Lord Byron's publisher bids farewell to independence

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The Independent Culture

Almost 180 years ago, the scandalous memoirs of Lord Byron were burnt in the grate at 50 Albemarle Street, the elegant London headquarters of his publisher, John Murray. Yesterday, something almost as precious to the traditional book world went up in smoke: the independence of the firm of John Murray Ltd.

Seven generations of family control and 234 years of literary history came to an end when the company, which numbered Jane Austen and Charles Darwin among its stars, was taken over by the WH Smith Group.

John Murray, also the publisher of John Betjeman, Kenneth Clark and a host of other such names, will become a branch of Smith's book- publishing business, Hodder Headline.

John R Murray, the chairman and successor in a direct line that dates back to John Murray I in 1768, praised the deal as "a marvellous solution to an immensely difficult problem" of how to run a modest, high-quality publishing business in a market that massively favours the big battalions. Murray now publishes 35 books a year. Its current luminaries include the novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the historian David Gilmour, the humorist Christopher Matthew and the travel writer Tahir Shah.

Mr Murray said that he thought it was "absolutely not possible" any longer for a medium-sized general publishing firm to survive without sources of external capital. He revealed that many parts of the Waterstone's book chain (owned by HMV) had refused access to the firm's representatives, thus keeping its books out of the stores. Over recent weeks, he said, "there must be 15 Waterstone's branches who say they don't want reps from us because we're too small".

The acquisition comes weeks after another distinguished independent publisher, Harvill Press, was folded into the Random House group, owned by the German media giant Bertelsmann. The end of autonomy for these respected imprints suggests that literary life outside a huge corporation may no longer be feasible.

Tim Hely Hutchinson, the chief executive at Hodder Headline, said: "It's difficult if you're in the mainstream. The investments you have to make are pretty big. If you're a niche publisher, it's fine."

Murray approached Hodder Headline to offer a sale of the company, rather than vice versa. Mr Murray said the two companies made a perfect marriage. "We realised that what they were missing was a really prestigious, upmarket general list," he said.

Murray turns over about £8m annually, compared with £128m last year for Hodder Headline, whose bestsellers range from Mo Mowlam and Stephen King to Melvyn Bragg and John Le Carré. Hodder's profits rose last year to £18m. despite a general fall within the WH Smith empire from £140m to £130m. Much as the WH Smith board might honour the history of John Murray and its role in English literature, the smaller firm's expertise in publishing educational material for GCSE and A-level certainly helped to clinch the deal.

The union makes Hodder Headline the equal second largest secondary-education publisher in the UK, with guaranteed access for its products to WH Smith's shops. Mr Hely Hutchinson said: "We are fulfilling a long-held ambition to become a leader in British educational publishing."

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