It's apparent to anyone in Germany who has followed the country's publishing industry, perused its bookstores or stepped out of their house at least once in the last year that one of the country's biggest celebrities is Michael Moore.
Identify yourself as an American, and the conversation inevitably turns to Moore: not if you've read him (that's assumed) but how proud you must be that someone—and he is generally thought to be the only one—has stood up to the Bush administration.
Dude, Where's My Country, out from Warner two weeks ago in the U.S., will be released in Germany the second week of November. It has already become a hugely anticipated cultural event. A five-day, six-city Moore tour is planned and Piper has printed 200,000 copies. The country's most respected periodical, Die Zeit, will run an excerpt. Moore has even written a special foreword for the German edition.
Moore has done well in other countries, but the German sales figures are downright astonishing. In the U.S., Stupid White Men sold about 630,00 copies in its first year of publication. In Germany—a country with less than one-third as many people—the book sold almost double that, 1.1 million copies. The book has sat at #1 on the Spiegel bestseller list for eight consecutive months. Even the English version made the lists, the only book besides Harry Potter ever to do so.
Moore's success was by no means assured. "I remember thinking: Could this work here?" recalled editor Ullrich Wank. "It's by a foreign author, it has a jacket that's bright red, it's a short and funny political book." About two dozen publishers had already passed on it, but Wank and then-head of Piper Viktor Niemann took a chance, buying it from HarperCollins for a song and printing 8,000 copies.
So what exactly is Moore's appeal? Mostly clever publishing and fortunate timing. "We had to work to make a product out of this," said Piper publisher Wolfgang Ferchl, such as charging only 12 euros for the paperback. Stupid White Men also came out in Germany in October 2002, as anti-American feelings abroad were increasing, and it gained steam after Moore's Oscars speech.
Germans' love of Moore is both genuinely admiring and slightly patronizing. They sincerely like the message, but they also seem to enjoy chuckling at some of the people he uses to make it—especially a few of the yahoos he dug up in Bowling for Columbine. It's your typical publishing formula: provocative writing, nice timing and the foibles of political leaders—and a million devoted Germans.