German Self-Publishing, Where Innovation Meets Angst

In Europe by Amanda DeMarco

In Germany old publishing habits die hard. But the country’s burgeoning self-publishing industry is challenging the status quo.

By Max Frankle (as told to Amanda DeMarco)

Epubli logo

Epubli is the Berlin-based print-on-demand and self-publishing provider of the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group (who, for example, owns Macmillan Publishers in the United States). Founded in 2008, the company produces and distributes authors’ writings, both as E-books and physical books. Recently, epubli helped launch Der neue Buchpreis -– The New Book Prize for Innovative Authors, which honors self-published authors in four categories with prize money totaling €20,000; it will be awarded for the first time at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2011.

Here, Max Franke, head of Business Development and Communications at epubli, offers his views on digitization in Germany and about the associated difficulties the German book publishing industry has to face.

German Engineering

“Made in Germany” is a brand. People all over the world think of high quality when it comes to German cars and industrial machinery. In fact, we’re really proud to be a leading export nation. But sometimes we get obsessed with the details and try to perfect each and every process. The drawback is that we lose focus and forget the big picture; the time to market becomes too long.

This is especially true for book publishing. Germany is the land of Gutenberg, and over the past five and three-quarters centuries, certain structures and mindsets have become established. Instead of slimming down processes when coming out with a new product (e.g. an online bookstore), a lot of companies try to invent the perfect solution while their competitors outrun them.

Max Franke of epubli.de

Companies like Google don’t wait until they have the perfect product to share it with the world; instead they release beta versions and then improve them continuously. In fact, it’s impossible to develop great products in a vacuum; user feedback is essential, but it also means taking risks and making imperfections public, something that’s not particularly “German.” We do have the autobahn with no speed limits. Still, our data highways are sometimes quite slow.

Last year over a period of five weeks, we at epubli developed an e-book offering for self-publishers that supported both the Apple iBookstore and the Amazon Kindle store (the latter wasn’t even available in Germany back then). While our product may not have been perfect when we launched it, we were the first people in Germany to come up with such an offer. Perhaps this was possible because we’re an internet startup that doesn’t have to struggle with a legal department or a managerial fear of cannibalizing our own products.

German Angst

It’s more or less the consensus that German publishers won’t face transition exactly as American ones did. Unlike in America, book publishing and trade in Germany relies on safeguards that protect them from the disruptive forces of digitization (e.g. fixed book prices to protect brick-and-mortar bookstores from Amazon and the like) and Germans’ gusto for the look and feel of a physical book prevents readers from switching to e-books.

German risk aversion is not a myth. It seems most players in book publishing simply tried to avoid digitization, and some are still trying to. German publishers have been inflexible in their dealings with e-book contracts and slow to digitize at all, which accounts for the German language’s narrow e-book selection. Fear of embracing customer-oriented digital products, for example by not applying hard DRM (encryption making the work accessible only to the owner, often creating problems when users have multiple devices), and anxiety about giving away control and embracing social media are widespread. The truth is, I’ve heard of companies where the managing director approves tweets before they are sent.

However, book publishing is changing in Germany, too. E-books are on the rise and self-publishing isn’t just an American phenomenon. Authors see the advantages over here as well. Creator ownership, higher royalties and flexible structures and processes in the making of a book make it worthwhile to consider publishing on your own. Moreover, online book trade, social media and new technologies like print-on-demand create lots of new opportunities for authors and challenge the traditional value chain.

At epubli we do not apply hard DRM but watermark our e-books instead (making them traceable to an original owner in case they are illegally distributed). We encourage our authors to use social media and, moreover, provide them with the knowledge necessary to apply it effectively. Publishers shouldn’t be scared of piracy, but of losing their authors as they become self-publishers; for E-books, we offer a 60%-80% share of the net sales price, and no, nobody has to approve my tweets.

Obrigkeitsgläubigkeit

German has a very rich vocabulary for describing power relationships. Obrigkeitsgläubigkeit — belief in authorities — is a problem for the book business, especially when it’s hard for publishing industry leaders to accept that digitization has changed everything, that authors now have the opportunity to successfully distribute and market their books without a publishing house and to become brands of their own. Carolyn Reidy, President and CEO of Simon & Schuster is absolutely right when saying that “[the] publisher has never been the brand, the author is the brand.”

Prof. Gottfried Honnefelder, Chairman of the Börsenverein (the German book industry’s lobby group) said at the Buchtage Conference in June, scoffing at the challenge presented by self-publishing: “What’s new out there that we cannot do? Use the channels of communication and distribution in a new way? Without a publisher? Without a bookstore?” There’s just one thing he forgets: now, the author is in control. The author has the opportunity to distribute and communicate effectively. Publishers’ challenge is to adapt their royalty terms and to offer solutions that provide real marketing benefits for authors. Some players do in fact overestimate their market power and refuse to adapt to the new requirements.

At the same conference, bestselling author and publicist Dr. Cora Stephan said: “We [the authors] do understand that you [the industry] price e-books high so nobody will buy them. We know that old habits die hard. We just ask you to not be surprised if we choose Amazon over you and to not be surprised if it will be self-publishers who fulfill your job.”

LEARN MORE: New Book Prize Offers 20,000 Euros to German Self-Publishers

About the Author

Amanda DeMarco

Amanda DeMarco is a freelance writer and translator living in Berlin. Originally from Chicago, her work for Publishing Perspectives focuses on German-language publishing news.