While German publishing is notably decentralized, it's still a surprise to find that a prominent German publishing house isn't where you expect it to be -- conveniently in Frankfurt, say, or more logically within the Munich cluster of trade imprints. What, then, do we say abut Hamburg, that venerable Hanseatic port city no easy drive from anywhere? And what about Berlin, once and future capital, still further distant from the median point of the publishing trade? Both cities are home to publishing houses well worthy of a closer look.
Hamburg -- Outside and In
For an American, Rowohlt may be the best-known German logo of them all, not only as a pioneer publisher of Hemingway and his contemporaries, but also thanks to the charisma of its late publisher, the peripatetic Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt. Ledig, who before his death sold his company to the Holtzbrinck group, was followed by another compulsive traveler, Michael Naumann, now about to journey on from Henry Holt. PW meets Naumann's successor, Nikolaus Hansen, 46, on his own turf, in the Hamburg suburb of Reinbek for the first time. An academic, then a writer and editor, Hansen was at Hamburg's pocket-size but devilishly innovative Rogner & Bernhard when Naumann tapped him.
|Frankfurt Journal: The Small, The German and the Online |
Speaking of German online booksellers...
Through its Telebuch subsidiary, Amazon.com owns a good chunk of German online bookselling, and Bertelsmann's Books Online will begin operations next month, but independent German booksellers, supported by wholesalers and the industry trade association, are trying to carve out a slice of the virtual pie.
An estimated 1200 of all 5000 German booksellers sell online, and 550 of them are represented online through a two-year-old site offered by the B rsenverein, the national publishers, wholesalers and booksellers association. Customers have access to 800,000 German-language titles; some 100,000 English-language titles will be added next year.
Libri, one of the largest German wholesalers, offers a site that currently allows 250 booksellers to sell books online. Orders are still low -- about 300 a day with 10,000 visitors -- but growing. Also, all but 20 of the booksellers do not charge for shipping. Since Germany still has fixed prices on books, the seemingly inevitable price competition that occurs online is limited to the shipping fee.
With the book market expected to grow at most by 2%, it's no wonder German booksellers are looking online for a little extra growth. Another area of opportunity, which parallels developments in the U.S.: audiobooks.
Sales of audiobooks have doubled in the past five years, and some 80% of all audiobooks sold by H rverlag, the audio house founded in 1993 by eight large German houses, are sold in bookstores. Furthermore, a recent survey of the German public found that almost half of all German are interested in audiobooks with readings, lectures and radio plays on them. This year audiobook sales should grow by 15%.
Hansen actually presides over three companies: Rowohlt Verlag, Rowohlt Taschenbuch for paperbacks and Rowohlt Berlin, set up in 1990 in the euphoria of reunification. Rowohlt produces some 80 new hardcovers annually, plus a whopping 600 paperbacks -- and business manager Eckhard Kloos d sn't let the visitor forget that Rowohlt was the first German pocket publisher of them all.
PW also spots a familiar face in Hans Georg Heepe, publisher for trade books (fiction and nonfiction, translated and foreign-language). Some 60% of his list is fiction, and two-thirds of that is translated, as is half the nonfiction. This is the home of America's finest -- Sinclair Lewis in his day, Thomas Pynchon and Paul Auster today. In Heepe's view, Rowohlt serves German letters by publishing American.
Hansen has begun adjusting to the times, although making clear that "the real changes are ahead of us." He introduced a line of entertainment fiction priced for outlets in which the house had not done significant business until then, such as supermarkets. At the same time, he augmented production of upscale paperbacks to reach consumers who now resist Germany's hardcover prices.
Hansen also lets it be known that German readers now prefer books more closely connected to their own experience -- meaning by other Europeans. As a consequence, American authors no longer sell as many copies. Among the titles on the current list: Rita Mae Brown's autobiography, Colum McCann's novel This Side of Brightness, Melanie Rae Thon's Iona Moon, Robert Coover's John's Wife: A Novel and Richard Dawkins's Climbing Mount Improbable.
Back in central Hamburg, PW's envoy meets Rainer Moritz, recent replacement for Lothan Menne as publishing director of bestseller publisher Hoffmann & Campe, flagship imprint of the Jahreszeiten book and magazine group, which includes Grafe & Unzer cookbooks and the venture that produces the German edition of the Guinness Book of World Records and similar "fact books."
