"Now I've Ended Up In Literature and Will Never Escape"
A portrait of Swabian publisher Ulrich Keicher
The phone rings, the fax rattles, the printer hums. You can hardly see the walls for all the books, and the autumn sunshine peeks in from outside. Then everything is silent. We are sitting in an old farmhouse. Ulrich Keicher takes a deep, satisfied breath – the sound made by a person who is happy because he is doing exactly what he always wanted to do: producing books. What is more, he is doing it in a place which could hardly be further away from the hustle and bustle of the book business, and appears highly idyllic. Warmbronn is a village in the Swabian countryside, yet is situated at the heart of German intellectual history. Within a radius of just a few kilometres, Schelling, Schiller, Hölderlin, Mörike and Hesse were born. The village of Warmbronn, which is part of the town of Leonberg, can itself lay claim to farmer-poet Christian Wagner. Just a few steps away from Christian Wagner's house is the home of publisher Ulrich Keicher. Two years ago, Keicher worked in neighbourly cooperation with the Wallstein publishing house, bringing out an edition of Wagner's works.
First editions of contemporary literatureHis own publishing firm, however, produces small and rather special little books, books which have a tendency to be overlooked. If they were to be stocked on the shelves of a bookshop, these slim volumes with their narrow spines would simply disappear among all the other hefty volumes. "First editions of contemporary literature" is how the publisher describes his firm's vision – a sympathetic pretension which the publishing house certainly lives up to.
Ulrich Keicher comes from a family which had little to do with literature. It was not until he was 18, when he suffered a "life crisis", that he became fascinated by literature. A teacher read Jean Paul out to the class, and from henceforth, Keicher, who was born in Stuttgart in 1943, swapped his westerns for the Romantic writers, though also for Kierkegaard and Heinrich Böll. In the 1960s he was an apprentice book-seller, later studying educational science for a few semesters in Freiburg, where he caught the literature bug once and for all. At the time, he had a part-time job in a bookshop. "A lot of authors came into the shop – almost every week Heidegger came by, and I often had the chance to chat to him. And Peter Huchel. Then there was the old expressionist Kurt Heynicke. At the time, he was the last surviving poet from Pinthus's anthology Menschheitsdämmerung." Heynicke became like a father figure for him, and it was during this time that Keicher acquired valuable experience from which he was to profit later on.
I wanted to do as much as possible on my ownIn 1973 he set up a second-hand bookshop in Leonberg, organizing readings and publishing small pamphlets about the authors who appeared there. This was how his contact to the writers came about, and the desire to make books himself. It was more or less the obvious next step for him to set up his own publishing house in 1983, though this was never intended to be a "professional undertaking". "From my time in retail bookselling, I knew a bit about the world of publishing and was certain that I didn't want to follow the conventional path. I wanted to do as much as possible on my own." As a sideline, he still ran his second-hand bookshop as a source of income – at the time, the publishing house was more for fun, though the situation is now completely reversed.
Linguistic artistes and lonersWerner Dürrson, Herbert Heckmann, Hannelies Taschau and Johannes Poethen were the authors Keicher dealt with in those early days. In time, more and more joined the queue, with more and more famous names among them: from Christoph Meckel and Elke Erb, Wulf Kirsten, Hermann Lenz and Wolfgang Hilbig to Lutz Seiler, whose work Die Anrufung was awarded the best book list prize of broadcaster Südwestrundfunk. Huchel prize-winner Oswald Egger is also in Keicher's stable. The publisher values authors who have developed their own style, and who are linguistic artistes and loners like Johannes Kühn. His broad-ranging programme encompasses lyric poetry and short prose texts, as well as the more exotic and less well-known areas of literature. In all of this, Ulrich Keicher has remained faithful to his original intention. "My basic philosophy back then was to publish books which were made properly, featured an attractive – though not over-bibliophilic – design and were reasonably priced", he says. All the books he publishes are hand-made, with hot metal typesetting used right up until 1996. Since then, the one-man business has taken advantage of the conveniences offered by the computer age and laser printing. This also meant a departure from the "Roter Faden" series, which had already become a classic. "The new technology allowed me to make things a bit more open, a bit more colourful. Initially, I produced black books with a red line – 44 titles in all – and then I'd simply had enough. So I started anew, without giving the series names."
Swabian modestyKeicher represents all the different departments of a publishing house rolled into one: editing, manufacturing and sales. He hardly does any advertising of the ten to 15 new titles he brings out each year – Keicher already has his loyal clientele. His client base is relatively immune to the fluctuations of the economy, and in recent years has in fact grown. On average, 300 copies of his books are produced – rarely more, and sometimes less. This approach does not bring Keicher much in the way of profit, though it is enough to live on – given his modest Swabian lifestyle. The authors are paid "in kind", receiving 30 free copies.
His books are collector's items: not only in terms of their contents, but also in terms of their design. They are made in Keicher's workshop, which is housed in the converted barn just next door, where the printed sheets await the next step of the manufacturing process. Cutting, folding and thread-stitching is all done by hand. Scattered all over the place are manuscripts at the different stages of development, as are paper, books and tools. A true idyll. "Now", says Keicher, "I have ended up in literature and will never escape."
works as a freelance journalist and literary critic for a number of different newspapers and broadcasting companies. He recently co-published the correspondence between Peter Handke and Hermann Lenz, which appeared in 2006 under the Insel Verlag label and was entitled Berichterstatter des Tages (i.e. reporter of the day).
Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion
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