Jo Lendle on modern publishing For More Light in the Black Box

Jo Lendle; © Mario Giordano
Jo Lendle | Photo (detail): © Mario Giordano

In January 2014 the writer Jo Lendle took over editorial management of the Hanser Publishers. In this interview he explains how digitalization has changed the literary world and what distinguishes a contemporary publishing house.

Mr Lendle, you will take over editorial leadership of the Hanser Publishers as Michael Krüger’s successor. Does the job inspire you with respect?

By all means – Hanser is a literary institution. For decades its books have been companions of anyone in this country who is addicted to literature. And with due reverence for this tradition, I look forward to continuing it.

You, like Michael Krüger, are yourself a writer. Your new novel, “Was wir Liebe nennen” (i.e., What We Call Love) just appeared in August. Are authors better publishers?

Hardly. There are other people who are also good readers. We probably have a more wordless understanding for certain aspects of a writer’s life, but I wouldn’t overrate that.

In the winter of 2012/2013, writers’ organizations in Germany, Austria and Switzerland conducted a survey amongst authors. Thirty-three per cent of all respondents were fundamentally dissatisfied with their publisher. Seventeen per cent expressed even great dissatisfaction. Can you understand their feelings?

I know the survey, but not the exact questions. It concerns very different forms of dissatisfaction: with contracts, participation, positioning, sales success. Of course there are unpleasant experiences, but there is also this quite banal basic conflict: a publisher has many books in his programme, but each book has only one publisher. If you’ve worked for years on a manuscript, you don’t always have understanding for the distributed commitment of a publisher. It should be mentioned that the survey made no distinction among various types of publishing houses; with an important literary publisher like Hanser, I assume that authors’ satisfaction is significantly higher.

Has the transformation into a digital society really affected the literary world as fundamentally as people make out?

Yes, quite – but no differently from the rest of the world. And just as in the rest of life, there are some highly enjoyable and practical aspects. New formats will, sooner or later, bring with them new kinds of narrative.

But there are also some things that worry me. Key words would be copyright and the fixed book price – both scarcely replaceable basic conditions for the development of literature and for its dissemination. And however convenient quick downloading is, each reader must decide for himself where exactly this is to take place. Many local booksellers also now provide the same services as the global download giants. Everyone should be clear about one thing: today’s quasi-monopolists in digital trade exclude exactly that part of the book trade which discovers, recommends and promotes new authors and their books.

It has never been easier than today to publish and distribute your own texts. Must publishers in the age of self-publishing re-define themselves?

What has changed is that publishers no longer provide the only way to an audience. This applies currently more to non-fiction genres than literary works. But the changes are a good opportunity to reflect on our self-understanding and, together with our authors, to combine the new mobility with the strengths of a publisher’s brand. If this casts some light into the black box publishing house, it’s quite all right with me.

In your opinion, are publishers cultural mediators?

I studied cultural mediation at university – and ever since then have wondered whether what publishing corresponds to the ideas of my studies or whether it isn’t something quite different. In the traditional sense, cultural mediation presented something complete and closed in a new way and supplemented coloured and accentuated it. The work of a publisher usually begins earlier, as a rule already when it can affect the creative process. But today people tend to see almost everything as a creative activity, including cultural mediation. So there we sit together with kitchen outfitters, florists and orthodontists in one creative boat.

What does a contemporary publishing house look like for you?

Surprisingly traditional in its programme, whereby a part of tradition is always the accompaniment of the present, reflecting it and commenting on it. In everything else, a curious-interested quasi-distance to all the hourly proclaimed new media revolutions.

What would you like to have in coming to grips with your future job?

What you need: a good eye, a good nose and a clear head.