Diversity for the book market

Frankfurt Book Fair 2013 | © Frankfurter Buchmesse, Nurettin Çiçek
Frankfurt Book Fair 2013 | Photo (detail): © Frankfurter Buchmesse, Nurettin Çiçek

They discover new talent and bring out limited series or volumes of poetry that are particularly elaborate in their design – independent publishing houses in Germany generate a welcome diversity for the book market. However just as the big publishing houses are battling with the onslaught of digitalisation, they, too, have had to face up to these challenges, says Stefan Weidle, Chairman of the Kurt Wolff Foundation.

When it comes to the way the reading public perceive independent publishing houses in Germany, they remain very much in the shadows, leading a kind of wallflower existence. Compared with the big publishers like Penguin Random House, for example, they seem to be nothing more than lifeboats adrift in a sea of bestsellers – providing a lifeline for unknown talents, for subjects that have been neglected or rediscovered and for a whole lot of other crazy stuff. Rarely do the independent publishing houses get the opportunity to show with their very presence alone just how important they are for German reading culture – the Frankfurt Book Fair being the exception.

It was there that dozens of independent publishing houses had the chance to show their wares in autumn in 2013. It was a demonstration of the diversity and strength of the smallest publishing companies, whose individual abilities and appetite for innovation are very much sought after in the wake of the sector being swamped by the wave of digitalisation. This is also the opinion of Stefan Weidle, Chairman of the Kurt Wolff Foundation – an institution that is devoted to the promotion of more diversity on the publishing and literature scene in Germany.

There are about 1,000 independent publishing houses spread throughout Germany, estimates Weidle, who runs his own publishing company and brings out between six to ten books a year. Among the 1,000 houses, however, there are quite a few which publish only on an irregular basis or have only one book in their selection. He went on to say that about 120 independent publishing houses had developed structures that could be taken seriously and that they published all kinds of content ranging from fiction to non-fiction on a regular basis.

Small print runs, big talents

Their great strength, said Weidle, was the relatively small number of copies with which the independent publishing houses make their money. “The big publishers want books that bring in at best 15,000 euros a month – the number of books that actually make that kind of money, however, is small.” At the independent publishing houses sometimes initial print runs of only 500 copies are launched. As Weidle went on to say, this is why it was possible to publish poetry or authors who are not so well known.Weidle also struck lucky himself when he published Die Manon Lescaut von Turdej – a novel by the Russian author, Wsewolod Petrow – a writer who had almost been forgotten. The book first appeared in an edition of only a thousand copies, in the meantime about 10,000 copies have been sold. A classic example of how independent publishing houses can enrich the book market. “They have people who believe in lesser known and not so successful authors and they give them a chance”, says Weidle.

The biggest problem the independent publishing houses have when marketing their books is getting them on the shelves in the shops. Only rarely do the big book store chains agree to sell them. In Weidle’s opinion the diversity to be found in the small publishing houses is exactly what is missing today from the mainstream book business. “The big book shops mostly seek their salvation in popular Anglo-Saxon literature and the big bestsellers.”

That, he continues, was too narrow a view of literary reality. He also believes that customers would also welcome a greater diversity and show their appreciation. Although there have been no new start-ups recently, the number of independent publishing houses in Germany has remained at a constantly high level for quite some time now.

The independent publishing houses are joining forces

It is not just the quality of the content that is responsible for this. Large-scale serial productions are often cheaply bound and the proofreading poor. “It simply gives me no joy”, says Weidle. This is where the small-scale editions, so meticulously produced by the independent publishing house, come into their own. In order to get their books to the customers a new website is in the process of being launched at the moment – indiebook.de. The largest platform for independent publishing houses in the German-speaking world, i.e. Switzerland and Austria, too. About 60 publishing houses from the three countries will soon be promoting their products on it.This joining of forces was necessary, said Weidle, because “60 to 70 percent of all the books bought are spontaneous purchases.” That is why anyone whose book is not on display in a bookshop will have a hard time. Even that, however, is not going to turn back the tide. With the generation of digital natives upon us, the book as a key medium has long since been superseded by the internet, according to Weidle. “In the old days, whenever I wanted to know something, I reached for a book. Those days are now gone.”

From a key medium to a collector’s item

The aim of events like Indiebookday, for example, is to draw people’s attention once more to the diversity of German publishing culture. The event involves readers being called upon to buy a book from an independent publishing house and then reporting on it in the social networks under the #Indiebookday hash tag. The event was inspired by the Record Store Day that for years now has been doing the same kind of promotion for the independent labels of the music scene. At least in the field of independent publishing the one-time key medium has nevertheless achieved the status of a collector’s item. Stefan Weidle has welcomed this. “The big publishing houses have pinned their hopes on making money fast and most of the time only has eyes for America.” Due to this many European authors would normally fall by the wayside. Without the independent publishing houses, Weidle is certain, the German book market would be a much poorer place.