Viv U books on block

Conglom eyes sale of entire pub division

NEW YORK — Vivendi Universal, heartened by interest in its publishing assets, is exploring a sale of the entire $5 billion division, including educational publishers in France and Europe and its big electronic game biz, people close to the company said Thursday.

Move would contradict chairman-CEO Jean-Rene Fourtou’s claim that Boston’s Houghton Mifflin is the only big publishing house on the auction block. But it’s increasingly clear that any and all Viv U assets are for sale at the right price, which makes the company’s strategic direction as big a mystery to Vivendi execs as it is to Wall Street and the rest of the entertainment industry.

“They will sell what they can sell getting good economic value. Then, they’ll say, ‘Whatever is left, that’s what we are,’ ” predicted one industry insider.

The French conglom is looking to shed about $10 billion in assets to help pay down its hefty $19 billion in debt. Aside from Houghton Mifflin, which has several potential buyers, Vivendi has plans to sell off parts of Canal Plus and stakes in Internet portal Vizzavi and consumer publishing.

Vodafone is hankering to buy Viv U’s controlling 44% stake in French telecom company Cegetel — an asset Vivendi has said it would like to keep.

U future uncertain

The future of Universal Studios and Universal Music remains a question mark, although most Wall Streeters widely expect them to be sold or spun off.

Vivendi is expected to settle on a course of action at a meeting in Paris Sept. 25.

Ahead of that confab, Fourtou will travel to Gotham next Thursday to meet with U Music execs. Then he’ll hit Los Angeles for powwows with top U execs, including Vivendi Universal Entertainment chairman Barry Diller.

Separately, Viv U named former French Treasury official Robert de Metz as exec VP to work on the company’s asset sales alongside operating chief Jean-Bernard Levy and chief financial officer Jacques Espinasse.

And a group of Viv U employees said it plans to file a lawsuit next week against former CEO Jean-Marie Messier and his management team for publishing false financial reports.

Viv U shares fell 3.32% Thursday to $11.36.

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