27 JUNE 1987, Page 21


welcomes the new internationalism in the book trade

THERE is whining from angry old fogies like Graham Greene at recent financial moves in the publishing industry, in par- ticular the takeover by American firms of famous British houses. I welcome these changes. They indicate to me that the industry is adjusting sensibly to the inter- nationalisation of book-publishing. For the takeovers are not one-sided. True, the big American firm Random House recently bought the British group which includes Jonathan Cape, Bodley Head and Virago. But another bid by a US firm, Simon & Schuster, to acquire Associated Book Pub- lishers (which includes Methuen and what used to be the famous old firm of Eyre & Spottiswoode) was outmatched, as was a rival bid by the British conglomerate S. Pearson, which owns Penguin. The winner was International Thomson, which is actually Canadian, though it has strong British connections. Thomson, it should be noted, sold Hamish Hamilton and Michael Joseph to Penguin in 1985, so there are swings and roundabouts in these transac- tions.

Moreover, the same thing is happening to American houses. My US publisher, Harper & Row, one of the most august and typically American', was recently acquired by Rupert Murdoch. Now I know that Murdoch has become, for business reasons, an American citizen, but his empire is not American in character. It is international, and the book section of it is if anything British, centred around his 42 Per cent shareholding in Collins. Mur- doch's first move was to send two senior Collins executives across the Atlantic to oversee the transfer of ownership. Again, Robert Maxwell, whose empire is mainly British at the moment, is trying to get hold of Harcourt Brace, the great US textbook Publisher. He has not got it yet because its boss has forced it to swallow a poisoned pill, a self-destructive move Maxwell is fighting in the US courts. He may well end uP with the trophy. At present he is buying Into Dutch publishing and he is certain to get a major US publishing house sooner or later (his British Printing Corporation is at present garnering £650 million in the mar- ket for fresh purchases).

The truth is, British entrepreneurs, or those operating mainly or partly from London, are now at least as aggressive and acquisitive as any other nationality. People often ask: where have the fruits of North Sea oil gone? The answer is that they have been used to build up British overseas investments to a level they have not attained since 1914, making our portfolio second only to Japan's. Much of this money has gone into America, especially top growth areas like Florida. Now that the stranglehold of the unions is being relaxed and British publishing is becoming highly profitable again, it is inevitable that our investment in the US industry, both books and newspapers, will grow. But it is wrong to see these moves as `invasions', judged in terms of convention- al nationalism. Most people have not yet grasped that all large-scale businesses are becoming international. Trillions of dollars can be transferred from one end of the earth to another in a matter of minutes. You can cross the Atlantic for a board meeting and be back in London the same day. The 1960s-style multinational, finan- cially and emotionally committed to a one-country base, will soon be as dead as

`I'll take this one.'

Western colonialism. Modern internation- al capitalism has no fixed base. Sir James Goldsmith, a typical 1980s pioneer, oper- ates as happily from New York as from Paris or London. Maxwell is as likely to take over an Italian or French television- and-radio venture as a British or American one. Murdoch's next big move could be in Central Europe — or the Far East, or Canada. These outsize characters still, have the power to astonish us, but during the 1990s such ocean-striding will become commonplace. Xenophobia and chauvin- ism no longer pay. Electronics, the demise of exchange control, supersonic jets have combined to produce a powerful cosmopo- litan force which, thank God, will act as a useful counter to the rising demand for protectionism.

Authors would be both narrow-minded and foolish to oppose this process. The book is a global product if ever there was one. As the world is homogenised by the confluent pressures of change, books will be directed increasingly at a world market of educated readers, built initially on the natural unity of the English-speaking com- munities, but taking into account the rapid- ly expanding Spanish and oriental language markets. I would now never dream of addressing a book primarily to a British readership. Publishers are right to set up commercial structures which take account of the new internationalism, and in particu- lar to operate from both sides of the Atlantic. Authors should welcome a de- velopment which, when efficiently con- ducted (an essential proviso, of course) must work in their interests.

Some authors fear these changes will make impossible a close, personal rela- tionship between writer and editor- publisher. I am not sure that such close relationships are in the author's interest (it is clear why they are in the publisher's). But there are many instances which prove they have always been compatible with large-scale operations. After all, the Mur- ray family, which dominated commercial publishing for much of the 19th century, specialised in such links. What matters is the character and quality of the editorial direction, and the proficiency of the com- mercial machine, not the size of the firm.

In any case, it is of the nature of capitalism that it allows enterprising men and women to identify gaps in the market and fill them. If the new internationalism in publishing reveals an unforeseen de- mand for small firms who can handle talented authors with more sympathy and success than the giants — or who can tap smaller, national markets more effectively — then we can be sure such business will emerge. There are some signs it is already happening. For the new technology, in all its forms, is not only pushing in the direction of big, supernational firms. It is also making possible the emergence of desk-top publishing, a phenomenon au- thors and the trade have scarcely noticed.