flaw of the sort of gadget-obsessed tecchie who will be stranded by the next trend. If Murdoch and his minions still yearn to sink resources into the creative word, they may be much less breakable than many of their foes would hope.
First prize for a second-hand book title
There is of course no copyright in titles. But should titular "borrowing" pass without comment? James Gleick's The Information, a history of communications systems, has won the Royal Society Winton Prize for science books. It is hard to imagine Gleick choosing such a handle for this work had Martin Amis not published his novel The Information in 1994. Yet the victim has form here. Amis's London Fields appeared in 1989, six years after John Milne's novel of the same name. What goes around...
A new big cheese from Switzerland
It must have been quite a while since the winner of the French Academy's hallowed Grand Prix du Roman also looked set to become a global bestseller on the Stieg Larsson scale. Yet that curious destiny seems to be in store for the 27-year-old Swiss writer Joel Dicker and his mystery novel La vérité sur l'affaire Harry Quebert, which also won the special Goncourt Prize chosen by high-school students and reached the shortlist for the main Goncourt.
Happily for his global prospects, the Genevan-born Dicker sets his second novel - in which a blocked author finds that his former teacher has been accused of murder - in small-town New Hampshire. Equally eccentric for a laureate of big Parisian prizes, Dicker cites Orwell and Steinbeck as key influences. Rights have been sold in 30 territories, but no word yet as to who will take on the English translation.
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