Berlinica is Born: How a German Journalist Became a US Publisher

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

• Dr. Eva Schweitzer, once a New York correspondent for German newspapers, decided to start her own publishing company focused on books from and about Berlin.

• Using technology, a DIY attitude, and her ever-expanding network of contacts, Schweitzer will launch her company on November 11, 2010.

By Dr. Eva C. Schweitzer

NEW YORK: And this is how I became a publisher . . .

My job as a journalist is, to put it simply, repetitive and badly paid. I work in New York as a correspondent for German newspapers and as a book author (I did a short story collection about Manhattan). This is, sadly, like writing into a black hole: hardly anybody I’m writing about can read it. In fact, foreign writing rarely makes it to the United States. Only a handful of German novels are translated each year. So I decided to publish German books in English, or, more precisely, books about Berlin. I’m from Berlin, a city that has a rich history Americans can relate to, as well as a lot of novelists.

Technology makes endeavors possible that would have been unheard of even five years ago. Already deep into the planning stage, I attended this year’s BookExpo America. I left it totally energized: it seemed so easy to get a book into Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and every electronic device without spending a penny (or so I thought). I knew right away I could only do print on demand. I live in a shoebox apartment in Manhattan, and a half dozen prints runs plus fulfillment was beyond my means. The visual difference of a POD book and a regularly printed book is negligible for the customer — you only have to explain over and over again that it’s not a download from the Internet. I got a half dozen friends (mostly guys I used to date) to chip in $10,000 altogether. That’s about it.

So I founded the publishing company; or rather, two companies — one based in Berlin, one based in New York — both named “Berlinica” (I picked the name because it generated only 366 Google hits). I walked through a maze of panels, courses, meetings, events, lectures, and talks with publishers, and, more importantly, lawyers. Back in Berlin, I visited every single small publisher, and asked them to hand over a book to me. Pretty soon my Berlin apartment — fortunately not a shoebox — filled up with books. And while I was doing this, I took pictures of every single Berlin landmark for my book covers and my line of T-shirts and mugs.

The books I gathered were mostly guide books, books about the Wall, the Airlift, city history, and the renewal of Jewish life. But I knew from start that I needed at least one contemporary novel to be taken seriously. Astonishingly, there were not that many. Rights were available for a well-known mystery writer, but he seemed a tad old-fashioned. There are quite a few romantic comedies, but they weren’t really about Berlin. Then I discovered (by scouring bookstores) Wallflower, a love story during the fall of the Wall written by an New York-born author who lived in Berlin for 40 years. It was the ideal book: written by an American, set in Berlin, funny, intelligent, and entertaining, and contemporary.

I called the author, Holly-Jane Rahlens, and we met. At first, she was a little reluctant (she is a respectable writer with a half dozen published novels — I, at that point, didn’t even exist), but she agreed. The next step was to get Rowohlt, her German publisher, to agree. Rowohlt is a highly respected publishing house owned by Holtzbrinck (the same company that owns Henry Holt and FSG in the US). I still can’t believe I talked them into giving me the rights (technically, they haven’t, since the contract has not yet been approved by the third set of lawyers). Wallflower, however, is already available at Amazon and Barned & Noble. The author’s husband designed the cover and her son is working on an iPad app for Berlinica.

My second book I found in a bookstore as well: the guide Berlin for Free, published by a Berlin-based company as small as mine. Getting the rights took me one hour. The cover design took four whole days — because I visited four street fairs to find the right image ( I also drank a lot) and did the layout myself. When I started, I decided to buy Adobe InDesign, something I regarded as a luxury at that time. I must say, had I not done so, I would have surely killed myself by now.

The third book on my list is another guide, Berlin For Young People, which I acquired in its English translation and with a final design and layout already approved (thank God). This title came together on auto-pilot. So did the fourth guide book about hiking the Berlin Wall, written by a Green party politician who is a friend of mine. I also acquired a book on Cold War history. My translator, Cindy Opitz, needed to rework the existing English translation for this book (and I needed to calm down some people who had not been entirely aware of the fact that their pictures had been used). Cindy lives in Iowa, and we will meet for the very first time in person for the launch of my company. I also work with two proofreaders — actually three, but the third one disappeared without a trace in August.

Finally, the cookbook. I wanted to publish a cookbook early on because it’s great for the back list and there aren’t any Berlin-specific cookbooks on Amazon (not surprisingly, I’m pitching Berlin cuisine as “down-to-earth”). This ballooned into an extensive enterprise. The book began as a little gift item but has turned into a 100-page, full-color, 8.5-inch square book. I hired a photographer to take a series of pictures of green market vegetables and fancy food stores (actually “hired” implies that he got an advance, which he didn’t). Our last session was at the apartment of the cookbook writer who is also a chef — a good one. She cooked three dishes for nine people, and after the pictures were taken, we ate everything.

I did not undertake the layout of the cookbook myself; at that point, I was busy getting this new enterprise incorporated, signing up for Amazon Advantage, Amazon Affiliates, Amazon Booksearch, Amazon Create Space, Amazon Kindle, Amazon whatnot, Google Adsense, Baker and Taylor, Barnes & Noble, and Ingram. There was also a website to take care of, and a catalog to put out (meanwhile, I’ve got two interns, a student and a retired professor who are designing the website — hopefully). So far, the cookbook looks good. A color POD book is fairly expensive, though, so if I’m getting enough demand I may consider doing a small hardcover print run — and store the copies under my bed.

Now . . . the launch will take place on November 11. The German consulate is throwing a party with free beer (to which you are all invited). I am also nudging the German infrastructure in the US — universities, Goethe Institutes, bookstores — to help (if nudging is the same as shoving). And of course I’m utilizing all my friends, acquaintances, colleagues, foes, and people I’ve just met, as well as their Facebook pages.

There is so much more to tell: the Australian woman who taught me how to use InDesign (we bonded of discovering we both use the metric system); the trip to a wholesale store the day after the company was incorporated to buy 500 tiny bars of chocolate for the launch; the sleepless nights when I corrected the same manuscript yet again; and the times I got a proof from LightningSource only to find yet another typo. However, space is limited, and so is time. I have to send copies to Barnes & Noble, sweet-talk the New York Times into covering me (!), ship the master disc of my first Berlin CD to Amazon and wait for the first DVD proof to arrive (yes, Amazon is doing CDs and DVDs on-demand, and, accordingly, so will I). Next year, I’m planning a promotion tour with Amtrak to every major city, dragging one of my authors with me. At that point I should have three or four. If you’re interested in meeting them, come find me: I’m easy to find —

DISCUSS: What’s the Best Advice for Someone Launching a Publishing Start-up?

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.