Hyperbolic Heidelberg Appeal Distracts from Real Issues in Germany’s Literary Future

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Editorial by Rüdiger Wischenbart

Roland Reuss, author of the Heidelberg Appeal

Is the glass half empty or half full? At the moment, German publishing circles are absorbed in a very public debate over the digital future, one that threatens to split the literary establishment from the younger generation of “digerati” and “digital natives.”

The debate was prompted in March after literature professor Roland Reuss (at left) published the Heidelberger Appell (Heidelberg Pamphlet), a document that railed against forces threatening  the “freedom of literature, art and science”.

He was writing, of course, about the Internet.

“Currently the fundamental right of authors vouched for in the constitution to publish freely and of their own volition is under considerable attack and sustained threat,” wrote Reuss.

He sets up two villains: First is the “open access” model for science publishing, which has been supported by major German research funding organizations — much to the detriment of more commercial publishing models. Second is Google’s library digitization project and the resulting Google Settlement, which proposes a way — under US law I must note — to compensate authors for copyrighted work made available online by Google.

The Heidelberg Pamphlet was then circulated as a petition and won surprisingly widespread support: Within a few months, Reuss had collected some 2,600 signatures of support, many from notable publishers and writers. He received supportive feedback from the federal government. Then, in June, the campaign was officially endorsed by the Börsenverein, the German Publisher’s and Bookseller’s Association, at their annual gathering, the Berlin Book Days.

Even more remarkable than the long list of influential supporters is the very idea presented in the pamphlet itself and and the debate which it has provoked. “Our culture is in danger” was the headline of Reuss’ article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s most influential, conservative daily, when Reuss introduced his agenda to a larger audience in April. (Ever since then, the newspaper has run a seemingly endless collection of articles in support of the cause).

The odd thing is that the “open access” model of science publishing, introduced against skyrocketing subscription fees of science journals in the late 1990s, has little to do with Google and the debate on copyright.

In fact, much of the war on piracy, at least as waged under the Heidelberg banner, has little or nothing to do with the present reality of German book publishing. Nearly all of the references in the document apply to the music industry, to the piracy of print books (a problem mostly linked to Asia), or to online file sharing services, which have largely ignored books.

As for the Google Settlement, it is true that their “shoot first, ask questions later” approach is hardly acceptable for many publishers and authors. And, more significantly, it’s based on US copyright law – which is fundamentally different from its European equivalent – and cannot and should not be applied to Europe without due consideration for local laws. At the end of the day, this is still a complicated issue that is probably best sorted out by professional associations and their lawyers with Google, and not in the forum of public opinion by screaming “The end is nigh!”

Much of this was said shortly after the Heidelberg Pamphlet began spreading, but to no avail. (For a summary on the critical arguments on the Heidelberg text, see my essay, in German.)

Instead of looking at what works and doing something practical, the framers of the Heidelberg Appell decided to turn it into an issue of morality over practicality.

What should they have done? They could have pointed out the alternative best practices, such as the German trade association’s own e-Book platform Libreka (www.libreka.de ), and other European digitization efforts. They could have started lobbying for an original European legal standpoint for the battle ahead with Google – and probably also Amazon, Apple and other contenders in the framing of an emerging market with digital books in all formats and circumstances.

Instead, we got a document that calls the Internet an imminent threat to culture, democracy, journalism and high value content altogether. It argues against the availability of really bad stuff online (notably child pornography), and a discussion of why and how it should be banned. “If we lose it [this battle]” the Heidelberg Appell closes, “we lose our future.”

As is so often the case, the true issues may be found in the fine print, rather than in the moral high grounds: German publishing is a mature market, with hardly any room for expansion. Yet, it is at the same time very sophisticated, with a unique diversity in both publishing and bookselling. In Germany, publishing conglomerates easily coexist with small family-run independents catering to local tastes. In bookselling, there is some consolidation, and serious battles have begun to be fought over margins, discounts and prime locations. Yet even then, despite the general economic slump, the Börsenverein anticipates this year may result in some of the strongest sales ever for the German book industry.

It would seem, despite all suggestion to the contrary, that the glass is at least half full.

And it’s not just the industry itself that appears healthy. Consumers, too, appear to be willing to pay a proper price for books – as opposed to bargain hunting on the Internet – as there is a broad consensus across society in support for fixed book prices.

On the other hand, as evidenced by the Heidelberg Appell, there is still some feeling that the glass may be half empty, and that the Internet is threatening to tip it over altogether, spilling what contents remain onto the floor.

Much of the support for the Heidelberg initiative is coming from the cultural elite, a group that for all of its intelligence might not anticipate a possibly regrettable side effect of their campaign.  In being so vocal about their opposition to the Internet publishing, Open Access and Google, they risk pushing younger readers toward the very the idea that books are a cheap commodity, not all that that different from MP3 music or pirated movies.

This frivolous cultural war could quickly undermine the book industry’s and as well as the reading culture’s traditional stance that it is unique and above the everyday fray of the marketplace.

It’s interesting to note how insulated Germany has been from this debate so far, one that has already consumed much of US publishing. During a series of meetings this Spring between US and German editors in Germany (at the invitation of the Frankfurt Book Fair) an amazing pattern emerged in the conversations. While the US editors marveled at how little the crisis had diminished sales of even demanding titles in Germany (“Wow, you sell 25,000 copies of this monograph?!”), they were puzzled over how digital innovation had hardly arrived (“We only started to experiment with online marketing…” their German counterparts would say.)

It is quite likely that in retrospect, the controversy over Heidelberg will be read as a split between the old and the new, the past and the future, and notably, the older generation versus the young.

It is certainly about Google, amongst quite a few other things, but with Google as a metaphor for who drives innovation, and to what end. It is certainly about book culture – yet not about this unique culture’s ending, but its future. And despite some shrill notes at the moment, and against Shakespeare, it is about the lark and not the nightingale.

Rüdiger Wischenbart is a Vienna, Austria, based consultant specializing on international book markets and innovation. More of his work is available at www.wischenbart.com/publishing and at his blog www.booklab.info.

READ: The Heidelberg Appeal in an English translation

CONTACT: Wischenbart directly

THE LIST: of signatories to the petition.

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