The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg: A Brief Lesson in German Publishing Psychology

In Europe by Amanda DeMarco

At the Publishers’ Forum in Berlin earlier this month, it became clear that German publishers have no desire or need to rush into digital publishing.

By Amanda DeMarco

“It’s inevitable.”

At the Publishers’ Forum hosted by digital services provider Klopotek in Berlin earlier this month, several versions of the phrase “Shape your own future!” cropped up in presentations. At first I thought it was routine conference sloganeering, but the more I considered it, the better it seemed to describe the situation of German publishing.

Watch a video interview with Ulrich Klopotek discussing these issues from the Publishers Forum:

If there’s one word to describe an American attitude toward industry change, it’s “inevitable.” Books will go digital; what physical books are left will be sold online; piracy will rise; review venues and bookstores will disappear; anything Amazon doesn’t control, Apple will. If it hasn’t happened in Germany yet, it will. It’s inevitable.

Though change has and will come to the German market, a closer look at German book culture reveals why that change is more gradual and manageable than in the States. How a change occurs effects its results, so although Germany may be experiencing its digitization crises after America, it’s a mistake to view Germany’s digitization as an Americanization. Yes, the same big American players are here. No, that doesn’t mean German publishers or readers will build them into their environment in the same way.

From a European view, American attitudes on publishing and the future of the book can seem cynical or even defeatist. To say the least, there is a divergence in the degree to which publishers on either side of the Atlantic believe they can control their fates.

Germany, Where Bookish Luddites Surf the Euro

Klopotek logo

People’s attitudes are formed by their experiences; American publishing professionals’ by the precipitate brutality of the layoffs, returns, and bankruptcies they’ve encountered, tribulations accelerated and intensified by the 2008 economic crisis. Hence the cynicism. Germany, by contrast, experienced a relative upturn that has crowned it Europe’s economic powerhouse.

Perhaps more important, Germans read. A lot. More than Americans do or did. German publishers are simply more confident about their relevance in contemporary society. Mainstream society. Watch commuters reading on the subway, open a newspaper, or pass one of the five bookstores within a fifteen minutes‘ walk of my Berlin apartment — books are simply more visible here.

Finally, Germans are incurably unwired. It’s not just that they “lag” behind (though they do that, too). Try interacting with a German bank, government office, or even many retailers — there’s little you can easily do online. Technologies are available, but they don’t fit German conceptions of security, privacy, and experience. Slower adoption means Germans can learn from American publishers’ mistakes and react more rapidly and intelligently; lower adoption means the scale of the trauma is less.

What this adds up to is a cultural parachute for traditional publishing. It will still hit the ground, but in much better shape than after a free-fall.

Self-built safeguards

German publishing professionals also have the benefit of some hard-earned safeguards Americans have never enjoyed.

Germany’s fixed price system protects bookstores, especially independents, so online and chain retailers can’t undersell them. Remember how I said Germans would interact differently with major American players? Amazon can’t offer a new book for cheaper than your local bookstore here, and your shop will order it for you without shipping costs anyway. This keeps the experience of buying books alive, and protects publishers and writers.

Strong professional organizations facilitate cooperation and solidarity, combining resources in the face of legal, economic, and cultural challenges. For example, though the German Kindle store has gotten a lot of press in the past month, the German Publishers and Booksellers Association (Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels) redoubled its commitment to libreka!, its collectively-owned e-book platform. These are institutions created with hard work and foresight, so it’s no wonder that Germans feel in control…

…to a degree. At the Publishers’ Forum conference, attendees listened attentively to presentations like “Publishing 2015: Five Theses on Digital Transformation,” “Opportunities in EPUB 3.0: New Markets and Verticals,” and “Google E-books: Options, Steps, Perspectives.”

The atmosphere was concerned, with a healthy balance of interest and analysis/criticism in terms of audience reception. The cost of new technologies relative to their actual benefit to a publisher was a common question. Though of course the benefit and application of technologies varies wildly between organizations, skyrocketing English e-book sales have roused pretty much everyone’s attention, and no one wants to look like they lowballed the impact. But even at this point in the Rubicon, German publishers aren’t forgetting their core business — acquiring, producing, and marketing books (even if we’re calling them “content”), for the foreseeable future largely on paper.

Shaping the Future

Change is coming to the German book market — more and more books are sold online, for example, and if e-book sales are flat now, Amazon’s entry has upped the ante. But if change is inevitable, it’s also malleable. Germans might not determine their own future, but they seem to have a pretty good shot at influencing it. For them, American publishing is part vision of the future, but perhaps more so a cautionary tale. Whatever their destiny is, they’ll meet it on their own terms.

A regular contributor to Publishing Perspectives, Amanda DeMarco also edits Readux: Reading in Berlin.

DISCUSS: Will E-books Get Germans to Read Even More?

WATCH: An interview with Ronald Schild, CEO, during BookExpo America

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.