American publishers are famous for not translating foreign writers, including some very good ones. A number of overseas book-producing nations have tried to remedy that, notably by providing samplers and even translation subsidies. Now, Germany has upped the ante. Earlier this summer, five New York editors were airlifted to Germany and given the opportunity to sit down with their peers in publishing houses large and small (some of them very small). They heard about new writers, new projects in fiction and nonfiction and met a few new authors, too. They were welcomed at some of the country's most prestigious literary houses but also talked to innovative imprints that have never made PW's pages before.

The tour organizer was the Frankfurt Book Fair -- more precisely, the exhibitions agency responsible for the fair and a year-round program of German book shows. The agency also runs a German Book Office in New York to promote the translating of German books; its director, Andrea Heyde, a German literature specialist with U.S. publishing experience, put the New York team together.

No knowledge of German was required (and one guesses that it would have taken the whole group to order a plate of Wurst and Sauerkraut). What the American visitors had in common were excellent track records and an affiliation to houses prepared to experiment. They ranged in age from 32 to 40, all obviously fit to keep to a schedule worthy of a commando team; on the opening day, for example, as soon as they arrived, their first meeting was from 10 a.m. to noon, another from 12:30 to 3:30, a third from 4:30 to 6, followed by a 7 p.m. dinner at which the jet-lagged five listened to a speech about Kafka. Yes, really.

These were the intrepid five: Timothy Bent, senior editor at St. Martin's Press since last spring; after getting a Ph.D. at Harvard and serving as lecturer there on contemporary English literature, he spent eight years at small and selective Arcade Publishing acquiring upscale fiction and nonfiction before joining SMP. Barbara Epler, a Harvard graduate, editor at New Directions since 1984 and editor-in-chief since 1995; her distinguished list includes some German acquisitions. Holly Hodder, a science major who, after five years as senior editor at W.H. Freeman, joined Columbia University Press as science editor last year; during the tour a rave review of Cornelia Dean's Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches, one of her acquisitions, was faxed to her. Alane Mason, who edits a wide range of books at W.W. Norton; David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars was hers when she previously worked at Harcourt, as were works by Hannah Arendt and Richard Sennett. Finally, Ethan Nosowsky, with half a dozen years at Farrar, Straus & Giroux to his credit; among his acquisitions are memoirs by German-language Nobel Prize-winner Elias Canetti.

Frankfurt First

On arrival in Frankfurt, the American team got a tour of "the city beyond the fairgrounds"; dinner that first night put the Americans face-to-face with Frankfurt Fair director Peter Weidhaas and the people who help him make it happen. Earlier, they had checked into a pocket-size hotel with picture windows looking out on the soaring red-stone cathedral -- not quite a book fair hotel (although it is booked up for the next five years during the fair). The hotel in Cologne would be an architectural oddity: a folly built by a turn-of-the-century philanthropist to house a collection of musical instruments. In Munich it was a family hotel in Schwabing, the artists' quarter that is now virtually a university campus.

Monday morning began at smallish Eichborn Verlag. It would not have been everybody's first stop on a German publishing tour, but its mix of fun and sobriety made it worth a look. Founded nearly 20 years ago by Vito von Eichborn, formerly of Rotbuch, the house has thrived on cartoon and comic books, which help it maintain one of the country's most prestigious series, Hans Magnus Enzensberger's Die Andere Bibliothek (The Other Library).

Here the Americans, with tour guide Heyde and PW's envoy, squeezed into the office of publisher Wolfgang Ferchl (also ex-Rotbuch). He described a house that can do just about anything. Indeed, the fall list leads off with a solid trade mix; only the last 10 pages of the 100-page catalogue display the comic side that wags the dog. "When you grow from zero to 30 million Deutsche Marks, you need support," explains Ferchl, speaking of a 50/50 joint venture with a partner that controls cartoon characters and film production. On the other hand, because of their lighter fare, time passed before Eichborn was taken seriously by booksellers as a house for quality fiction. Having Enzensberger's hand-picked selections helped.

Don't underestimate Eichborn, which has translated Richard Brautigan, John Fante and Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as well as Henry Miller, Dave Barry, John Kenneth Galbraith and George Soros. It sold boy wonder Christoph Ransmayr's The Last World to Grove Press and several books by W.G. Sebald to New Directions.

