Hannibal hits Home Run; policing Potter

HANNIBAL IS BACK. But this time, it’s the historical Hannibal, the general from Carthage who led a herd of elephants across the Alps to wage war against Rome.

“Saving Grace” producer Mark Chowdy and his London shingle, Home Run Film Development, are in final negotiations to option “Hannibal,” a historical novel about the ancient warrior by Scottish writer Ross Leckie. Deal, brokered by Gotham-based William Morris agent Bill Contardi on behalf of Edinburgh-based publisher Canongate Books, is the fruit of an ambitious trans-Atlantic alliance among Canongate, Gotham-based publisher Grove Atlantic and WMA. Details of the pact were still being ironed out at the London Book Fair, but it could have far-reaching implications for the indie book trade.

Grove publisher Morgan Entrekin and Canongate publisher Jamie Byng, who aborted talks to merge their companies last year, have instead formed what Entrekin calls a “confederation” with fellow indie Perseus Books. The troika will share back-office functions like sales, warehousing and fulfillment in the U.K. Grove has just opened a U.K. imprint, Atlantic Books, and Canongate is dispatching an editor to Grove to oversee the launch of an American imprint, Canongate USA. WMA, which already repped Canongate for film, has just agreed to do the same for Grove. While Grove retains few film rights to its books, the house has become a veritable name brand in Hollywood as the publishers of “Cold Mountain,” “Sex in the City” and “Black Hawk Down.” As one of the last pillars of the indie press world, it’s also a brand name in the book industry, with a legacy that stretches back to the 1960s, when Grove fought landmark free speech battles to publish such books as “Naked Lunch” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

Grove has long been dogged by rumors that it will be swallowed up by a publishing behemoth like Bertelsmann. Entrekin says he’s been approached by some of the majors but has no plans to cash out. “I’m firmly committed to independence,” he says. “My exit strategy is death.”

Grove may not be the bastion of edgy, trailblazing books it was three decades ago, but the association with Canongate could restore some of those qualities. The 31-year-old Byng made his mark publishing cutting-edge Scottish fiction, including Michel Faber’s “Under the Skin” and Laura Hird’s “Born Free,” both of which were short-listed for the Whitbread first novel award last year. WMA set up “Under the Skin” at Film Four and is in the midst of negotiating a film deal for “Born Free.” And Byng, the subject of an upcoming profile in Details, is as much of a Hannibal of the party circuit at the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs as Entrekin.

“I’ve made deals at two in the morning,” says Entrekin. “Not a lot of Americans do that.”

ANOTHER FIXTURE AT RECENT international book fairs kept an unusually low profile in London — Harry Potter, who doesn’t have a new book for the first time in two seasons.

Two Harry Potter spinoff titles have just raised $50 million for the charity Comic Relief, leaving author J.K. Rowling free to focus her attention on the next big book. It’s not under contract Stateside, but Scholastic is expected to remain her publisher. That’s allowed Rowling’s agent, Christopher Little, to focus on a problem that bedevils every agent or publisher trying to manage a global brand: copyright infringement.

“There’s a massive amount of trademark violation and lookalike books,” he says. “We spend all our day going after pirates.” Rowling, says Little, is especially vulnerable to piracy, as the integrity of the series has long depended on her refusal to dilute the material. She initially resisted selling the books to Hollywood and has refused to abridge or bowdlerize the novels in any form.

But Rowling has since signed off on a deluge of Potter merchandise. However careful she is to approve each new Potter toy or trinket, the wave of merchandise will come to a boil with the release of the Warner Bros. film next fall, making widespread piracy all but inevitable. Though there were no Harry Potter banners or publicity stunts at the fair, Little was quick to point out that the franchise hasn’t slowed down. The series continues to dominate bestseller lists the world over, has recently been translated into such languages as Latin, Catalan and Basque, and is now published in more than 200 countries.

ICONOCLASTIC POP STAR BJORK was shopping an iconoclastic book in London. Coverless and hand-written, it is highly pictorial. Under most circumstances, publishers would balk at a book so costly to produce, but that’s not likely to bother Bjork. The singer and actress seems to grow only more popular with every baroque public gesture. “It’s for fans only,” says one publishing insider who saw the proposal. “But there sure are plenty of them.”

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