Editing Enters the Digital Age in Germany

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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 Jörg Sundermeier

A survey of ten German editors looks at how the responsibilities of editors have changed, how e-books are influencing the editorial process, and how the very concept of the book is evolving.

The respondents are professionals who edit between ten and twenty books a year, though they are not always the sole editors on these projects. Wolfgang Hörner, director of Galiani Verlag, which specialises in contemporary German literature, classics and narrative non-fiction, said: “I think there are around eight to ten titles that I do each year on my own. I am involved in the early stages of nearly all of the 15–20 Galiani titles published each year, i.e, in the planning, development, tonality, etc.”

Print, E-book, App: Seeking the Right Strategy


All respondents think about more than just the text. Michael Schickerling, who works as a freelance editor and programme advisor for publishers, and specialises in business, politics and history, warns outright: “Unfortunately, too many colleagues are still not seriously considering how their work could look in a few years’ time. Yet one thing already is clear: the changes affecting media will also change the face of the book industry over the long term. The digital version of the book — whether it’s an e-book or an app — is becoming increasingly more important. As a result, editors can no longer rely on attracting the most interesting authors or developing good content. Instead, they must consider the best format in which to present them. Paper is just one option.”

Susan Bindermann, who works at the literary agency Hebler und Bindermann, always sees the product as well. “We naturally also consider the multimedia side effects — which can limit the imagination as much as they promote sales.” Volker Oppmann, publisher of the independent house Onkel & Onkel and founder of the e-book label textunes, always has the e-book in mind: “That means keeping an eye, from the very start, on developing content-based features to provide added value.”

Pressure to Succeed

But what does this mean for the traditional editorial process? Literary editors Rainer Weiss of weissbooks, Thorsten Ahrend of Wallstein Verlag, and freelance editor Susann Rehlein all insist that it hasn’t been changed by the e-book. Yet the pressure to meet deadlines and to succeed has changed completely. Even Axel von Ernst from the small Lilienfeld Verlag is feeling the pressure: “When it comes to editing, success is defined by quality; this begins to suffer when deadlines become too tight. To date, I have insisted even more on quality over the job of meeting deadlines — but this is becoming more difficult.” Karsten Kredel, programme director for literature at Eichborn, said, “I have been working as an editor for around five years and, in this time, the pressure to meet deadlines has increased only slightly — it was brutal from the beginning. The pressure to succeed: yes, that has increased. Sales have long since replaced critical reception as a measure of success, and the emphasis on publishing a few bestsellers, and publishers’ consequent dependence on landing a commercial success, is increasing. Investments for rights are high.” The way texts are handled has also changed. “The approach to novels and character constellations is, disconcertingly, dominated more and more by routine classifications by subject matter. A fictional example: ‘Well written, but stories about rural childless families set in the early 80s aren’t working at all right now.'”

“Challenging” Literature

Klaus Siblewski, programme director at Random House’sLuchterhand Verlag and founder of the Deutsche Lektorenkonferenz (German Editors Conference), points out that “the situation for literary publishers has deteriorated over the years. Challenging literature faces an even greater challenge. As an editor, I have already dealt with literature that is by no means facing the ‘pressure to succeed’ from publishing houses alone. Authors also subject themselves to this pressure to succeed. Since I, too, am unable to escape this pressure, I see it as the ultimate challenge to the work of editors. For me it is primarily a question of discernment.”

Siblewski makes yet another observation: “Most novels act as if they are dealing with a world in which media plays a role, rather than one that has been shaped by media. In fact, there are entire passages in novels that have been lifted from the Internet. The relationship between literature and the media has changed drastically as a result. And something else is changing: many authors have attended seminars about writing, where they have presented and discussed passages from their manuscripts. They have participated in public readings, applied for fellowships and tried to win prizes for their manuscripts — and in each of these cases, they have received feedback on their manuscripts and taken these reactions on board. As the editor, I have to adjust to the fact that the work of the author is stored in a process of self-discovery that involves many people and has not, for a long time, involved the author going it alone. In this respect, I am no longer reacting exclusively to the work of an individual author, but rather to a team of authors that confronts me in the form of one author who considers him — or herself responsible for the manuscript.”

Training Opportunities

In Germany, there are networks like the Deutsche Lektorenkonferenz and the Verband der Freien Lektorinnen und Lektoren (Association of Freelance Editors) for professional exchange. Editors and other publishing professionals from all over the world who are invited to join the Frankfurt Book Fair Fellowship Programme have a chance to interact and exchange ideas with their colleagues in Germany over the course of two weeks. Other institutions such as mediacampus frankfurt or Akademie des Deutschen Buchhandels offer advanced training opportunities. Designed specifically for editors, they clearly reveal the direction in which editorial expertise is currently headed. These courses cover not only topics like business management, but also XML, and e-publishing for freelance editors, project management SEO.

Berlin-based Jörg Sundermeier is programme director at Verbrecher Verlag and also works as a journalist.

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