An employee in the rights department directs PW upstairs, and one of the first things that can be noticed is her American-flag pin. This is strange for two reasons: first, because we are in Germany; and second, because we are at Piper, the boutique German publisher that has in the past year quietly—and some say surprisingly—benefited from a wave of anti-Americanism, with two controversial bestsellers and a big serving of Michael Moore.
Historically, the house is known for a literary list that contains, ironically, many pedigreed Americans. The halls of Piper's townhouse in Munich's university district are lined with photos of American authors like Jon Krakauer and Ann Patchett, making the offices seem more like a German re-imagining of George Plimpton's apartment than anything else. But in recent months it has become an unlikely—and perhaps even unintentional—ground zero for European ambivalence and resentment toward America.
The turn of events has helped make Piper a very profitable publisher. The house's two biggest titles—Downsize This and Stupid White Men by Michael Moore—have sold more than 1.5 million copies and spent a combined 10 months on the Der Spiegel bestseller list, where they remain. Moore's Dude, Where's My Country? is due out soon and is expected to hit lists in its first week. Piper's third and fourth biggest titles, the French author Emanuel Todd's USA, Global Power: An Obituary and Andreas von Buelow's The CIA and September 11, were Spiegel bestsellers for a combined total of more than four months. They're more likely to roil Yankee feathers.
While the publisher declined to reveal financial numbers, the four books alone spent a combined year on the list and sold more than two million copies in a German book market that has otherwise been on life support. In the words of one German media insider, "Piper is printing a mint right now."
Although Piper's list continues to include a lot of fiction, both homegrown and in translation, it is the political books that makes the house an apparent publishing paradox—purveyor of both mainstream American writing and writing that rides a wave of anti-U.S. sentiment.
Both Moore editor Ullrich Wank and the new Piper publisher, gregarious Wolfgang Ferchl, seem genuinely bemused at how the success of a respected literary publisher on the backs of conspiracy theories and anti-American critiques may raise some eyebrows. "Piper has a strong tradition of making people uncomfortable," said Wank. "We were the first publisher to do Hannah Arendt in Germany [for Eichmann in Jerusalem], and this was the most controversial book in the history of Germany." Wank added, "If we had a strong pro-American book with an interesting idea, we'd publish that, too."
Piper was a family-run publisher for many years, but was sold by Klaus Piper, the son of founder Reinhard Piper, in 1994 to Swedish conglomerate Bonnier. The result has been to ensure the company's long-term survival by creating some new bedfellows; for instance, Piper is now the corporate cousin of Potter publisher Carlsen. In its nearly 100-year-history it indeed has a tradition of bold choices; for instance, Reinhard Piper was the first publisher to bring Dostoyevski to Russia. The current look of Piper's list—stalwart literary fiction with rabble-rousing political books—may owe something to in its former publisher, the debonair Viktor Niemann. Niemann ran the company for many years before assuming a more corporate role at parent company Bonnier last summer. Niemann brought on Moore and is said to champion contrarian intellectual voices.
It's a testament to the level of interest in, and depth of feeling about, so-called American imperialism that even a house like Piper is getting into the game. It seems unlikely to fade soon. The house's next big political book, by journalist Gabor Steingart, takes on the German political system, but the house talks like a publisher still interested in the Todds and von Buelows. "A lot of questions people didn't want to ask are being asked now," said Wank. "Like the supremacy of one world power. For 10 years no one would ask it and after September 11 people are, and we're going to keep publishing books about it."