An Interview with David Oels Passion for the “Sachbuch”

David Oels is Junior Professor for Book Science at the University of Mainz and a renowned Sachbuch researcher. He believes the Sachbuch merits more attention in cultural history than it has received.

Junior Professor Dr. des. David Oels Junior Professor Dr. des. David Oels | Photo: Peter Pulkowski Mr. Oels, is there a watertight definition of the Sachbuch?

There has been one on the German book market only since 2007. According to this definition, a Sachbuch is knowledge-oriented and addressed to the reader in his private life. It is thus distinguished from the specialist scientific book and the practical guidebook. It was also only in 2007 that the actual market share of Sachbücher was determined for the first time – about ten percent. Venturing a comparison with abroad, we soon reach the limits of the definition because, by what is called a Sachbuch in Germany, the foreign market often understands something different. This may already be seen in the category’s name in various languages: “non-fiction”, “text book”, “essai” or “libros de non ficción”. I think our concept of the Sachbuch is something very German, which can’t really be compared to other that of other countries.

How far back does this term go?

The term “Sachbuch”, as we use it today, has existed in Germany only since the 1950s. It asserted itself with the publication of the first Spiegel bestseller list in 1961, where ever since then the term has stood emblazoned over the list’s right-hand column. In earlier lists – for example, the Seller Teller in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, this division didn’t exist. Under the Spiegel category you find books which have a factual content, but which function like belles letters in form and distribution. They are read out of interest and quite apart from any professional use. Such books were initially perceived as something new. The feature pages spoke of them back then still somewhat disparagingly, as “so-called Sachbücher” or put the term Sachbuch in scare quotes. My literature-inclined grandmother used to comment on her husband’s reading very much in this sense with the lapidary remark: “Oh, he’s reading 'only' a Sachbuch”.

Are men the main enthusiasts of Sachbücher?

Many studies have confirmed that the Sachbuch reader is likely to be male. There are also more male authors in this field. But the results of reader research are striking: Sachbücher are not basically read in a different way from novels. The Sachbuch reader is not only looking for practical knowledge, but also draws inspiration for daydreams and wishes from his reading of biographies, travelogues and historical Sachbücher. Men especially enjoy this emotional way of reading Sachbücher. As for me, I’m an exception to this statistic because I used to prefer reading novels.

How did you acquire your passion for the Sachbuch?

In 2000, German literary scholars began speaking of a return of narrative. It struck me that the books referred to were often based on facts – for example, Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (Das Parfüm) and Sten Nadolny’s The Discovery of Slowness (Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit). I asked myself whether it wasn’t exactly this form of narrative that already existed and continued to exist in the Sachbuch. I was able to confirm my thesis and it has opened a fascinating field of study. Although our society is at least as strongly influenced by Sachbuch literature as by belles lettres, the Sachbuch hasn’t really previously been a field of research. It doesn’t warrant this neglect.

Sachbücher that tell stories and factual novels – that sounds like switched functions.

This phenomenon always occurs in waves. Interestingly, in the first third of the twentieth century the predecessor of the Sachbuch was called the "Tatsachenroman“. , literally the “factual novel”. If we go back still further, we can observe a boom on the Sachbuch market in the nineteenth century. The popularization of knowledge was in vogue and many renowned scientists, such as Humboldt and Liebig, got into it. The first German Nobel laureate for literature, Theodor Mommsen, was awarded the prize in 1902 for his History of Rome, a Sachbuch.

How is the Sachbuch faring today?

The market reflects above all the great socio-political and ecological debates taking place in Germany. Without previous media coverage or media attention, there is as good as no successful Sachbuch. An example of this is the Sarrazin debate. At any rate, most successful Sachbücher in Germany come from the pens of German authors. Translated Sachbücher, compared to belles letters, have a harder time of it. This is surely because, when reading a translated novel, the reader expects to come across foreign allusions, whereas in a Sachbuch examples should aid the understanding and therefore not evoke a sense of unfamiliarity. Sachbücher therefore have to be translated differently from novels. Fortunately, today the Sachbuch plays a much larger role in the feature pages than it did thirty years ago, which is important for the cultural recognition of the author, his subject and the publisher. At the same time, this attention reflects a growing interest in the book as an object for stimulating cultural discussion, and in this the Sachbuch is playing an increasingly important part.

The Institute for Book Science at the University of Mainz offers a full degree program in Book Science. It trains the young for the book industry in the broader sense, that is, as publishers, industry representatives and members of institutions for book information, the promotion of reading and other book-related activities. The program focuses on practice-oriented subjects such as buyer-seller research, the situation of the book trade in Germany, media economics and media law. Student research examines historical and cultural subjects – for example, the history of the book trade, historical reader research, the place of books in the media network, and the historical and practical design of books.