The Eichborn people put some questions in turn to their guests. Such as, how do they choose a foreign book? It became clear that U.S. publishers rarely have in-house linguists and work gingerly with outside readers. Even FSG, Nosowsky admitted, has only a couple of people who could make their way through a German text. Bent explained how tips from overseas colleagues help St. Martin's: "If Gallimard takes a book, or Secker & Warburg, then we pay attention." What do Americans look for in foreign books? The same things they look for in homegrown manuscripts was the answer. After the theory came the passing around of promising books. "What would you compare this to?" an American editor asked about one title, explaining that you always need a comparison when you pitch a book to your publisher and after that to reviewers.

There was discussion about whether the growing German presence in U.S. publishing would result in more translations from that tongue (both Nosowsky's FSG and Bent's SMP are, of course, Holtzbrinck-owned). Bent did say that he'd been asked by the home office to take note of what fellow Holtzbrinck imprints, such as Fischer, were doing. On his side, Eichborn's Ferchl made it clear that high American advances have led German houses to scout for "German voices."

At Suhrkamp, the visitors were aware they were entering a rare surviving independent, host to Nobels, fief of patriarchal Siegfried Unseld. After a falling out with his son -- typical for publishing patriarchs -- Unseld had the good sense to recruit as his "junior publisher" Christoph Buchwald, ex-Luchterhand and one of the country's most admired literary editors, making it certain that the house of Hermann Hesse, Max Frisch, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Peter Handke and Nelly Sachs would retain its character as well as remain the best of the moderns.

Buchwald was on hand to greet the New York Five, accompanied by rights director Petra Hardt. She noted that with 350 contracts a year Suhrkamp is the market leader in selling German rights abroad and that only Gallimard is ahead of them in Europe overall. While they manage to place their writers in every Continental publishing capital, sales to the U.S. (and the U.K. for that matter) can be counted on a couple of fingers, however. The titles that have made it, according to Buchwald, describe a very few years of German's recent past. He urged the editors to look at books depicting contemporary Germany, "which will tell Americans about us now, just as we learn about America in your books."

Buchwald asked questions as to how Americans decide to publish a German book (the group reply: by chance, the same way American books are chosen in America). Nosowsky added that a lot of help comes from foreign publishers visiting New York, "who know what we like and what we've done before." There was discussion about how other countries make their authors known, with high marks going to Israel and its Translations Institute.

The house of Suhrkamp was born when Peter Suhrkamp, who had kept the S. Fischer list alive when the Jewish founders were forced into exile, was obliged to place the house in his own name. Upon the return of the Fischers after the Second World War, the catalogue was split up, living authors choosing one or the other publisher. Henceforth, the Fischers focused on American and other foreign authors while Suhrkamp cultivated the German list. Buchwald told his guests that he'd like to do more American books and is looking for authors suited to the Suhrkamp taste.

Campus Verlag is another independent, set up 24 years ago by the father of present publisher Thomas Schw rer. Founder Frank Schw rer, ex“Herder & Herder New York, had conceived it as an academic imprint in sociology and political science, diversifying into general nonfiction with major projects in the social sciences, economics and business, women's studies, psychiatry and architecture -- books often acquired in America. The reputation here, summed up by publisher Schw rer, is "high-end books for the lay reader."

He also stresses originals. One particularly timely item is a study of German corporate investment in the U.S. (covering Siemans and Thuyssen as well as Bertelsmann). He hopes to come up with other German-American projects of similar range and caliber. Of the 100 or so trade books published at Campus each year, some 40% are translations, chiefly from English. The editors keep in touch with U.S. university presses.

The next morning began with some excitement, for the New York Five did not doubt that in Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt they would encounter an up-and-coming operation. Joachim Unseld bought this smallish, not-so-hot imprint five years ago, after leaving his father's Suhrkamp. Joachim was a new face to PW's envoy but not a new personality; he has his father's enthusiasm and determination and is the first reader of everything that comes through the door. The 18 authors' portraits on the wall betray youth (their average age is 30 save for the two deceased, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes). Unseld, who seems to have the energy for it, d s his own distribution and bookkeeping and takes pride in being one of only two or three "totally independent" houses. He isn't making money yet -- although his star authors certainly are -- but he's not in the red either. His first list in autumn 1995 featured seven names, the translations coming from France and Spain, and he made a bestseller of Gallimard's Paule Constant even before she won the Goncourt Prize.

