The Barnes &Noble/Ingram deal may have fallen through, but on a more modest scale, the Fnac book, music and electronics chain -- France's largest in book sales alone -- has acquired a group that includes both the wholesaler Société Française du Livre (SFL) and a smallish but growing Internet bookselling startup called Alibabook.

Trade insiders have no doubt that Fnac bought the unexciting SFL, one of the few remaining independent distributors, principally in order to exploit its sister company, Alibabook, which will allow Fnac's e-commerce operation to grow at a faster pace than its own start-up, Fnac Direct, has been able to achieve.

While some booksellers have expressed concern about the vertical merger, in fact SFL is hardly big enough to stir up the anticartel agencies of France or the European Union. Alibabook had another suitor, French trade weekly Livres Hebdo revealed -- In allying itself with Fnac, part of the hefty Pinault-Printemps-Redoute distribution empire, however, Alibabook is certain of powerful backing. Group owner François Pinault is billed as the richest man in France, and his son, François-Henri, is CEO of Fnac.