Thinking and working away from the mainstream: Wallstein Press
Mr Wallmoden, there’s a funny legend about how you started up your publishing house.
Yes, it was literally a “wet idea”. The Steinhoff brothers and I – hence the name Wallstein, by the way – wanted to make some money with a brief burst of exertion so we could take our sweet time finishing up our dissertations. So we put together a guide to the bars in Göttingen. In the winter term of 1985/86 everyone who had a copy of the book was entitled to a drink at half price in every bar listed in it and could take part in a raffle. First prize: a trip to Jamaica.
Did people go for it?
And how! We sold 5,000 copies. Soon afterwards Apple Inc. contacted us and asked if we wanted to desktop-publish in future on Apple machines and then present our books at fairs. So we rented an office and bought the equipment. We were already convinced at the time that everyone who writes would be working with EDP of some sort sooner or later.
Well, reprints and annotated editions of the classics, which are a mainstay of our catalogue, can’t be financed by sales alone. You need subsidies. Which is why we work closely together with institutions – like the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation, for example, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and various Max Planck Institutes.
Looking at your catalogue, two main fields stand out: 18th-century intellectual history and the Nazi era.
We wanted to present the Enlightenment as a “saddle period”, as the historian Reinhart Koselleck once called it, in which certain measures of value that seem modern to us now were first given archetypal expression. The reversal of the Enlightenment by the Nazis logically belongs to the same field of study.
Which authors are we talking about?
We began our lineup in the 1980s with late Enlightenment authors like Lichtenberg and then delved into literary Modernism and the literature of exile. In recent years we’ve brought out some widely acclaimed editions of literary works and correspondence. To name just a few: Lichtenberg, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rahel Varnhagen, Joseph Roth and many others.
That was in 1992 with Ruth Klüger’s book weiter leben. Eine Jugend (Living On: A Childhood). At the time I thought: I’ll print 3,000 copies and if I can’t sell at least a thousand I’ll give up publishing and go back to academia. The book was then discussed on the television show Literarisches Quartett in a phase when it had the greatest possible impact, and in the space of a few months we sold over 100,000 copies.
Besides the classics, you also turned to contemporary German literature several years ago.
Yes, for six years now our editor Thorsten Ahrend has been putting together a Wallstein catalogue of contemporary German fiction. It has already achieved considerable visibility with authors like Lukas Bärfuss, Daniela Danz and Sabine Peters.
What is Wallstein’s take on e-publishing?
All our books are available from the get-go in digital form, which means we can offer all our 1600 titles as e-books as well. So e-books are nothing new to us at all.
And yet the industry talks its head off about it at every book fair.
The e-book debate is still completely on the wrong track at the moment. Nowadays books are merely transferred onto the new medium. They are not transformed. But the e-book’s appeal lies in multimedia cross-linking of the text to pictures, sound, film and the Internet: it will only become interesting when the new medium spawns new forms of representation as well.
One formally modern writer who could be expected to write in a style that lends itself to the e-book is Jörg Albrecht. He’s a Wallstein author who has now become an important benchmark for aspiring writers too.
In the 1990s you served as a consultant to Suhrkamp. Is there a common publishing credo there?
What we have in common with Suhrkamp Press, which I got to know back in those days, might be that what ultimately interests us is always the artistic use of language, that is to say the mimetic representation of reality through language. It makes no difference whatsoever whether that reality is some off-the-wall Berlin club or something else entirely. The important thing is the text has got to be a linguistic event.
You’re not considered a friend of so-called pop literature. And yet you still seek to make new types of literature popular. What is the difference in your opinion?
What is new can’t already be mainstream. To work towards giving unique works the greatest possible exposure is the publisher’s finest task. There’s a line by Lichtenberg about that: “I always prefer the man who writes in a way that might become fashionable to the one who writes the way that is already fashionable.” We think and work the way Lichtenberg had in mind.
writes for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s literary supplement, and works for Germany’s publically-funded radio and television.
Translation: Eric Rosencrantz
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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