Germany’s Non-fiction Book Market

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This article originally appeared in Über:blick — German Book Industry Insight, a publication produced by the Frankfurt Book Fair. DOWNLOAD: the complete Über:blick issue (PDF).

By Christine Proske

Bestseller Lists Reflect the State of the Country

In my opinion, the non-fiction bestseller lists are always a reflection of the sensitivities of a people. At the beginning of the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the topics that dominated the German book market were politics, peaceful revolution and reunification — in addition, of course, to those topics that always work: sex and good food! The euphoria of reunification was followed by a sense of disillusionment. The majority of people lost interest in politics and began to turn inward and focus on themselves once again. In the world of non-fiction in the mid-90s, this meant that people started to become very interested in spiritual and esoteric topics, along with alternative medicine. At that time, the companies experiencing the greatest increases in sales were those publishing medical guides. All trade publishers promptly launched series focused on alternative health.

Die Kunst des stilvollen Verarmens

At the end of the 90s, the Internet and the New Economy were booming and, with them, the international stock markets. The book market responded with guides to money, stocks and the stock exchange, and the establishment of many new book publishers specialising exclusively in the economy. We are all aware how that chapter ended. It is thus not at all surprising that one of the bestsellers in the last few years was called Die Kunst des stilvollen Verarmens (The Art of Stylish Impoverishment, Rowohlt Berlin).

In the wake of the tragic attack on the World Trade Center by Islamic terrorists on 11 September 2001, books about Osama bin Laden, Islam in general, and Islamic terrorism in particular were in high demand. In response to Islamic fundamentalism, people in Western Europe increasingly turned to their own religion again. They are looking for more guidance, meaning and happiness. The wave of enthusiasm for the Pope in Germany was to be expected. One other topic that emerged from the cataclysm of 9/11 was the unspeakable conspiracy theories, which have been a good source of earnings for the book industry.

In 2010, the non-fiction market was, of course, dominated by the international financial crisis. Existential economic insecurity often creates a good breeding ground for social exclusion and an exaggerated notion of who one’s enemies are. This also explains the enormous success of Thilo Sarrazin’s book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Does Away With Itself, DVA). With his polarising theses on the allegedly unsuccessful integration of various cultural identities in Germany, Sarrazin sparked a broad and emotionally charged political and social debate that sent the book to the top of the bestseller lists at the end of 2010.

Factors that make a title successful in Germany’s non-fiction market

In order to have a real shot at making the bestseller list, a book has to do more than just plug into current social issues or the nation’s mood.

  • The celebrity status of the author. The better known a person — and his or her face — ia, the more likely it is that the media will report on the book.
  • Media coverage of the topic. A polarising topic is sure to capture the media’s attention. Or, perhaps, the book represents the only source of information on a given subject at the time of publication.
  • The popularity and acceptance of the title at bookstores. If it is possible to find a subject that is also of interest to booksellers, more books will be ordered and sales will increase accordingly.
  • The size of the target audience. This is a major reason why cookbooks sell just as well as diet books.

Always in Demand: Cookbooks, Parenting Books, Biographies

Above and beyond these trends, there are other categories that always sell well. These include cookbooks, parenting books and biographies, preferably from the first half of the past century. On the subject of biographies, a brand new genre that emerged on the book scene after 1988 has proven to be successful not only in Germany — the so-called “memoir”. This expression is used for autobiographies written mostly by women with extraordinary fates. The most famous forerunner of this genre was the surprise success of Betty Mahmoody’s Nicht ohne meine Tochter (Not Without My Daughter).

The title Ich bin dann mal weg (I’m Off Then, Piper 2006) by the famous German comedian Hape Kerkeling combines the successful categories of spirituality and religion with good writing and a popular celebrity. The book, in which the author reports on his spiritually inspired walk on the Camino de Santiago, a path from the Middle Ages that leads to the grave of a Christian saint in Spain, was the most sensational non-fiction success since world war two. Two weeks after its publication, the title climbed to the number one spot on the bestseller list, where it stayed for 24 consecutive months — interrupted only by a short three-week stint in second place. After that, it spent another year in the top 40. It’s rumoured that the book has sold more than three million copies, excluding audiobooks and copies of the paperback edition.

Non-fiction E-books

While many publishing colleagues over 40 [in Germany], and many readers in particular, feel that the e-book has no future, I am convinced that, in ten years, at least 40% of non-fiction books in particular will only be published in e-book form. Once again, it is the younger generation that will be crucial here. And they already favoured the e-book in 2008 — with a share of 50% compared to the printed work.

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