But in the main Joachim Unseld is doing what old Samuel Fischer did, and his acolyte Peter Suhrkamp, and his, Siegfried Unseld. That is, he finds promising new German writing and runs with it. One of his early recruits was a young Swiss woman, Zoë Jenny, whose first novel, The Pollen Room, did a stunning 140,000 copies in the hardcover German original, and sold 18 translations (including Simon & Schuster in the U.S., Bloomsbury in Britain). He thinks it essential to help assure a successful debut, and then to hold on to an author through his or her writing career.

His second revelation was Ernst-Wilhelm Händler, an engineer when he isn't producing literature, who has already been compared to Robert Musil and Thomas Bernhard. Now comes Christoph Peters, 33, whose City, Country, River is being hailed, and by heeded critics, as one of the best first novels in years. Surprise: Unseld had invited Peters in to meet the American team and to entertain them with an account of his first novel and the second one in progress. As it happens, Unseld makes it a rule to publish only a single title as his "spring list"; the single title was Peters's, so he had six months to play with it.

Unseld let it be known that in his 10 years at his father's house he spent most of his time in marketing, and the discussion turned to what larger literary houses should be doing but don't seem to have the time for. He revealed to the Americans that his secret is not to appear small -- independent, yes, but not small. So he takes the front cover of the Börsenblatt for his ad and produces a catalogue as impressive as the catalogues of the biggies; he also makes sure that his books look smart.

Unseld told the group that he is aware that his young authors would be tempted by the money offered by the well-established houses; so far they have resisted temptation. He also knows that when he works hard for an author, "you're working for your next author" -- who will be attracted by the reviews.

Although it is Frankfurt's oldest and largest general publisher -- with a backlist including Thomas Mann, Elias Canetti, Stefan Zweig and Franz Werfel as well as Gerhart Hauptmann, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Arthur Schnitzler -- Holtzbrinck's S. Fischer Verlag chose to focus the Americans' visit on only a couple of its lines. Walter Pehle, editor for political nonfiction and Holocaust studies, described the house's pioneer nonfiction paperbacks, including books on the Nazi era published as Die Schwarze Reihe (The Black Series).

On the foreign side, the house sits astride an impressive catalogue including the works of Hemingway, Pasternak, Virginia Woolf and Dylan Thomas, more recently Nadine Gordimer, Jamaica Kincaid, Martin Amis and Anne Tyler. The American editors met Sylvia Sprenger, acquiring editor for translated fiction, who talked about the literary publishing programs, not forgetting the impressive Fischer Taschenbuch lines, which reprint from their own and other publishers' lists.

Exploring Cologne

A brief stop at the hotel that Tuesday afternoon, and then it was over to the Hauptbahnhof to board a train for Cologne, with its splendid views of the Rhine castles along the way. The Cologne hotel was a bit out of the center, facing the river and a tempting quayside path. The next day there was even time for a morning run, and at least one of the group, Columbia's Hodder, couldn't resist.

The surprise on that first morning was the stunning headquarters of famed art and literature imprint DuMont, all light metal frame and glass, a city block of a building that would do honor to an oil empire. The explanation -- and it also explains Oscar Niemeyer's sprawling Mondadori edifice outside Milan -- is the imprint's connection to a press empire. Neven DuMont Haus produces newspapers in a country that still buys them.

The American visitors got some orientation from DuMont Buchverlag managing director Gottfried Honnefelder, who until two years ago was CEO at Suhrkamp. He put the visitors in the hands of his publisher for literature, Christian Döring (also a former Suhrkamp man), who explained the expansion from art publishing to general trade books: "You can't be a publisher without doing literature." The company specializes in young German writers and, in foreign books, looks for European counterparts of their smartly contemporary German authors. One early success was the recent French sensation Michel Houellebecq, who somehow gets inside the skins of readers in their early 20s; but the house also d s a French avant-garde veteran, Claude Simon. DuMont will soon launch a crime line, an area in which Americans excel -- and here the translations will definitely be from the American.