Moritz, who came from Leipzig's small, successful literary imprint Reclam, intends to hold a steady rudder; if changes there are, they will be market-driven, for he too notes the tendency of book buyers to seek out European equivalents of the Anglo-American blockbusters for which Hoffman & Campe is known. Yet this house by the lake is the German home of John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell, Tom Clancy, Erica Jong, Anne Rice -- as well as rising star Andrei Makine from France via Russia and Siegfried Lenz from Germany. No doubt about it, Lothar Menne's 10-year reign gave Hoffmann & Campe the highest profile a German trade house can get (Menne is now publisher for Munich paperback giant Heyne).
But while The Firm did 250,000 copies in its time, today a number one bestseller can't expect to exceed 200,000 copies. High book prices meet increased buyer resistance, although Germany's demand for American authors is still strong and the arrival of new German bidders with deep pockets keep rights prices up. Yet Moritz is convinced that his scouting the next generation and new horizons -- Ireland, say, and Sweden -- will pay off. Hoffmann & Campe also has a new list of original paperbacks, designed to reduce prices by half.
At the moment H&C releases 60 to 70 new titles a year, half in fiction, 60% to 70% of that translated -- a ratio that won't change, although the countries of origin of foreign books just might.
In nonfiction, translations account for half the list. Here Hubertus Hrabe, senior editor for nonfiction, points to some recent highlights: the books of Bill Gates and Robert McNamara, Joyce Milton on the Lindberghs, Seymour Hersh on Camelot's dark side. Hrabe wishes that the house had been able to publish Daniel Goldhagen on the role of the average German in Nazi crimes (Siedler won the rights), and wishes even more that he could find German authors to write about Germany.
In a narrow street in the old town center, PW makes a first-ever visit to Rogner & Bernhard, Nikolaus Hansen's old firm. A 1968 venture that thought it had found its public, but nevertheless, (like many of its counterparts of the time) went belly-up, R&B is now part of an unusual chain store and catalogue operation called 2001. In essence, Rogner & Bernhard is the packager for 2001 (and for other publishers who like what they do, such as Rowohlt).
Meet Antje Landshoff, who married into the German-Dutch publishing dynasty (Andreas Landshoff, ex-Abrams man in Europe, is her father-in-law). She was one of the original associates in R&B, is proud of their discovery of Woody Allen for the German market and is convinced that the association with 2001 allows her and copublisher Klaas Jarchow to do books that a small imprint should do but usually can't. Jarchow speaks of Tobias Wolff, a house favorite.
R&B -- or rather 2001 -- has a very special clientele. Some 750,000 copies of the catalogue are mailed out six times a year -- to people who tend to be a little better educated than average, a little further to the left, more likely to listen to music, to be younger.... So they can publish, for profit, Norman Rush's Mating, but also the French surrealist writers and p ts, or Jean Rhys, or an encyclopedia of music, as well as science fiction and Kliban's cartoons.
Small and Specialized
Today pocket-size Europaische Verlaganstalt -- EVA for short -- is two publishers in one. The flagship house was founded soon after the war by dissident Social Democrats, non-Marxist but militant, who published rather bold books for their time (including stories of Jews who had survived the camps). Cash-short, EVA got a lift from the trade unions and diversified into controversial fiction, books by independent thinkers such as Hannah Arendt. EVA won sympathies because it was run as a democracy rather than a business -- which wasn't always good for business.
In 1979, EVA was sold to two partners, one of them Kurt Gr newold, left-wing attorney notably for the terrorist gangs then much in the news. The partners focused on political and social science; later under Gr newold and his publisher wife Sabine, a professor of literature, the firm broadened its horizons to embrace cultural and contemporary history, belles lettres. Today, EVA d s no more than 30 new books a year, half of them translations -- especially in fields such as biography, which the Anglo-Americans do best.
