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News’ book bagged

Expansive Murdoch buys Hearst Book Group

NEW YORK — Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. agreed Thursday to buy the Hearst Book Group, consisting of Avon Books and William Morrow & Co., in the buy-or-die philosophy that’s redefining publishing.

The terms weren’t disclosed but observers estimated the price at between $150 million and $200 million. Frank A. Bennack Jr., president and CEO of the privately held Hearst Corp., acknowledged that publishing is becoming a terrain for behemoths, adding, “We’ve known for some time that HBG had to expand by acquisition, seek a merger partner or divest as we have done here.”

The deal nudges News Corp. into publishing’s big league with Bertelsmann, the German company that last year bought Random House from Advance Publications for more than $1 billion; and British conglom Pearson, which last year paid Viacom $4.6 billion for the professional and reference divisions of Simon & Schuster.

Reversal of fortune

The move represents a reversal of fortune for News Corp.’s HarperCollins, which was being considered for sale just two years ago. It began its expansion earlier this year by acquiring Ecco Press and the religious children’s book imprint Gold & Honey.

“We have orchestrated a significant turnaround at HarperCollins and are well-positioned to take the next step, to build on this experience and success to create an even stronger, more vital and profitable publishing company,” said Murdoch, News Corp. chairman and CEO.

Robert Gottlieb, a William Morris literary agent, called it “a great move for HarperCollins,” adding that Avon’s paperback operations should help the house compete for top commercial fiction.

The July sale is expected to cause redundancies, although Jane Friedman, president and CEO of HarperCollins, said they wouldn’t be identified until HBG’s absorption. Friedman also said she hadn’t decided whether or not to fold the Morrow and Avon names into HarperCollins Publishing.

Plenty of strengths

HarperCollins’ strengths are its business and self-help books, and a literary reputation bestowed on the house by authors including John Gray, Barbara Kingsolver, Rebecca Wells, Susan Isaacs, Tony Hillerman, Anne Rivers Siddons and Wally Lamb (Regan Books). HarperCollins Children’s Books includes bestselling authors Maurice Sendak and Shel Silverstein.

HBG — which publishes about 1,000 titles a year — will bring an active inventory of 6,000 titles.

Morrow, incorporated in 1926, publishes hardcover and paperback books in fiction, nonfiction and poetry for children and adults, by authors including Ken Blanchard, Beverly Cleary, Kevin Henkes, Faye Kellerman, Dennis Lehane, Sidney Sheldon and Vera B. Williams.

Avon Books, founded in 1941, has expanded beyond its fiction and nonfiction titles to include hardcover and mass-market formats.