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The little guys see off the big battalions

12 May 2003

The seemingly endless news of corporate publishers acquiring small independents has been disrupted this week by two developments which many in the book trade will regard with relief.

The acquisition of the 105-year-old Duckworth Press in London by Overlook, Peter Mayer's small American company, will bring together two companies with a similar respect for the legacy of the past and a focus on backlist. Overlook, moving very fast, saw off nine other bidders, after there were 60 expressions of interest in Duckworth. Mayer is a well-known and much-liked figure in publishing, an American who spent 20 years at the helm of Penguin worldwide, overseeing a radical modernisation and expansion of the company. Overlook is the company he set up with his father and has been running full-time ever since he left Penguin. As its name suggests, it seeks out titles which have been 'overlooked' by other publishers.

In the meantime the sale of Time-Warner Books is not yet completed, but it looks as if Perseus may be close to concluding a deal. This coup would involve the acquisition of a company nearly four times its own size at what will probably be a knockdown price. Time-Warner Books has substantial US and UK publishing divisions, each one including backlists and fiction publishing programmes involving many major authors. The range is impressive, going all the way from the highly commercial to the respectably literary.

They say that timing is everything. With the current unwillingness of corporations to invest any further in general publishing and AOL Time-Warner's determination to sell, the time is ripe for an audacious coup of this kind. Agents and the authors they represent would be delighted if Time-Warner Publishing found a home with Perseus, rather than a media conglomerate such as Bertelsmann. This would avoid the layoffs and contractions that follow when corporations acquire another publisher. With corporate publishing acquisitions, the first move is to cut the company down to a size that is compatible with what they already have. In practice this has often defeated the object of the original acquisition. It is also generally bad news for the authors and publishing staff involved. So we can feel really positive about both these acquisitions, which should grow the publishing opportunities on both sides of the Atlantic.