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London Diary
Jean Richard -- 4/13/98
Lawyers for HarperCollins may have apologized to Chris Patten for any suggestion that his book on the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong was boring and not up to scratch, but the affair has left quite a few other HarperCollins nonfiction authors uneasy about the future of their books. Even those well clear of Chinese topics are wondering what other Murdoch interests could turn out to be compromised. Chairman Eddie Bell, a famous survivor, is expected by industry observers to stay in place for at least six months.
Pushkin Press, a new publishing house that aims "to make the very best European literature available in English," has made an attractive debut with four short novels by Raymond Radiguet, Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig and Louis Couperus. Bravely supported by wealthy Melissa Ulfane, who can afford to back her faith in the appeal of European literature, Pushkin Press titles are elegant, small-format paperbacks printed on top-quality paper with distinctive French-style covers. They are a pleasure to own. The next four titles, due in May, have all been inspired by Venice and include a selection of letters by Henry James. Ulfane is looking for a U.S. distributor who shares her passion for civilized publishing.

Settings don't come more dazzling than the Goldsmiths Hall, recently the scene of an elegant lunch that brought together publishers, authors and politicians to hear that Ted Hughes had won yet another prize -- this time the L10,000 W.H. Smith Literary Award -- for his translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Faber &Faber/FSG). WHS, fresh from disposing of the upmarket Waterstones and acquiring the downmarket newsstand chain, Menzies, was in cultured mode with a short, very low-key award ceremony. The p t was not able to attend, but his Faber editor read a short message from the oracle, stressing his debt to Ovid.

The WHS Literary Award is in its 40th year, but IMPAC must be hoping it won't take as long to establish its prize. Despite being worth L100,000, which makes it the world's largest literary prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award -- now in its third year -- has so far failed to make much of an impact on the literary scene. It has taken librarians from all over the world so long to nominate the shortlist of 12 titles that it lacks excitement, and the distinguished but low-key judges don't quicken the pulse either. IMPAC has enlisted PR help, but perhaps it would do better to refocus its enthusiasm for fiction. Its spokesman had stars in his eyes when he spoke of what the prize could mean to a hard-up young writer, but shortlisted authors like Margaret Atwood and Graham Swift aren't exactly on the breadline.

Planned expansion in the bookshops helped to cheer chief executive Tim Hely Hutchinson, who confidently announced a record year for Hodder Headline, with pre-tax profits up 24% to a record L8.2 million (about $14 million). Declining overseas sales and disappointing results from the educational and academic division were offset by a buoyant U.K. market and a reduction in titles that enabled more backup for those published. Cricket umpire Dickie Bird's autobiography helped the figures, with sales of nearly 200,000 in hardback.

What's selling? Kathy Reichs's Deja Dead (Heinemann), only the eighth novel ever to go straight to the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list, is still in the top 10, but was displaced as number-one hardcover by William Boyd's Armadillo (H. Hamilton), followed by Joanna Trollope's Other People's Children and the latest Catherine Cookson, The Solace of Sin (Bantam Press). Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters (Faber) and Peter Ackroyd's new biography, The Life of Thomas More (Chatto), are the leading nonfiction sellers.
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