More than one visitor was curious about how an art house with a solid reputation in its own area g s about diversification, and winning public acceptance for it. Döring believes it is important to make his books look better than his competitors'. Indeed, DuMont has also had to upgrade its art catalogue in order to hold prices in the face of cut-rate publishing from Taschen and Könemann.

The plot thickened when the New York editors and their retinue taxied across town to Kiepenheuer & Witsch to meet publisher Reinhold Neven DuMont in the residential villa-cum-garden that serves as headquarters of one of Germany's best-known literary logos. The publisher, it turns out, is the younger brother of DuMont press group chairman Alfred Neven DuMont, but there is no connection between the DuMont and Kiepenheuer & Witsch book companies. The latter grew out of a prewar trade house, Gustav Kiepenheuer, known for publishing Jewish and left-wing authors -- and therefore an early target of Nazi repression.

Following the Second World War, Gustav Kiepenheuer's imprint was revived in what became the Soviet-dominated East Zone. Kiepenheuer's partner, Joseph Caspar Witsch, was able to migrate to Cologne and set up Kiepenheuer & Witsch; his son-in-law, Reinhold Neven DuMont, joined the firm in 1963 and took over as sole owner in 1969. Late last year, the Holtzbrinck group acquired 45% of the house and will raise its stake on Neven DuMont's retirement. He told the visitors that before signing he had consulted his old friend Roger W. Straus Jr., who swore that he hadn't regretted selling his own firm to Holtzbrinck.

The important thing is that Cologne's K&W quickly established itself as one of the country's most respected literary logos -- Germany's Farrar, Straus & Giroux. One of its first authors was Heinrich Böll, and it's also the imprint of Peter Härtling and prewar favorites Erich Maria Remarque, Erich Kästner and Joseph Roth; its translated list includes Saul Bellow, Don DeLillo, Charles Bukowski and Nathalie Sarraute. If Böll's 1972 Nobel Prize was a boost for the house, so was the incredible sales record of Gabriel García Márquez's 100 Years of Solitude.

The K&W publisher recalled his first visit to New York, when there was still a publishing generation that could read German and knew German literature. Times certainly have changed, yet there is much to discover on the German side, so fiction editor Martin Heilscher told the visitors; at Cologne's Kiepenheuer, German fiction holds its own in the catalogue alongside translations -- a rare occurrence among major publishers these days.

After open sandwiches at Kiepenheuer & Witsch -- in a large conference room facing the villa's private garden -- the visitors convened at an informal French bistro for their evening meeting. It would be another first-time encounter for PW; Tropen Verlag was founded by publisher Michael Wöllner only four years ago. His first involvement with books was as the translator of Lewis Carroll's Symbolic Logic and Games of Logic -- books to be found on the Tropen list with other English-language titles he translated, including Mark Twain's posthumous The Mysterious Stranger.

Wöllner made it clear that he's betting on the "youth culture," as some of the German-language titles in his catalogue indicate: Shooting, Broken P ms, funk/food/generation, Hackerland (all these titles are in a series that also bears an English name: Carbon Copy Books). He's publishing for 15-year-old skateboarders but also -- as a 30-year-old -- for other 30-year-olds who enjoy looking back. Although a young company, Tropen caught on quickly with reviewers, first because its offerings were truly new but also thanks to the reading tours of Tropen's outrageous authors. However, it was the line of books bearing the sober name Edition Tropen -- which includes a translation of Michel Butor -- that garnered serious attention. The American visitors were in the right age bracket to understand Verlag Tropen.

They got a break on Thursday -- a chance for some cultural touring (notably of the great Gothic cathedral soaring over Cologne's city center) followed by an exhaustive visit to a celebrated bookstore, Mayerische Buchhandling, flagship of a chain covering northeast Germany with 14 branches, which gave the group some understanding of the joys and perils of bookselling in that nation. Then to the Bahnhof and a long train ride, crossing the country diagonally, to the capital of Bavaria.

