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Maxwell to Sell Computer Book Publishing Unit : Media: If approved by regulators, the deal would make Paramount Communications the industry leader.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Plucking a prime asset from a debt-straitened rival, cash-rich Paramount Communications Inc. agreed Tuesday to buy Maxwell Communication Corp.'s Macmillan Computer Publishing unit for $157.5 million.

The deal, which is subject to regulatory approval, would catapult Paramount’s Simon & Schuster unit to the top of the lucrative computer book publishing field.

For Maxwell Communications, already scrambling to raise cash even before founder Robert Maxwell’s mysterious death at sea last week, the transaction would further dismember the global media empire built by the swashbuckling publisher on a mountain of debt.

Earlier this year, Maxwell disposed of its prized Pergamon Press scientific publishing unit for $760 million and of Macmillan’s directory business--which includes Marquis Who’s Who--for $145 million. Just last Thursday, two days after the 68-year-old Maxwell disappeared from his yacht and was found dead in waters off the Canary Islands, the company agreed to sell its Berlitz International Inc. language instruction subsidiary for $265 million.

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Macmillan Computer Publishing “is about as core an asset as Maxwell had, and its sale indicates that they’re willing to sell just about anything,” said Jim Milliot, editor of BP Report, a Wilton, Conn.-based newsletter about the book-publishing industry. “Who knows what’ll be left when they’re are done.”

Other judgments were less harsh. Macmillan Computer Publishing “is a remarkably successful unit, but an argument can be made that it was a reasonable thing to sell,” said Dan McCarthy, editor of Computer Publishing and Advertising Report in Larchmont, N.Y. “They were able to get a good multiple without destroying the rest of the company.”

Macmillan Computer Publishing, the world’s largest publisher of computer-related books, posted operating profits before interest of $17.5 million on sales of $59.7 million in the fiscal year ended March 31.

Jonathan Newcomb, president and chief operating officer of Simon & Schuster, said the company was drawn by Macmillan Computer’s “healthy margins and strong long-term growth prospects in the U.S. and internationally.”

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Computer books, one of the few dynamic areas in publishing these days, have posted “consistent double-digit growth in recent years,” Newcomb added. Macmillan’s computer books provide “must-have information in a rapidly changing marketplace,” he said.

Macmillan Computer’s imprints include Que, New Riders, Sams and Hayden. Among the unit’s best-selling books are “Using WordPerfect 5.1,” “Using Microsoft Windows 3" and “Inside AutoCAD.”

“The more people who use computers, the more people who are ready to buy books to tell them what to do,” Milliot said.

McCarthy noted that Simon & Schuster would bring distribution and marketing muscle to Macmillan’s computer book line, but cautioned that the field remains hotly competitive.

Just this year, he noted, the two biggest computer magazine publishers--Ziff-Davis and International Data Group--entered the fray. And while each is expected to sell less than $5 million in books this year, “they have got an incredible intrinsic advantage: the ability to sell books directly to their readers,” McCarthy said.

“It’s a very tough market,” he added, “and things can change quickly.”

Until the mid-1980s, McCarthy noted, Prentice Hall--now part of Simon & Schuster--held the top position in computer book publishing. “They were seemingly unassailable,” he said, “and then it all fell apart.”

Leading Publishers of Computer Books 1. Macmillian Computer Publishing: $59.7 million 2. McGraw-Hill: $35 million 3. Microsoft: $16.5 million 4. Sybex: $15.5 million 5. Addison-Wesley (unit of Pearson): $15.5 million 6. Bantam (unit of Bertelsmann): $15 million 7. Simon & Schuster (unit of Paramount): $10 million Source: Communications Trends Inc., Larchmont, N.Y.

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