After weeks of controversy over the revelation that it was selling “soft porn,” the German publishing and bookselling powerhouse Weltbild has been put up for sale by 18 dioceses of the Catholic Church that own the company. Weltbild has revenues of about 1.6 billion euros, in a highly attractive mix of brick and mortar stores, Germany’s second biggest online platform for books and e-books (and a wide range of other goods), and a significant publishing operation.
Weltbild’s problems began when media accounts, including in the publishing trade magazine Buchreport, revealed that Weltbild through its online platform www.weltbild.de offered access to a number of soft porn titles (e.g. The Lawyer’s Whore, by Helen Carter). The news was picked up by a Catholic Austrian online news service, Kath.Net (www.kath.net ), which triggered a wave of angry forum comments, pressuring the bishops to take action, which they did in a board meeting last week, by voting to put Weltbild on the block, and to oblige its management to biweekly reports on the cleansing of the titles listed, and quarterly reports on the efforts to sell the company.
These reports will need the signature of Carel Halff, a Dutch native who had joined the company in 1975, when the company had a turnover of 600,000 DMark (roughly 300,000 euros). In a long line of bold decisions, Halff turned the ailing local bookstores into one of three powerhouses which control Germany’s book retail market today, alongside with Thalia (of the perfume chain Douglas), and Amazon. Several years ago, Halff merged the company with the Munich based book chain Hugendubel, a cornerstone among Germany’s old traditional players, to gain scope and recognition. Weltbild currently has 450 outlets (against 472 in 2010). But most of all, Halff focused on setting up a highly successful online platform, and more recently, on being at the forefront of Germany’s only emerging e-book business.
The soft spoken Halff always found clear language when it came to speak out on his vision for the book market, and in 2010, he argued that by 2015, brick and mortar outlets will have 40% more floor space than they will need. As early as 2009, Weltbild chose to have its own branded reading device, adding its own color reader, radically priced at 60 euros, in October 2011, while announcing its own tablet in time for Christmas. Halff’s digital strategy is backed up by a seven digit promotional budget. These bold moves have one clear target, and that is to build a German competitor to Amazon.
The Catholic Church was not really prepared for such a fight, and had considered a sale a few years ago. And with erotic titles accounting for a slim 0.017% of overall revenues, according to Halff, moral concerns may not have been the only driving force behind the bishop’s decision to sell off Weltbild.
For his part, Halff seems ready for the action, arguing that only a complete sale would make sense in strategic and economic terms, adding pragmatically, in an interview with the weekly Wirtschaftswoche that when it comes to eventual buyers, one should look beyond “the usual suspects”-- Bertelsmann, Holtzbrinck or the Burda Group.