BOSTON-BASED PUBLISHING HOUSE Houghton Mifflin may be the next target of French conglom Vivendi Universal’s latest media shopping spree.Just days after agreeing to acquire online music portal MP3.com for $372 million, Vivendi-U is in talks to buy Houghton for a price that could approach $2 billion, including an estimated $350 in debt. An education giant with a mid-size trade fiction and nonfiction arm, Houghton saw sales revenues last year of $1.03 billion, up from $920 million in 1999. Both companies declined comment. It’s a surprising move for Vivendi-U, a company that’s been pursuing sexier areas of the media, including film, music and wireless technology. But the acquisition compliments Vivendi’s sizable education publishing holdings in France. Vivendi Universal Publishing — which includes textbook divisions, Internet publishing holdings and trade divisions with rights to bestselling American writers like John Grisham and Stephen King, brought in 3.6 billion euros — roughly $3.1 billion — last year. The acquisition would also mark the latest push toward consolidation in the education publishing biz, an arcane but often hugely profitable sector of America’s $25 billion book market. Simon & Schuster sold its education division to Pearson in 1998 and Harcourt General recently agreed to be bought by Reed Elsevier, making Houghton the last major American independent education publisher. “There’s a lot of money to be made in this business if you do it right” says one Wall Streeter. Houghton’s trade and reference division revenues topped $100 million last year for the first time. Houghton owns American hardcover and paperback rights to the Lord of the Rings franchise, and publishes such authors as Philip Roth, Robert Stone and last year’s Pulitzer-prize-winner for fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri. Houghton’s stock closed Tuesday at a 52-week high of $57.45, up $3.95 or 7.4% from the day before. HOUGHTON MIFFLIN ALSO HAS a robust children’s division that’s just seen one of its titles optioned by Jim Henson Television in a deal that could be worth mid-six figures. “The Monster Garden” is a new spin on the story of Frankenstein by Vivien Alcock. It depicts a young girl named Frankie whose father is a mysterious scientist. When her brother steals some mysterious goo from her father’s top-secret lab, Frankie turns it into a monster. With “Shrek” and “Monsters, Inc.” in theaters this summer, there seems to be a run on the genre. But Henson has set its sights on the international airwaves. “Monster Garden,” repped by Sterling Lord Literistic agent Jody Hotchkiss, is the first acquisition in a new line called Jim Henson Family Films — a series of TV films to be packaged for a worldwide TV market. The series is being overseen by Juliet Blake and Angus Fletcher, prexies of the Jim Henson Television Groups in the U.S. and Europe, respectively. FIRE-BREATHING, TONGUE WAGGING rock impresario Gene Simmons has long since hung up his spandex – the former KISS bassist has now turned his talents to film production. His shingle Gene Simmons Prods. has features set up at MTV, VH1, Canalplus and other production entities around town. But Simmons plans to revisit the glam-rock franchise that spawned a million KISS lunch boxes, sold 80 million records and introduced the term plaster caster to the American vernacular. Crown has bought his autobiography, “Kiss and Make Up,” and will publish 100,000 copies of the book next January. Simmons, who was born Chaim Witz, is the Yeshiva-educated son of a concentration camp survivor. “Kiss and Make Up” will recount his childhood, the rise and fall of KISS and his romances with such women as Cher and Diana Ross. In an unusual collaboration, Simmons has enlisted Ben Greenman, a writer for the New Yorker and the Dave Eggers lit journal McSweeneys, to lend a hand with the writing. In August, McSweeneys will publish “Superbad,” a collection of Greenman’s fiction. EDWARD NORTON IS ADAPTING Jonathan Lethem’s novel, “Motherless Brooklyn,” for New Line. Novel was optioned by New Line in 1999 and Norton was attached to star as Lethem’s hero, Lionel Essrog, who’s afflicted with Tourettes. The story follows Essrog, an alumnus of the Saint Vincent’s Home for Boys, a Brooklyn orphanage, as he sets about solving the murder of his former employer, a sketchy small-time mobster. Project survived the management transition at New Line, and the mini-major has now bought the project outright. It’s Norton’s first screenplay for a studio feature. MARKETING ZEALOTS Mark Victor Hansen, co-creator of the “Chicken Soup For the Soul” series, and Robert G. Allen, author of such books as “Nothing Down” and “Creating Wealth” have sold close to 80 million books between them. Now the duo have embarked on an unusual venture to bring some of that magic to Hollywood. Hansen and Allen have sold a book to the Harmony imprint of the Crown Book Group called “One Minute Millionaire” and plan to shop it to studios later this week. Part fiction, part self-help, “Millionaire” is about a woman whose husband is killed in a car accident and who loses her kids to manipulative in-laws. Her in-laws promise she can regain custody if she can make $1 million in 90 days, a feat she accomplishes by networking with mothers across the country. Deal with Crown calls for Hansen and Allen to attempt a similar feat, vigorously marketing their own book, well before it’s even available in bookstores, through corporations and seminars. What’s more unusual, however, is that Hansen and Allen think they can market a “One Minute Millionaire” feature the same way. Through incentives like free books and a contest with $1 million in prize money, they hope to sell 10,000,000 tickets before opening night. It’s a far-fetched idea, but several production companies are sufficiently intrigued by the gambit that they’ve already lined up meetings with Hansen, Allen, agent Jillian Manus and Scott Steindorf, who’s attached as a producer, for the end of the week.
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