Does Murdoch’s HarperCollins Move Presage a Sale?

In English Language by Roger Tagholm

No, said UK CEO Victoria Barnsley at the company’s annual party, where she also touted e-books and more.

By Roger Tagholm

Does HarperCollins’ separation from the film and TV side of Rupert Murdoch’s empire make it more or less likely to be sold? It’s a question many are asking as the publishing industry digests News Corp’s announcement that HarperCollins will now sit with Murdoch’s newspapers, including the UK Times and the Wall Street Journal, in a separate business away from his profitable film and TV operations, including 20th Century Fox and Fox News.

Victoria Barnsley addresses well wishers at HarperColllins UK's annual party last week

Not surprisingly, the publisher’s UK CEO Victoria Barnsley is hugely positive about the arrangement, arguing that in any case the splitting of the business is such a long and complicated process that it wouldn’t be contemplated if a sale was planned.  On the contrary, as she told guests at the publisher’s annual Author Party in London last week: “This gives us more clout and makes us a bigger fish in a smaller pond. There is also a history of this sort of arrangement, with Viacom and Simon & Schuster, and it means we will have more investment.”

The party was held at the splendid Orangery in Kensington Gardens, built in 1704, the year — as the more waspish of the industry’s seasoned observers put it — that stories about HarperCollins being for sale first emerged. One senior figure commented: “It’s been a rumor for years. This has been forced upon them by his board of shareholders. It’s a case of, stuff the publishing because it doesn’t make any money. Well, it makes a bit, but the newspaper side must lose a bundle. This is all about making it easier for Murdoch to push through the bid to take over all of BSkyB.”

Of course, as the old adage has it, everything is for sale at a price, but it seems the only firm offer that was made for HarperCollins was from Bertelsmann in the early 2000s at which time Murdoch did not want to sell. However, following last month’s announcement, one publisher speculated that the Swedish Bonnier group might be interested. “They’re very acquisitive — they’re in Germany and Holland, and they already have children’s and some illustrated in the UK. What if they wanted to add more?”

Another publisher said: “Murdoch has been trying to dump HarperCollins for the last 20 years. I think the last thing he’s bothered about at the moment is HarperCollins. It’s all about Sky and Fox News, and distancing publishing from that side of the empire. He’s just stuck HarperCollins there with the other publishing as an afterthought.”

In the meantime, the publisher has the Department of Justice to deal with. No, not the e-book price-fixing case — HarperCollins is one of the three publishers that settled with the DoJ earlier this year on that score. Now the DoJ is looking at monopoly issues in the Christian market, following HarperCollins’ bid to buy Thomas Nelson. HarperCollins also owns fellow Christian publisher Zondervan and there are concerns that the acquisition will destabilise the lucrative US bible market.

However, most of the authors at the party were almost certainly unaware of this case. Guests included novelists Rosie Thomas and Tracey Chevalier, historian David Starkey, Paddington Bear creator Michael Bond and agents Jonathan Lloyd of Curtis Brown, Carolyn Dawnay of United Agents and Ed Victor.

Barnsley told Publishing Perspectives that she now did most of her reading on iPad and Kindle, adding “and I think I’m reading more widely as a result.” She suggested that readers make more of a commitment when they buy a physical book and are less likely to abandon it. She was also hoping to persuade George R.R. Martin to be published digitally, chapter by chapter, so that the material could be fed out to his fans. “But he says he could never do that, because he always like to go back and revise what he’s written,” something that Chavelier agreed with.

And Barnsley’s own recent reading? “I’ve just read my first Lee Child — not my normal sort of thing — which I enjoyed. I went right back to the first one. But please, don’t draw any conclusions from that.”

That’s another aspect to the whole phone-hacking saga in the UK — would it put some authors off going with HarperCollins, everything else being equal? In recent years, only one author comes to mind who has chosen not to go with the publisher — Catherine O’Flynn, whose debut What Was Lost won the Costa First Novel award. For her second novel, The News Where You Are, she informed her agent Lucy Luck that she did not want to be published by Murdoch.

But then again, this could have its benefits. As one publisher remarked: “I’m sure HarperCollins are finding it harder to acquire authors now — that has to be a profit-enhancing move, I’d say…”

SURVEY: Would HarperCollins Be Better Off Outside News Corp?

About the Author

Roger Tagholm

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Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).