There is a very real possibility that France's number two book group—Hachette—will be able to take over France's number one, the book division of Vivendi Universal Publishing. Until now the two groups have been strong competitors in school and reference books, and the likelihood of merging their French-based publishing operations has caused considerable unease.

Paradoxically, although both France and the European Commission in Brussels keep close tabs on possible monopoly situations, they have been reined in by the determination of France's president Jacques Chirac to support Hachette's bid in order to keep VUP logos such as Larousse, Bordas and Nathan in French hands—and out of reach of U.S. and British investment funds. But the industry and, of course, employees of the targeted companies appear to worry more about the consequences of restructuring similar imprints than about keeping out foreigners.

In an unprecedented public reply to these concerns, Hachette is circulating a document contesting the charge of monopoly, arguing that the combined groups would represent only a third of French-language publishing; it points to the 31% market share of Mondadori in Italy, and Random House controlling 27% of the American market. (The French book trade weekly Livres Hebdo recently estimated the combined sales of VUP and Hachette at 37%—41%, adding that with their distribution facilities, VUP and Hachette combined account for two-thirds of the country's book market.)

In its defense, Hachette points to a group policy that has saved a number of imprints (such as Stock, Calmann-Lévy and Hazan) from extinction, while allowing them considerable autonomy. It took over a major educational house, Hatier—a direct competitor of Hachette's own school publishing—and has allowed it to prosper. Furthermore, Hachette fully expects VUP distribution to survive the merger, most likely as an independent entity.

In a separate statement on October 1, Hachette Livre's CEO Jean-Louis Lisimachio pledged that jobs will be safe in the acquired group—safer than they would be if outside investors became involved.

Beacon Wary

While the behemoths battle for VUP, Beacon Press, which is distributed by Houghton Mifflin, is looking to avoid being an acquisition casualty. Associate publisher Tom Hallock said that while the company would love to remain with HM, because an acquisition could lead to breaking up the company's sales force, Beacon is in discussions with other potential distributors. "Because of our size and sensibility, we need to think about the best way to reach our market. A distribution client can be a very small cork bobbing on the sea of all these changes, and we can't afford to have a bad nine months."