In 1993, the Gr newolds took over Rotbuch, founded two decades earlier by young editors who broke with Berlin's Klaus Wagenbach. Politically to the left, Rotbuch had a strong literary base; today its 40 annual titles include p try as well as fiction, crime and cartoons, but also (when they find them) good books on political themes. Vito von Eichborn, ex-Fischer Verlag, presides over Rotbuch. He has an unusual niche, in fact a corner on the market for Irish writers. So Rotbuch shared in the Nobel aura surrounding Dario Fo and is now betting on William Trevor. Eichborn tells PW that he seeks out books -- fiction or not -- focused on place, and people in that place. He assigned a German author to do the first book on Herbert Hunke, Chicago-born New Yorker, self-styled drug addict and criminal, inventor of the term "beat."
Carlsen Verlag opened for business in the early 1950s simply to distribute the children's books of the Danish parent house, moving very gradually into publishing. In 1980 the Swedish Bonnier group bought Carlsen, operating affiliates in Sweden and Norway as well as Denmark. In Hamburg, PW sits down with publisher Klaus Humann, who describes a brisk output of comic albums, chiefly from France and French-speaking Belgium, and a general list beginning with board books and running all the way up to young adult.
Carlsen's Pixi line -- backbone of the company's production -- really has no competition. These mini picture books, sold off racks for pfennigs as impulse buys for screaming tots, have positioned Carlsen among Germany's top 10 in children's publishing (they don't exist in English). Translations account for a good part of the list -- from Scandinavia as much as from Anglo-America. In a new line of picture books, names like Albert Cullum, Catherine Cowan and Mark Buehner appear.
Gingko Press is surely Hamburg's most unexpected book house. Originally set up in 1982 to bring English-language titles to Germany -- both in original editions and via translation licenses-today it's both importer -- exporter and original publisher. Credit Mo Cohen, trained at New York's Schocken when it was a branch of the Tel Aviv dynasty, but who then moved to Hamburg to marry -- and to improvise a business. He began by promoting the wares of New York's Schocken and Calloway, and London's Verso. For Black Sparrow Press he took on both sales and rights, which made him the agent for cult stars Charles Bukowski and John Fante. Today Gingko distributes into Germany for houses such as Electa of Milan (and sometimes d s a co-edition for the English-language market), Hearst Books International, Graphis Press and Nippon Book (Tokyo). Often Cohen takes on European or even world rights for a promising art title.
Half a dozen years ago the Cohens (Mo plus wife, partner and art director Julie von der Ropp) were ready to make another move -- back to Northern California, where Mo grew up. There, in Corte Madera, Gingko Press Inc. became a base for the negotiation of U.S. rights.
PW visits the state-of-the-art studio in Gingko headquarters in a Hamburg residential district, then engaged in adapting a new Phaidon title to German. Among other upcoming projects: Yiddishland, based on an extraordinary collection of postcards found in France, of all places (by Hazan), and Industrial Heritage of the USA, another French original to be translated (perhaps with a U.K. partner) -- and Cohen expects this one to make a killing in America.
Berlin's Post-Wall Book World
If Hamburg in its placidity is the ideal workplace, Berlin is a boom town, the world's biggest construction site, but a makeover with sufficient reminders of the remote and recent past to let a visitor feel part of the history. PW's last tour of Berlin, a dozen years ago, included a grisly crossing at Checkpoint Charlie to see how the book trade functioned in one of the world's most oppressive cities. Now the Friedrichstrasse -- once a terrifying crossing point -- is only a subway stop. Last time around, PW's correspondent climbed steps to a shaky observation deck overlooking the gray cement barrier with its barbed wire enhancements and watchtowers. Try to recognize the site now, with a Renzo Piano building complex almost completed, a project including a shopping center with a branch of the Hugendubel book-store chain. It took time, but Germany's major booksellers are now on their way here, for Berlin is about to become a capital again.
"When you do something new," new publisher Arnulf Conradi of Berlin Verlag tells PW, "you go where things are interesting. That means Berlin, on either side of the old wall."
"As far as publishing is concerned," Munich agent Michael Meller sums it up, "Berlin has certainly become more interesting than it was before the fall of the wall. It's the most vibrant city in Germany, and it will certainly become a must for anyone in the media field. I guess everyone is waiting for the government to move before making a total commitment."
Mixing Business and History
Take Ullstein, the pre-Hitler publishing dynasty, the name kept alive by the Axel Springer press group; a conservative and a militant anti-Communist, Springer built his headquarters building alongside the wall so that East Berliners could see it and hear every note of the jazz blasting from its rooftop loudspeakers. "We used to walk by on the way home from school," a present Ullstein employee who grew up in East Berlin tells publisher Wolfram Gobel, "and our teacher would point up and say, 'This is our enemy!'"
