Kein & Aber Verlag

Kein & Aber Verlag – “I Believe that One Sows Authors”

The Kein & Aber Verlag was chosen as Publisher of the Year for 2010 by the Swiss book trade association and journal “Schweizer Buchhandel.” Peter Haag, who founded the company about 13 years ago, explains in an interview why he sees himself as a dealer in contents and why multimediality is so important for publishers and authors.

Herr Haag, what is the story behind your publishing company’s witty name (an untranslatable, mulitlayered pun on Cain and Abel – translator’s note)?

The name came about by accident. I was in a restaurant with friends that had paper table cloths. We had a couple of glasses of wine, and at some point it was just there. Of course, there is a connection with my understanding of literature. I love wit and comedy, even if it does seem like intellectual snobbery. I love dénouement. And this was why it jumped out at me, because I immediately said : this isn’t this kind of self-referential, pompous, overblown sort of literature, but rather the offensive kind that cannot be so easily pinned down and categorised.

You started out with two audio CDs, but then also started publishing books pretty soon after. How did that happen?

Originally, I didn’t even intend to start a publishing company. It happened because I was friends with a few authors stemming from my previous work, among them Gerhard Polt and Harry Rowohlt. One day, Polt came to me and said, “let’s do something together.” The result was the CD “Der Standort Deutschland“ (i.e. Germany as business location). Same thing with Harry Rowohlt and “Pu der Bär“ (“Winnie the Pooh“). I was more or less maneuvered into the situation and decided to start a publishing company.

Does serving the literary market from Zürich have its advantages?

I’d say it’s both advantageous and disadvantageous. My object was obviously the German-language cultural area. Major literary agencies are located in Zürich, important authors are marketed in Zürich – even if one doesn’t notice it right away, insiders know this. On the other hand, this location is perhaps somewhat disadvantageous. One is not right in the middle of the market. For a young German author one is much closer to the hub of things if one is located in Berlin or Frankfurt. But it balances out, and Zürich has a nice sound – if the banks don’t totally ruin it. But one must exert oneself a little more with the German market. We are therefore a German publishing company, not a Swiss one.

You offer a wide spectrum in your programme. But what is most important to you?

A certain kind of literature: in other words, narratives and authors with something to say. And I really love it if if they do it with a certain mischievousness. That brings me a bit closer to Anglo-Saxon literature. I think it’s wonderful. I like it when someone can write a mystery or novel – a story in which he also includes potholes and stumbling-blocks – but also doesn’t have such an insanely overblown self-image. I.e., not the kind of literature that in effect says, “Now pay attention, this is really serious…” What I like is the lightness and ease of good craftsmanship. To publish such books, I seek out my favourite authors. I also go looking for them a bit in literary history, like Truman Capote and Kurt Vonnegut at the moment. And their equivalent among new authors such as David Nicholls. Naturally, I also look around on the German-language market, but that isn’t so easy.

How difficult is it for you as a smaller publisher to approach big names?

You have to earn your spurs, you have to demonstrate quality. I know we have to grow a bit more to realise everything we are planning. But I’m relatively content with where we are now. We are an authors’ publishing house, and I am slowly building up that aspect. I want what I achieve to have substance. And I hope that we shall have the great names of the future, after all, that is our business.
I believe that one sows authors. That one begins with them and grows with them. Then, at some point the moment comes when you as a publisher can also begin to reap. I have noticed that at least 10 years are needed for that. In the past, I always thought that after five years a publishing company is more or less at cruising altitude – but this is not the case. It takes much longer, much longer.

Do large publishers have it easier in this respect?

But just take a look at the major book concerns. They’re boring, satiated, they produce nothing really new. The interesting things are happening with smaller or medium-size publishers. The decision-making criteria are different there. People take greater risks. If you always have a controller breathing down your neck, you simply stop making any more decisions in the direction of something interesting. Then you only play it safe. I also calculate, obviously. A publishing house is a business enterprise and has to establish an economic basis if it is to be of interest to authors. It’s ideal, of course, if one can publish beautiful books that also sell well.

The Internet radio on Kein & Aber’s website is an unusual strategy for marketing literary texts. What is the resonance like?

Outstanding. After all, as a relative newcomer in publishing one wishes to set out on new paths, and one tries things out, too. I see us as dealing in contents. A printed book is one form, other publishing formats are just that – other forms, whether as an audio book now, something like Internet radio, or an e-book. You have to make greater use of multimedia approaches today, to transport contents and authors. We have had some very good experiences here.

A word about apps, i.e. audio textbooks for smartphones. What do you think of them?

I think they’re very interesting. We were one of the first publishers to make use of iTunes applications. At the time, there was a lot of discussion about possible formats for e-books. We ignored all that because the format was uninteresting. What is of interest is what people have in front of them. Here, Switzerland is a bit more advantageous. Due to its small geographic size, and perhaps also because of its wealth, people are faster here. Switzerland was one of the first countries to be very well wired, and is one of the countries with the highest smartphone densities. We tried out a few things and quickly saw that certain things function very well. Artists like Gerhard Polt, whose works are available in audio format, in visual and in printed form, are of course an ideal case.

What is the next step for Kein & Aber? What are your plans for the future?

I want to make the company into a really good platform for authors, specifically for international authors. That is important to me. And I would like to build up a certain non-fiction programme. Particularly in the sciences there are interesting people who have a great deal to say. And if they are people who also can formulate well, that then makes for fantastic contents. I am thinking of a kind of essayistic non-fiction book. That’s what I’m developing right now.

Karoline Rebling
conducted the interview. She works as a free-lance journalist and lives in Frankfurt a.M.

Translation: Ani Jinpa Lhamo
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
September 2010

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