German Trendsetters at Klett-Cotta on the Benefits of Being Big

In Feature Articles by Amanda DeMarco

By Amanda DeMarco

Michael Zöllner (photo Albrecht Fuchs)

STUTTGART: Michael Zöllner isn’t sentimental about his days as an independent publisher. He and his partner Tom Kraushaar led Tropen Verlag autonomously until January 2008, when it merged with the larger Stuttgart-based Klett-Cotta Verlag. Tropen, which published 10 to 12 titles per year, became an imprint of Klett-Cotta and the two became CEOs of Klett-Cotta’s list and shareholders in the company. Klett-Cotta, which publishes 80 books per year and has a 2,000-book backlist, belongs to the Klett Group, the second largest book group in Germany (of which it makes up only five percent).

Earlier this month in an interview with Publishing Perspectives, Zöllner stressed that the move had increased, not decreased, his sense of freedom: “The element of trust, combined with greater possibilities and safety [as a business] aren’t contradictory with independence, they’re an improved concept of it. With Tropen we always knew how we would finance the next program or two, but not more… I’m much freer now in my choice, together with the editors, together with Tom, of how to create a program that we think is successful and that’s something I totally enjoy.”

The current season is the first time that Zöllner and Kraushaar have acquired books after joining Klett-Cotta, and it certainly lives up to the house’s increasingly hip reputation. Klett-Cotta’s literature has developed the smart, but unpretentious international quality that makes Tropen’s neo-noir thrillers and crime novels so appealing.

This has meant building up a stable of younger German and foreign authors and cutting back on some “German authors of a certain generation,” as well as being a bit more daring. At Frankfurt, for example, Klett-Cotta acquired the German rights to the Swedish publisher Albert Bonniers’ The Poor of Łódź (De Fattiga i Łódź) by Steve Sem-Sandberg, an important international book at the fair.

“I think we’ve lost the fear of doing big titles,” said Zöllner. “We just want to be a little bit louder than we used to be, especially in literature.” He points to US publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux as a model for Klett-Cotta (and the source of several recent acquisitions).

When Zöllner joined Klett-Cotta, the house already had an extremely varied history, and a diverse list to match. He related in a late-2007 Boersenblatt interview that one of his goals was to sharpen the program’s profile. In the past two years that has meant moving some authors between Klett-Cotta’s literature program and Tropen in order to “have the more timeless, elegant, classic program at Klett-Cotta, and really a more clear profile of urban, edgy literature at Tropen,” said Zöllner. Authors like Mark Z. Danielewski (House of Leaves) moved to Tropen from Klett-Cotta, while Argentinian Alan Pauls (whose The Past has drawn critical comparisons to Proust and Nabokov), among others, moved to Klett-Cotta from Tropen.

Klett-Cotta has also changed strategy in its fantasy imprint, Hobbit Presse, whose strong backlist includes Tolkien, but whose more recent offerings, while very successful in the United States, weren’t finding a German audience. Zöllner identified the problem as he saw it: “I don’t think we have a real adult market for fantasy in Germany yet like in the United States. That doesn’t mean that adults here don’t read fantasy; they do, and they read a lot of it, but it’s this all-age genre.” So Klett-Cotta abandoned experimenting and is focusing on proven successes like Tad Williams, whose entire backlist they recently acquired.

As a hardcover publisher without its own paperback program, it’s especially imperative for Hobbit Presse’s offerings to be regarded as high-quality. Zöllner spoke about the need to fit Hobbit Presse into Klett-Cotta’s larger goal of publishing intelligent but accessible literature: “We don’t want to exclude any readers, but we have a highbrow profile. I don’t want to be snobbish in a segment that has to make money, but nevertheless I want it to match the feel of the other programs.” To this end, Hobbit Presse will publish Neil Gaiman’s newest book, Fragile Things.

In addition to bringing in new influences, Klett-Cotta is also looking to capitalize on its traditional strengths, in particular in philosophical books. The publisher, which holds the rights to many Martin Heidegger titles, is bringing out more controversial nonfiction, like Sven Hillenkamp’s pithy The End of Love: Emotions in the Time of Endless Freedom and (from FSG) Eric G. Wilson’s Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy.

Publishers are living in interesting times, and Klett-Cotta is no exception. Pre-sales into stores were roughly the same as last year, a disappointment since Zöllner had hoped that the ongoing restructuring might already result in growth. Still, it’s too early to judge the fiscal effects of the adjustments. “No publishing house can be changed in one or two years,” said Zöllner. And since it’s stabilized by its large backlist and the sheltering effect of the Klett Group, Klett-Cotta can afford to wait, a luxury many independent publishers can’t afford.

VISIT: The Klett-Cotta web site

BROWSE: Tropen’s most recent publications

READ: Klett-Cotta’s blog

BONUS: Indie vs Corporate Publishing, Is the Choice Still Relevant?

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.