Rimbaud Verlag – Not Seasonal Goods in the Arts and Culture Pages
Lyric poetry is difficult to sell. It is not unusual for quality literature to become shelf warmers quickly without a well-considered marketing strategy. They can scarcely be found in bestseller lists, these silent authors who are nearly going under in the marketing machine of the literature market. “Authors who are going to have staying power are always on the fringe. Rimbaud said that literature happens on the fringe – and during his lifetime only one book was published, and even that wasn’t done by a publishing house, he had it printed himself”, explains Bernhard Albers. He founded the Rimbaud Verlag, which evolved from his circle of friends and acquaintances, in 1981. It all started back then with Reinhard Kiefer, who was in his early twenties and looking for a publishing house. Today he’s one of the Rimbaud Verlag’s best-known authors. His most recently published novel Halbstadt, whose nostalgic heroes perform against a backdrop of political and cultural events in the 80s, was praised highly in Büchermagazin (6/2008): “Kiefer’s thoughtful, slow-paced prose is an antidote to advertising junk, media blah-blah and the loud bustle of literature in which his voice can’t be heard. Halbstadt is an insider’s tip which has gone under in the deluge of new publications”, is the opinion of reviewer Andrea Neuhaus on the “would-be bestseller”.
On the fringe of mainstreamThe Rimbaud Verlag is not a general trade book publisher, it’s a “specialist publisher for literary intellectuals” (Süddeutsche Zeitung) and “radical for literature” (Aachener Nachrichten). Anyone who is looking for cookery books, sports titles or bestsellers is searching in vain here. But anyone who is seriously interested in literature will find what they are looking for and can discover treasures.
“I always enjoy looking at the publishers’ histories, how low their circulation was of lyricists who are well-known today, how small the number of copies was. And then I simply see that I am right. I’m not following fashion”. Bernhard Albers sets store by that. The fact is that the author, the work as a whole, always comes first where he is concerned. In 2011 the Rimbaud Verlag, which is based in Aachen, celebrates its 30th anniversary.
5 questions to Bernhard Albers, publisher and founder of the Rimbaud Verlag:Dr. Albers, what are the main focuses of the publishing house’s sales mix?
The name of the publishing house is what it’s all about. Rimbaud was the most modern poet of the 19th century, exerting influence on many great poets, starting with Trakl and taking in Rilke and Benn. The publisher’s sales mix is concentrated on high-quality lyric poetry that invokes traditions. That means linked with tradition, but not traditional. To say it with one of Stefan George’s expressions, I’m not interested in “civilisation literati”, in other words people who deal with themes of the time.
Bukovina, which was formerly Habsburg crown land, later belonging to Romania and today in part to the Ukraine, is a major theme in the Rimbaud Verlag. How did that come about?
Paul Celan is an outstanding lyric poet of the last century. Incidentally he has also translated Rimbaud. In 1987 I became acquainted with Alfred Kittner, who knew Celan well and – born in 1906 – still came from Bukovina. I published his first volume of poetry in Germany. It was as a result of him that the unique nature of this literature scene became clear to me. Admittedly Kittner, who died in 1991 – incidentally that was the 100th anniversary of Rimbaud’s death – had more of an antiquarian interest.
What successes has the publishing house had in recent years?
Actually I can’t report many successes. There have been books where a few thousand copies have been sold. And others just a few dozen. But maybe they are just as important. Goethe had great difficulty finding 500 buyers for his first complete edition as well.
People keep on asking me why I don’t have any bestsellers? Firstly I don’t read bestsellers. So why should I produce any? And secondly it’s all advertising strategy. You have to invest resources in a bestseller, and then it’s like playing poker in the world of finance. Will it work, or won’t it.
There are of course many literature publishers who always have the desire to be a mini general publisher. Just like the big ones who produce themes for the masses at book fairs. That doesn’t mean that they don’t publish interesting things there as well. But for me the most important thing right from the start is low-volume publishing. Books like this are always low-volume. Nothing will change in that respect.
Is yours a publisher for intellectuals? For an educated readership?
Yes, you do need to have previous knowledge of literature as a traditional source. Otherwise you can’t do anything with it. I also think that quality lyric poetry is only read by lyric poets, in other words by a minority. And the major publishers after all often don’t sell any more than 100 books.
But we need to preserve tradition in the same way as the Goethe Institutes. That is my concern. It’s just that it’s only a small group that’s interested in it. And of course that’s fine. But there’s also an educational responsibility for a literature publisher – if that’s no longer the case – who is supposed to carry on writing seriously?
Do you think that people read less in general these days?
Challenging material is being read less. I want to give an example: the book Kindheit (Childhood) by Moses Rosenkranz was given good reviews in all the newspapers. Even paperback publishers were interested in it. But then they looked more closely at it and said that they couldn’t do it after all. People on the beach wouldn’t read something like that. Kindheit is simply not light reading, it’s written in very poetic language. A book for which incidentally no publisher could be found for 40 years.
The author is a freelance journalist. She lives in Frankfurt am Main.
Translation: Jo Beckett
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion
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