NEW YORK — With the consumer magazine industry nearly “consolidated out,” the mergers-and-acquisitions game is now being played predominantly in trade and business-to-business publishing — during a period industry players are dubbing the “hottest market in the last 10 years.”

The year 1997 had been considered “the year of the deal,” with key M&As including Disney’s sale of Chilton Publishing to Reed Elsevier for $447 million and Time Warner’s sale of American Lawyer Media for $70 million to Wasserstein Perella & Co., which, in turn, (under the name American Lawyer Group), acquired National Law Publishing from Boston Ventures for $200 million.

Total deals for 1998, however, are expected to be higher. Already, a May report from Gotham-based media investment firm DeSilva & Phillips lists 97 magazine M&A deals during the 12-month period ending April 30 totaling $2.6 billion, while the same period a year ago saw 89 deals totaling $1.52 billion.

“The moons are all in alignment,” says Primedia veepee of corporate development Mark Colodny. “A strong economy, low interest rates, and moderate paper prices” are all combining to create a market that brokers and media analysts usually only dream about.

Primedia (a major player in 1997 with 16 transactions), he says, is continuing merrily along the acquisitions trail, having snapped up Fleet Street (publisher of the top equine enthusiast magazines) just last week for an undisclosed amount.

At the third annual magazine publishing M&A forum, sponsored last week by the Jordan Edmiston Group investment banking firm, Colodny also said: “Bigger is better, for any number of reasons scale is really important. It’s getting harder and harder to go it alone and big pricetags are bringing more and more of the smaller sellers out of the woodwork.”

In fact, a soon-to-be-released study, from media investment banking firm Veronis, Suhler & Assn., shows the average value of magazine transactions five years ago was $56 million. In 1997, that average jumped to $377 million.

According to attendees canvassed at the Jordan Edmiston forum (including 62 owners, CEOs and senior-level managers of mag industry companies), 82% are contemplating a merger or acquisition within the next three years, and 68% said they will ink a deal this year.

The most activity, the report shows, will involve publications bringing in between $5 million and $30 million in revenue: niche specialty mags, enthusiast titles and trades.

Price multiples for these smaller mags can be high, in some cases 20 times the earnings, simply because “first- and second-tier books may want them in order to complement other titles and consolidate their positions,” Colodny said.

The principal strategic goals of the M&As, according to 75% of the mag industry execs, are “to increase market share and create financial and operating synergies.” Legal and tax issues were cited as their “greatest concerns” in the acquisitions process.

Nearly two-thirds of the survey respondents also indicated they are considering the acquisition of a tradeshow or event as part of their growth strategy.

“Tradeshows are a better margin business than publishing for these companies,” George Cole, a managing director for First Union Capital Markets, told Daily Variety.

Business-to-business activity will be the next big thing, Cole said. “There will be a great wave of consolidation there, as they are still spread out, and you’ll see a good number of these companies going public.”

“One of the biggest questions at the moment, though,” says Jim Wood, also a managing director at First Union, “is with newspaper-company-owned magazines.

“Will they hold on or sell?”