A meeting of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation board today is expected to consider offloading its book publishing arm to … wait for it … Rupert Murdoch.

The licence — possibly in perpetuity — to run ABC Books has been on the market for several months. Crikey understands the one unsuccessful bidder was Melbourne University Publishing, but that the News Corp subsidiary HarperCollins is now the front-runner to get the nod and aquire a new imprint: ABC Books

Under an existing arrangement, Allen and Unwin manages sales and distribution for ABC Books titles. This has expired and ABC Commercial Director Lynley Marshall is understood to have made it clear she believes the stock risk for ABC Books should be held by an outside “partner” rather than the corporation itself. Consequently the proposed deal is expected to place control of all contracts, outstanding advances and stock into the hands of HarperCollins.

According to its website, ABC Books publishes more than 180 children’s and adult titles per year in a wide range of subjects including ABC program-related books, biography, science, politics, history, adult fiction, sport, Australiana, lifestyle and children’s titles such as Play School and Bananas in Pyjamas.

If it happens, this deal would raise all sorts of touchy questions about the relationship between the national broadcaster and Australia’s biggest media company. Such as:

  • HarperCollins would presumably gain access to commercials on ABC TV, radio and online to promote books it decides to publish under the ABC Books imprint — giving it a huge commercial advantage over its publishing competitors. These books could presumably be titles that HarperCollins might otherwise have decided to publish under another imprint.
  • Whether there could possibly be any connection between the ABC board inviting Rupert Murdoch to present this year’s prestigious Boyer Lectures and then, if it happens, handing over ABC Books to his publishing house a few weeks later.
  • The merits of ABC Books being run by an international media conglomerate, and the whole issue of media concentration in Australia.

The publishing relationship between the ABC and News Ltd is already close. News Magazines is the publisher of the ABC’s two biggest magazine titles, Delicious and Gardening Australia.

A spokeswoman for the ABC was unable to confirm the detail of the HarperCollins negotiation by Crikey’s deadline this morning.