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Booker to sell Agatha Christie

BOOKER, the sponsor of the annual literary prize, is poised to end its own association with the written word by selling its interest in Agatha Christie's books.

The troubled food distribution group is on the verge of disposing of its 64 per cent stake in Agatha Christie Limited, the business which controls the copyright on titles such as Murder on the Orient Express and The Mousetrap, the long-running play.

Jonathan Taylor, Booker's chairman, said the stake would be sold to a new owner "who can add value to it". An announcement is expected in the next few days.

Booker bought into Agatha Christie Limited in the 1960s as a way of reducing its tax bill. Most of the copyrights, which earned a total profit of pounds 1.5m last year, run until early into the next century.

The move came as Booker issued its third profits warning of the year and announced a wide-ranging disposal programme, which will see the company concentrating on its food distribution businesses.

Under the terms of the restructuring, the company will sell its fish processing division, its food distribution joint ventures in Portugal and Poland, as well as getting out of its Arbor Acres poultry breeding and Marine Harvest McConnell, its salmon farming operation.

Booker has received several expressions of interest in the businesses. The proceeds will initially be used to pay down debt though they could also be returned to shareholders.

Mr Taylor said financial and trade buyers had also made offers for its food distribution businesses. "Although we believe the value is in their development, we have an obligation to our shareholders to evaluate those offers," he said.

Booker shares slumped 44p to 248.5p as investors concentrated on the company's warning that profits in the first half of 1998 would be lower than they were last year.

Analysts were also disappointed that Booker, whose share price has been buoyed by takeover speculation, had quashed hopes of a bid.