The Munich Heartland

While Germany's book trade is unique in lacking a capital, with leading imprints spread about the landscape so that neither the once and future capital of Berlin nor West Germany's business center in Frankfurt dominates the profession, Munich remains first among equals in trade publishing. It's a joyous, often sunny place, and when given a choice, authors (like artists) and their publishers often prefer to live and work here.

Host to the morning's first meeting, in an old townhouse alongside the university campus, Piper Verlag's amiable Viktor Niemann provided some of the details. In all, Germany counts some 2800 publishers, although only about 200 of them are considered significant, responsible for 80% of trade turnover (of roughly DM7.5 billion -- or $4 billion at a current conversion). Title output in 1997 came to approximately 78,000 titles new and reprint, 10% of them paperbacks. With some 9000 books published annually, Munich is the country's number-one book city.

Piper Verlag, celebrating its 95th birthday this year, is known for upmarket fiction and nonfiction. It is now part of Sweden's Bonnier book group, which includes major houses in Denmark, Norway and Finland as well as Sweden. In the increasing concentration among German publishers, Niemann sees a silver lining in the fact that publishers remain essentially entrepreneurial. Indeed, his editors around the large conference table -- including Tanja Graf, Thomas Tebbe and Bettina Feldweg -- described a fiercely competitive market, a fight for shelf space in the shops but also for titles to feed paperback lines. Most publishers now have their own series, so to get rights you have to buy companies. On the other hand, houses still lacking paperback lines can hold out for high prices. German authors now work through agents, something unheard of in the past, and authors go to the prestigious imprints.

The introduction was over; the work began. A visitor asked about "German authors we may not have heard of." The Piper editors mentioned a few they thought would "travel." "How will you sell that one?" a member of the American team asked. "In how many copies?" Niemann responded with considerable frankness.

One of his editors observed that the gap between books that take off and those that do not is greater than ever. Niemann admitted that Piper gives everything it's got to, say, four novels and three or four nonfiction titles on each list. For the others, all the company can do is say, "Hey, we have a book here." But he observed that even mighty Bertelsmann is in the same boat, for he only hears about four or so of its books each season. What people want now, an editor put in, is to learn while being entertained. It was agreed on both sides of the table that the mountain-climbing books now popping up on lists meet this demand.

Visit number two on this last working day was a Bavarian tavern where the lunchtime hosts were the G the Institute, whose goals include promoting German literature abroad (it helped finance the editors' tour), and Carl Hanser Verlag, another of Munich's admired literary imprints. At coffee time, the visitors and Hanser editors, with the house's foreign rights director Friederike Barakat, moved to the center of the longish table to exchange notes.

Last but not least, Karl Blessing received the Americans and their hosts -- now including Barbara Becker, head of the Frankfurt Fair's International Department as well as tour leader Heyde -- in a large bay window on a park-size garden. The house stands in a leafy residential district also favored by Carl Hanser and Holtzbrinck's Dr mer Knaur; Blessing presided over the latter until he quit three years ago to found Karl Blessing Verlag with Bertelsmann backing.

At Dr mer, and now at his eponymous imprint, Blessing has shown that he can make a German bestseller of a foreign one -- and it's not always a shoo-in. Six of the 11 titles on his latest list come from abroad; this is the German home of Michael Crichton, Scott Turow, Peter Mayle and Arundhati Roy (who celebrated her Booker Prize at Blessing's Frankfurt Fair party). He began by doing 25 books a year, rising to 40 now that the start-up wrinkles have been ironed out.

Blessing raised a worrisome point to his visitors. If most German authors seem to lack the storytelling talents that Blessing and his editors have always looked for -- and usually find abroad -- it is also true that American fiction now lacks the excitement Blessing learned to expect from it; he thinks it's because American publishers are shying away from novelty, preferring to play it safe. So he and his colleagues now turn to Britain and its former colonies both for fiction and for thrillers -- and why not to Germany's continental neighbors, too? Blessing added that he believes it's a healthy thing that his countrypeople no longer count on a single source of supply and are willing to go to Barcelona, say, to see what's happening. Sober thoughts -- more than one of his American listeners must have felt lucky to be scouting and not trying to sell that day.

Then it was time for something cool. The group's last evening in Germany was spent at a Munich Biergarten, designed as a well-deserved moment to relax, even if some local publishing folk had been invited to join in.