Publishing: Hachette job as another chapter closes

A small house can still hit the jackpot, says Ian Irvine, but the books trade has become largely a game for the big boys
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The Independent Online

The acquisition last week of the publishing firm Hodder Headline by Hachette Livre has made this division of the giant French conglomerate Lagardère the second biggest publisher of books in the United Kingdom with 13 per cent of the market, ahead of Penguin and HarperCollins, and close behind the leader Random House.

It is also the latest step in the continuing transformation of British publishing from an archipelago of independent houses to a landscape dominated by a handful of giant businesses. Over the past 25 years the names of many famous imprints, freighted with history and reputation, have often survived, but are now carefully or carelessly fitted into the structures and financial priorities of huge international concerns.

Hachette Livre's roster already included the famous names of Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Everyman, Gollancz, Mitchell Beazley, Octopus, and Cassell. With the purchase of Hodder Headline they have now acquired the imprint of John Murray, the most celebrated and long-established independent British publisher. John Murray was founded in 1768 and its authors included Lord Byron, Jane Austen (Emma), Charles Darwin (The Origin of Species), Arthur Conan Doyle, John Betjeman, Kenneth Clark, Patrick Leigh Fermor and David Gilmour. It was only in 2002 that the firm, still chaired by a member of the Murray family, decided to sell out to Hodder Headline.

For a publisher such as Murray the loss of independence was offset by the opportunity to remain at the forefront of publishing through access to the corporation's resources, finding and marketing. Size and the deal-making clout that goes with it has become very important in the radically changed market for books. For example, there has been a steep decline in the number of independent bookshops and a considerable rise in the number of chain bookshops such as Waterstone's, Books etc, Dillons and Blackwell's. The ending of the Net Book Agreement in 1995 meant that publishers could no longer legally set the minimum price that a bookshop could charge. This consequently gave considerable power to those, such as the big chains and, increasingly, supermarkets, who could insist on large discount from the publishers and thus offer their books at prices far below the recommended retail price. This in turn fuelled a need to sell much larger numbers in order to make a profit for both retailer and publishers and brought about the culture of the bestseller, with huge advances for the author and expensive marketing and advertising.

The costs involved have proved beyond most firms, and in the space between the giant media groups and the small publishers only Bloomsbury (sustained by the huge revenues of the Harry Potter series) and Faber (until 2002 supported by huge revenues from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, based on poems by T S Eliot, Faber author and director) have kept the flag flying for the independents.

Inside the giants some famous imprints retain their cachet; Jonathan Cape and Secker & Warburg are now both part of Random House but retain their reputations for literary fiction. Fourth Estate was a sparky independent launched in 1984 which published Dava Sobel's Longitude and Annie Proulx's The Shipping News; in 2000 it was bought up by HarperCollins and its list retains the energy and oddity which first made its name. On the other hand The Bodley Head, a celebrated name, the first British publisher of James Joyce's Ulysses, and later on of the works of Graham Greene and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, has been downgraded to a children's imprint since its purchase by Random House.

Every week the trade magazine The Bookseller publishes a list of the 50 bestselling books - and though the names of the publishers are various, 45 out of the current list belong to the giant firms, Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins etc. Four of the others are from Bloomsbury (two Harry Potters) and, yes, one from tiny firm Profile: Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, which was published last November, has now sold an astounding 741,000 copies in hardback, and all without massive advertising or expensive marketing. It shows that, in some areas of publishing at least, the race is not always to the swift or the battle to the strong.