Ullstein is once more -- after a partnership that didn't last -- a 100% Springer company. In its latest incarnation, the owners wisely hired Wolfram Gobel away from Munich's DTV. Obviously, Gobel will be working at regaining market share for the ubiquitous Ullstein paperback list, while giving some international oomph to hardcover Ullstein Verlag; he's also in charge at Propylamen, the traditional upscale line for literature, history and biography, and at International Paperbacks Ullstein, importer of current British and American paperbacks. His writ also includes management of two East German imprints taken over after reunification: one for health and medicine, the other for sports.
In all, 500 to 600 new titles a year are produced by a staff of 70. Presently, the list is 60% fiction, a ratio expected to decrease. Six books in 10 are translations, chiefly from English. Ullstein is the German publisher of James Ellroy, and Gobel wants more of the same, but he won't try to outbid the trusts. He'll look for younger authors, like Britain's Leslie Forbes, author of Bombay Ice, or American Pulitzer winner Phyllis Alesia Perry (Stigmata). Recently, he introduced Germany's third trade paperback series, after DTV's and Goldmann's, with titles such as Douglas Rushkoff's The Ecstasy Club and Tim>othy Leary's Design for Dying.
In the gloom of East Germany, Aufbau-Verlag often seemed a lighthouse, publisher of the regime's most outspoken writers, and even harbored a few dissidents among its myriad employees. After reunification Aufbau went on the block with most other Eastern assets. It found a buyer in Bernd Lunkewitz, a successful property investor from the West, who at the same time took over the 150-year-old imprint Rutten & L ning, another foundering East German logo; later he tacked on East Germany's Gustav Kiepenheuer (not to be confused with the West's Kiepenheuer & Witsch).
Amazingly, investor Lunkewitz became his own publisher; although he still uses income from real estate to finance his publishing, his goal is to build a major new group for Germany, based to the extent possible on German writing. Aufbau is still located in the old eastern half of Berlin; managing director Lunkewitz is there when he's not at Gustav Kiepenheuer in Leipzig (or in Frankfurt collecting rent). In Leipzig, he acts as his own publisher, running Kiepenheuer as a general trade house; in Berlin, he relies on his publishing director Rene Strien (ex-Bastei-Lubbe). All told, the Lunkewitz companies do some 240-280 titles annually; at Aufbau the breakdown is fiction and nonfiction in equal doses. Rutten & L ning, originally an upmarket list, has been turned into an outlet for such fiction as Donna Cross's Pope Joan, which did better in Germany than in the U.S.).
Early on, Bernd Lunkewitz gained fame by selling the diaries of Victor Klemperer -- one of the rare Jewish intellectuals to survive life in Nazi Germany -- to Random House for a record $551,000 advance. Also found in the Aufbau archives: enough material to allow production of an unabridged version of a major novel of life in East Germany by the late Brigitte Reimann, contemporary and correspondent of Christa Wolf. The Aufbau backlist -- now scheduled for paperback reprintings -- includes work by Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, Heinrich Mann and Anna Seghers, and "the best translations" of English classics such as Jane Austen.
Though favoring native talent, Aufbau has been buying from outside, with translations now accounting for half the Rutten list, a third of Aufbau's. Recent titles: Douglas Coupland's Generation X, Peter Cameron's Andorra and Stephen Fenichell's Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century (HarperBusiness).
Without the help of blockbusters, Lunkewitz's properties are gaining market share. "We're now in a position to pay big advances," Lunkewitz says, "but we prefer to put the money into promotion."
The Holtzbrinck Circle
Both German megagroups are engaged in Berlin -- and timidly, at least until recently. Now they are both about to raise the ante. In the unprepossessing courtyard building that provides a roof for Holtzbrinck's Argon VerlagPW meets Peter Wilfert, whose present career is a tale of two cities. While running Berlin's Argon, Wilfert is also in charge at Kruger, bestseller imprint of Frankfurt's S. Fischer Verlag, while editing a list at the Fischer paperback imprint. He and Argon editor-in-chief Hans Christian Rohr were just finishing the makeover of the Berlin imprint, which began as a publisher on Berlin themes. Beginning this autumn, Argon Verlag becomes a general publisher, geared to compete with the biggest and the best, meaning as it usually d s that the fiction list will be dominated by translations, although nonfiction will remain German-origin, and when possible of local interest.
