Serious Editors Talking Seriously About Serious Subjects

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

The English-language editors meeting at S. Fischer Verlag

The English-language editors meeting at S. Fischer Verlag.

When seven North American editors visited Germany for meetings with their colleagues in publishing, key similarities and differences were revealed.

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Earlier this month I returned from one of them more intense weeks of my life, one in which I’d heard names repeated time and time again — Adorno, Habermas, Žižek, among others — that I hadn’t given much thought to since I finished graduate school some 20 years ago.

It was the German Editors’ Trip, an annual event hosted by the German Book Office in New York and funded by the German Foreign Office. The intent was to introduce a small group of North American editors to their German counterparts in publishing for a discussion of issues surrounding literature in translation. That’s its taken me so long to get something up on this website is a testament to just how intense the experience was — I needed nearly a month to recover, I kid you not.

The group of North Americans (and one European) included Sarah MacLachlan, Publisher of Toronto’s House of Anansi; Aaron Petrovich, Associate Editor of Brooklyn’s Akashic Books; Michael Wise, co-founder of New Vessel Press; Erika Goldman, publisher of Bellevue Literary Press; Sarah Fan, editor at The New Press; Will Evans, publisher of Deep Vellum; and Sebastian Budgen, senior editor at Verso Books.

It’s not often on a business trip that I often overhear serious conversations about Marxist Philosophy (though, I will admit it has happened once in recent memory, after repeated nightcaps at hotel bar in New York) or about 1,200 page epic novels by a Georgian writer described as the “Tolstoy of Tibilisi.”

Hachette/Amazon was mentioned maybe once or twice, but was hardly the focus of the conversations.

The fact is these were serious people talking about serious topics seriously.

Over the course of five days we met with dozens of publishers, editors and marketers in the German market, starting with Suhrkamp Verlag in Berlin and ending with Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt in Frankfurt. In between, we met Aufbau Verlag, S. Fischer Verlag, and representatives from a dozen more companies. We visited the well-know Dussmann Kulturkaufhas bookstore in Berlin — where the director of the English-language bookstore complained about the poor quality of the American imports (“look here, if you leave a book out the pages just currrrrllll….,” she said with a bit of derision) and the Frankfurt Literaturhaus.

The main theme of discussions throughout our week emerged rather quickly: “Why,” the German publishers wanted to know, “was there not more of a sustained interest in translating and reading German books in the United States?”

Of course, the German publishers were talking to a group of like-minded individuals, one’s intent on finding the right German books to translate for their publishing houses. As it happened, this did not prove easy. Many of the German novels pitched to our publishers were what North Americans would call “door stops” — the trend in literary German fiction appears to be one that requires authors to produce 600+ page books at a minimum. That the German titles are published in hardcover editions that are of a smaller trim size than American titles can prove somewhat deceptive to American publishers, with the German publishers arguing that the books only appeared longer than they were because of the size of the books.

But the size of the titles wasn’t the only issue. As it happened, just one of our editors read German fluently enough to judge a book in its original, while just one other of the editors could speak German (or what she called “street German”). That said, this wasn’t because this group of editors was in any way provincial, they just had a different preference: most of them could read and/or speak French.

The issue came up time and time again: why not German? And, by extension, why does Germany — which has perhaps the second largest (and, considering the ownership structure of publishing, perhaps most powerful) book business in the world, does Germany get such short-shrift in the North America?

Were I to speculate, I would suggest that is has something to do with — despite its intellectual pedigree — a distinct lack of any romanticism of German culture in North America. Unlike France, which we as North Americans are fed the cliché that it is a beautiful country with a beautiful language filled with writers who produce beautiful books (all of which is highly debatable), the clichés about Germany are somewhat less flattering or, at least, dated.

Of course, that answer is hardly an excuse for the perceived lack of engagement with the German publishing community in general. And truth be told, on a similar trip I took to Paris several years ago when I met with French publishers, the same question was raised: why don’t North Americans publish more French literature in translation?

It seems, no matter how robust American publishing is — even as it was represented here by dedicated editors with a vested interest in finding the right books for their houses (however modest in size they might be) — one will never quite be satisfied with how many books get picked up for translation. And that is how it should be: after all, shouldn’t every editor think every book they publish deserves the widest audience possible?

And there are simply some cultural taboos that are hard to understand for not native American publishers. Just one example is the lack of interest among North Americans in Eichborn’s satirical take on the reappearance of Hitler in contemporary Berlin, Er ist wieder da by Timur Vermes, a book that has been sold for translation in dozens of countries (including the UK, where it has proven a hit). Why, the foreign rights director wanted to know, has this book not been bought by anyone in the United States as of yet?

Of course, there was even more revealed about the differences between the character of North American editors and publishers and their German counterparts — so much so that a single story post would not be able to convey the depth of the experience. So, over the next month be recounting several of our meetings and encounters, up to the farewell dinner where the conversation over dessert turned dark as several editors at the table recounted their experiences dealing with bereavement. (As I said, this was serious group intent on discussing serious stuff.)

Despite the perceived differences, if I took away anything from the this trip was a sense of our shared mission as editors and publishers — and our shared humanity in the face of a world that seems increasingly hostile to the type of serious publishing in which these men and women engage.

Look for more from Germany in the coming weeks.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.