While U.S. publishing houses sell a great deal of books to foreign countries, making many American books international bestsellers, the U.S. buys in very few. In fact, the percentage of published translations is extremely low, around just three percent. The German Book Office in New York City, in association with the German foreign offices and the Frankfurt Book Fair, is trying to change that, and last month brought seven children’s book editors to Germany for six days to view the German publishing landscape.
Riky Stock, director of the German Book Office in New York City, has accompanied a different group of editors to Germany for 12 years. Germany has a rich history steeped in literature and the GBO offers the trip to promote German books and to connect American editors with German rights directors and editors in order to establish a long-term relationship, and, hopefully, interest them with some German books to publish back home.
This year’s group, all children’s editors, consisted of Sarah Dotts Barley, editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books; Emily Clement, assistant editor at Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine imprint; David Gale, v-p and editorial director at Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers; Sarah Ketchersid, executive editor at Candlewick Press; Julie Matysik, editor at Skyhorse Publishing; Brian McMullen, editor and creative director at McSweeney’s Publishing; and Aubrey Poole, associate editor at Sourcebooks.
In mid-June the group traveled to Hamburg, Frankfurt, Weinheim, and Heidelberg, and met with a great number of children’s book publishers, as well as toured the National Library and a branch of the Thalia bookstore, the German equivalent of a Barnes & Noble. In order to expose the American editors to as much German literature as possible, Stock even set up a “speed dating” session where each editor met with nine German editors, who gave five-minute pitches about their books.
The last time Stock brought a group of children’s editors to Germany was in 2005. “It is amazing how much has changed within those seven years,” she said. “Digital publishing was not something we discussed back then, and it was interesting to learn how German publishers are responding to this fast-changing world.”
The German publishers admit that they are about two to five years behind the United States when it comes to e-books. According to Ketchersid, “The Germans are a bit behind us for sure, but they are all interested in e-books and publishers are coming up with plans. Most of the publishers we met with publish their frontlist digitally, so that is similar to the U.S.” Poole added, “They haven’t had that explosion of e-readers there, and e-books make up just five percent of the publishers’ sales.” Also, as Clement said, “Culturally, they seem to be more attached to the physical book.” Overall, hardcovers seem to be the norm. “The Germans prefer to buy hardcover books,” said Gale. “They think of them as keepsakes or a gift item.”
Some German publishers are more ahead of the curve than others in terms of e-book adaptation. Gale noted that Carlsen is developing a great number of apps for its books, and has partnered with Nosy Crow to develop some of them. And he was impressed with Oetinger’s platform called Onilo (onilo.de), in which the publisher animates picture books on a white board for classroom use. “That was the most tech-advanced thing we saw,” Gale said.
The visiting editors were surprised to learn that in Germany, there is fixed pricing on all books, with hardcovers selling for around 20 euros, paperbacks selling for 10 to 15 euros, and e-books priced a bit lower than paperbacks. “It creates a very different landscape for readers,” Clements said. “It’s different when you take the price of the book out of the equation.”
Even with fixed pricing, which dates back to the late 1800s, there is still turmoil in the German publishing industry, as independent bookstores are closing and the Internet is diverting sales from German bookstores, just as it does in the U.S. According to Ketchersid, “Fixed pricing might help the physical bookstores, but publishers were telling us that there is still stiff competition with the online booksellers because of the ease of ordering online. We visited the town of Weinheim, which has just 30,000 people, and residents said they were upset because they only have four bookshops left in town.” While that would seem like an abundance of bookstores in any American town, it illustrates the intellectual culture of books in Germany, and how keenly the loss of bookstores is felt in smaller communities.
What does seem to be staying strong in Germany is publishers’ commitment to their authors. Many participants were particularly struck by how the Germans are, as Dotts Barley put it, “publishers of authors. Every publisher we visited said their goal was to help their authors grow.” “If a first book has lackluster sales, they don’t give up on the author,” Matyksik said. “ In the U.S., we’re always looking for the next bestseller, but they were saying that sometimes it takes a while for an author to get their voice, sometimes three to five books. It is a really nice idea, as an editor, to cultivate someone’s career.”
Of course, sometimes cultivating a career isn’t necessary, as when the Germans buy in titles to translate, which make up a majority of the German lists. As Ketchersid noted, “I knew they bought in a lot, but some of the lists are 80% translations. The least amount of translations on any of the publisher’s lists is 50%.” Most of the titles come from the U.S., U.K., and Scandinavia.
The Reign of 'Romantasies'
The titles brought in from other countries are not unlike what the Germans are publishing on their own. “I think one thing that is similar is the rise in YA as a genre, and every German company was actively trying to find the next big YA series,” said Matysik. Paranormal romances, which the Germans have coined “romantasies,” are just as popular overseas as they are in the U.S., although the editors are feeling that the paranormal and dystopian saturation point is being reached, just as U.S. editors feel. Another similarity among both U.S. and German editors: both groups said they are looking for more realistic fiction to publish, as well as great middle-grade books.
The slush pile is alive and well in Germany; Matysik noted, “A lot of publishers said they found new authors from unsolicited submissions.” In addition, they also approach adult authors or young adult writers and ask them to write younger, for a middle grade novel or picture book, to fill up their children’s list. These practices are more common in Germany than in the U.S. because literary agents aren’t used that often, which came as a surprise to many of the participants. Clement said, “There isn’t that sort of middle step in Germany. I think that authors there think of their editor as taking on the career-shaping role, and here authors see the agent as that.”
All of the American editors said the trip certainly made them more aware of foreign books, and called the in-person connections to editors and sub-rights people invaluable, but hurdles to publishing titles in translation remain hard to ignore. Ketchersid hopes to bring foreign titles to Candlewick, but is cautious. “In order to even consider a book for publishing, we have to outlay a certain amount of money to see if we even like it,” she said, “so I feel like it’s something we’d have to very specifically want to do. For a publisher like Candlewick, we don’t have holes to fill, so I think it’s something we’d have to think of on a mission level where we’d specifically want to put new voices on our list. I’m definitely interested in doing that.”
Gale mentioned that he saw a number of books he was interested in while on the trip. “I did ask for more to be sent to me than I thought I would,” he said, remarking that the GBO will be a big help [if he wanted to purchase any German translations in the future]. “Each year the GBO will choose a few German books and will translate them for American publishers,” said Gale. “They also offer the service of writing up a synopsis and translating a few chapters. I don’t know any other country that does that.”
For Matysik and Clements, the trip solidified relationships they had already begun through e-mail, as both of the American editors have bought German titles before. “Meeting these people that I’ve been e-mailing for years definitely makes a difference,” said Clements. “I just got a Beltz & Gelberg catalog and now it makes me look at it a little differently. It increases your enthusiasm.”
Matysik said she currently has a German project on her desk that she hopes to pitch soon. “The trip was very fruitful and hopefully [Skyhorse] will be able to get a few projects here, especially in picture books, but also in middle grade and YA. I’m new to children’s books and I enjoyed just meeting new publishers. The trip was partly a fact-finding mission, and also a way to sell our books to them.”
For Poole, the trip raised awareness of how to go about buying a title in translation, and solidified relationships with foreign publishers. “Now they know who I am and they aren’t sending me just anything,” she says, “but rather things that are tailored to what my company does.”