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'Harry Potter' publisher sees magic in digital ink

"Books can be paid for on the Internet, not given away for free," Bloomsbury Chairman Nigel Newton says.

London-based Bloomsbury Publishing moved into the digital era Tuesday, launching its first 24 digital downloads after a year in which boy wizard Harry Potter helped boost profits by 24 percent.

"Our first 24 titles went up an hour ago, and it's a very exciting initiative, because although it's not a big area now, it will be in the future," Chairman Nigel Newton said. "We want to stake out our territory," he added.

Bloomsbury posted a profit of $34.8 million in 2005, up from $28.44 million in 2004, and said it had made a good start to its new financial year. The shares rose strongly on Monday and touched their highest level in a month.

Bloomsbury announced a $26.18 million pound investment in the nonfiction arena of books about sport, music, TV and film, following the success of "The Two of Us" by Sheila Hancock, about her life with actor John Thaw.

Harry Potter put on a star performance in 2005, with "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" breaking sales records.

"We believe that 2006 will inevitably suffer from the Harry Potter effect," analyst Iain Daly at Bridgewell said, referring to the fact that there will be no hardback book launched this year.

But, Newton said, "There is a big Harry Potter launch--the paperback edition of 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'...and we've got the strongest program of new books in Bloomsbury's history, including Joanna Trollope and William Boyd."

Analysts had been keen for an update on what Bloomsbury intends to do with its spare cash of about $92.55 million.

Newton ruled out the possibility of returning it to shareholders after $26.2 million, or 15 million pounds, was earmarked for investing in books about films, TV, music and sports.

"We're putting up to 15 million pounds into this new-book area, and we're expanding our presence in the U.S. and U.K.," he said.

"This publishing model offers good organic-growth opportunities and a more attractive risk profile than most of the potential company acquisitions Bloomsbury has considered in the last year," the group said.

"Today's news on a new investment program in what the company expects to be exciting publishing areas--though not without risk--is a positive response to the absence of suitable acquisition targets," said Malcolm Morgan, an analyst at Investec Securities.

Newton criticized Google's incursion into the publishing arena. "Google, I do have a problem with, as they're giving away segments of books for free," he said.

"That's why we launched our download initiative today--to show that books can be paid for on the Internet, not given away for free."