Expect more visits to New York and London by Wilfert and Rohr, and add them to the list of potential buyers of blockbusters. Then will Argon be a clone of Kruger? Wilfert makes it clear that Kruger targets women (if only because 95% of German booksellers are women); its typical author is Barbara Wood. If Argon isn't exactly designed to be male-oriented it will be able to do a John Grisham, for example. The plan is to keep editorial and production activities in Berlin, although the sales force will be Fischer's in Frankfurt. It'll do only 20 titles a year, divided more or less equally into fiction and nonfiction. "We think that agents and authors will appreciate being one of five novelists on a list, which will allow us to pay a lot of attention to them."
Speaking of small houses: walk upstairs in the Argon building to meet Alexander Fest of Alexander Fest Verlag -- the former, at 38, quite possibly the city's youngest publisher, the latter its latest logo. Fest, son of historian and Hitler biographer Joachim Fest, spent five years at Siedler before setting up his eponymous imprint, then sold it to S. Fischer, thereby becoming part of the Holtzbrinck family.
Fest's objective was to find and publish work of his own time and place -- rather than to go with the expected translations from abroad. He is certain that Germans can be found to write about contemporary history, especially their own. And they'll be seeing it from the angle of what is being called "the Berlin republic," to distinguish it from the soon-to-disappear "Bonn republic." The question is, who will become the liberal publisher of this Berlin republic? Logically, it will be one of the new publishers -- and why not Alexander Fest? Obviously, Fischer's Monika Sch ller sees it that way, too.
Fest Verlag got on the map with a novella by a young German compared by critics both to Gertrude Stein and Thomas Bernhard in its minimalism, but which sold a rather maximum 70,000 copies. Fest publishes some 20 new books a year, six in 10 of them nonfiction, although some of the latter are also classed as literature (In Cold Blood); literary biography; and personal memoirs, such as The Year of Reading Proust by Phyllis Rose (Scribner). Among other acquisitions: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century by Mark Mazower (Penguin UK).
The Holtzbrinck group is also represented in the new capital by Rowohlt Berlin, created by Rowohlt publisher Michael Naumann to celebrate the demolition of the Wall. The hope was to publish for and about the new East, based on the conviction that even the West would be transformed by the new state of affairs -- perhaps a bit too visionary to be practical. Rowohlt's first office was opened on the western side of the city and moved over to the former eastern zone a year ago.
Here PW meets publisher Ingke Brodersen, who had edited political books at the Rowohlt paperback house back in Reinbek. She describes a publishing program of at least 25 new titles a year, about a third of them fiction. She d s German books preferably, East Europeans when she can find them, occasionally a translation from English. None of her authors is a star, although she hopes to make them stars in Rowohlt jackets. Brodersen has to admit that most of her books are still sold in what was once the West.
New from Bertelsmann
The big news at the time of PW's tour was being made by Bertelsmann, which took majority control of upstart Berlin Verlag, putting it together with prestigious Siedler, thereby telling the world that Bertelsmann believed in Berlin after all.
The founding of Berlin Verlag had been another, earlier news story. Arnulf Conradi, popular editor-in-chief at S. Fischer, after making a stormy exit from that house, had resolved to be his own man. He had useful help from wife Elisabeth Ruge, who edited Russian as well as English-language fiction at Fischer, and who felt that Berlin would give her a front-row view of what was being thought and written in the new East.
They began in 1994 by building up their international list, although the German third of it is growing. Ruge tells the visitor that East German writers are moving to Berlin, seeing the city as their New York or Paris -- along with Russians and East Europeans who are at least temporary residents of the capital-to-be.
A number of authors followed Conradi from Fischer, including Nadine Gordimer, Margaret Atwood, Richard Ford and historian Robert Massey. Among the new Germans: Ingo Schulze, whose second book, Simple Stories, was hailed in Der Spiegel as the long-awaited novel of German reunification; it sold 90,000 copies and won a Knopf contract. Of Berlin Verlag's 50-odd new books a year, 60% are fiction. David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars has been the biggest seller so far, and Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces did "quite well."
Such success counts even more for a small company (16 people, including the Conradis and part-timers). In its first three years Berlin Verlag was voted, in the BuchMarkt booksellers poll, respectively third, first and second "publisher of the year."
Under the new dispensation, announced in June, Conradi remains as publisher of Berlin Verlag while taking on the same position at Siedler; Elisabeth Ruge continues as Berlin Verlag editor-in-chief, with Frank Trumper holding down a corresponding job at Siedler; his job resume shows a stint at Bertelsmann trade headquarters in Munich and a much-remarked tour of duty at BDD's Broadway Books in New York. His operation at Siedler produces 20 nonfiction titles annually, political biographies and autobiographies, memoirs, cultural history. It's the house that captured Hitler's Willing Executioners, but also Roman Frister's Self Portrait with Scar: A Holocaust Memoir, an upcoming Grove/Atlantic title, which is already a German bestseller. Last year, despite its small list, Siedler was number one in nonfiction titles on German bestseller lists; this year it is further ahead of budget than any of its sister companies within Bertelsmann.
Only one or two books in 10 will be translations, and these must be "exceptionally original," says Trumper -- in other words, a book that he couldn't get from a German writer. Meanwhile, Siedler's important books often find publishers abroad, although an American sale is exceptional. One of the exceptions: Joachim Fest's book on the July 1945 plot against Hitler, sold to Metropolitan Books and Weidenfeld. Mikhail Gorbachev's memoirs, for which Seidler held world rights, went to BDD.
The visitor can't afford to miss a couple of smaller houses that could only have thrived in what until now has been a frontier town. Seasoned book traders will think immediately of pugnacious Klaus Wagenbach, who set up his personal imprint here in 1964. An S. Fischer man, he was considered much too far to the left by the Holtzbrincks when they bought that imprint. "So you can say that S. Fischer Verlag was one of the founders of this publishing house," jokes Wagenbach.
Basing himself in Berlin, his hope had been to publish the best of East as well as West -- but that wasn't going to happen; he didn't get the rights he wanted from East Germany. Nevertheless, he remained the bad boy of West Germany, publishing the writers of the late '60s student movement. Today, Wagenbach is a general publisher, a general cultural publisher, doing 50 or 60 books a year. There is also a trade paperback line, priced half-way between trade and mass market, suited for the small printing a Wagenbach book is likely to get.
Translations here are likely to be from Italian -- a house specialty; the latest catalogue features Antonio Tabucchi, Natalia Ginzburg, Italo Svevo, Italo Calvino and an anthology of Italian writing "for children big and small," prefaced by Wagenbach himself. In nonfiction the cultural history is also likely to come from Italy -- when it d sn't come from France.
Wagenbach likes to remember the days when he was virtually alone in Berlin, and feels lucky to have a head start on the newcomers. But he expects another 10 to 15 years to go by before ex-East Germany is fully integrated into the cultural picture.
The headquarters of Transit Verlag are certain to surprise. Of course it's an off-Berlin house, so its location in what looks like a squatter's paradise in New York's East Village should not surprise. The young founders of the company bought their building cheap and operate it as a co-op.
Appropriately, their first book was a history of squats. They went on to heavier stuff, commissioning a history of accordions, which was both a history of music and of marketing. Beginning in 1989 they focused their talents on East Germany and reunification. "You had to be in Berlin, and not too far from the wall, to be interested in the reality of the new state of affairs. In Frankfurt and Hamburg, they only cared about how much it cost."
This from Rainer Nitsche, one of the founders and executives, who shares publishing and back office functions with two partners. Transit Verlag puts out 10-12 new titles a year: histories of the Nazi era, biographies and autobiographies of German Jews. There is also a well-made picture book on 19th-century architecture in the Brandenburg Gate area. And the story of two women who spied for the CIA in the East German Communist Party central committee -- and who uncovered the Eastern agent planted on Willy Brandt.
Transit buys from abroad, but usually from neighboring France. The partners prefer to commission German writers to do books they think need doing. Berliners they may be, but thanks to the country's superb distribution system, the Transit people can touch every corner of Germany.
There are no dead ends in the German book trade.