Blogging – the Elite Way

Apologies for being a lazy blogger, but here I can report on a curious and multi facetted battle in German print culture.

A few weeks before Jonathan Littell’s originally French novel “Les Bienveillantes” (“The Kindly Ones”) is due for release in German translation at Berlin Verlag, the prestiguous conservative broadsheet Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) starts not only to run daily small doses of the book in their culture pages. They also started, attatched to the serialisation, a brand new “Reading Room” with online comments about the book that has a considerable potential for controversy particularly in Germany as it is the (fictitious) autobiography of Max von Aue, an SS nazi officer involved in the Holocaust.

To avoid the risk of uncontrolled or just plain stupid comments, the editors of the newspaper opted for an original version of a blog – by inviting 8 experts to write about Littell, all of them male, mostly professors, and in their 60s.

What would seem only a bit odd, in the light of usual blogging culture, is even more remarkable as only a few weeks ago, FAZ, had launched a furious anti-blogging, anti-stupid-online-posting and anti-“swarm culture” campaign in its pages. It all started with FAZ’s co-publisher Frank Schirrmacher writing a particularly angry piece about a colleague’s unfortunate (and less than brilliant) video blog in the weekly “Die Zeit” on youth violence and the wave of hate posts that this blog had stirred up. (For a balanced summary, see the neutral Swiss NZZ)

For Schirrmacher, the reader’s comments were just the last evidence for how the “swarm”, meaning the reading audience let lose, was bringing about the end of (a) culture, (b) decency and how (c) “quality journalism” was the only force left to defend the holy grail of Western civilised debate.

As this was not enough, FAZ had another one of its staff writers, adding a last and truly final judgment about all that controversy, and the internet and its users with it. Under the headline of “Disgusting and Totalitarian” (yes!), Christian Geyer not only saw an entire “political culture in danger”, but chose to call those readers who had angrily posted their comments against the professional journalist’s op-ed furor “mob users”, and urged any responsible media to, in the future, make sure that such “dirt and garbage” is not published anymore.

With this elite version of blogging, as set up by the quality paper on behalf of the Littell novel, we are now shown how we can save our minds, namely by reading the erudite words of selected professors.

Oh, thank you, we had almost forgotten what had made the blogosphere such a thriving and fascinating space in the first place.

The swarm and the fury: Newspapers battle against (not for) their audience in Germany.

It is rare, at least in my observation, to see various pretty serious people – essayists, journalists of high quality newspapers, editors – really in rage to the point of denouncing all (presumed) adversaries squarely as ‘childish’, ‘anti-journalists’ and ‘filthy’, oh, and yes, ‘user generated content’ is called ‘loser generated content’ because alledgedly in websites such as, only “3 percent of the posts” refer to  “news that shape global events”, and the rest is about “making coffee in Japan and the quality of seats in airplanes”.

Since a few weeks, major newspapers in Germany seem to fight for their very survival (and, I must add, use more latin proverbs than normally in years), as they feel threatened by the “Web 0.0” (the double zero alluding to the popular shortcut for a toilet, in fact).

These are the facts and the background: A German court ruled that owners of a website (or blog) can be liable for all posted comments – which resulted in the prestiguous Sueddeutsche Zeitung to allow postings on their website only during office hours, meaning that readers can comment on articles only Monday through Friday between 8am and 7 pm. Freedom of expressions has clear limits: No night shifts or weekend hours.

In another – pretty much unexpected – ruling this morning, a civil case of Sueddeutsche and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) against the online news portal and aggregator Perlentaucher was rejected by the court of appeal in Frankfurt. Perlentaucher (for whom I write a ca. monthly column about culture, books and the digital world), among other things, produces summaries of the daily cultural pages and book reviews of major German newspapers for a newsletter and their website, and sells those pieces to an online bookstore – which infringes, according to Sueddeutsche and FAZ their copyright. The court turned the argument down, explaining that such summaries cannot be interdicted because anyone has the right to publish a summary of a work (e.g. a newspaper article), even with a commercial purpose, provided the summary has its own “creative substance”.

Now the interesting part of the controvery is, at least in my view, absolutely not about copyright, but about culture.  Only an argument about two contrary concepts of culture is good enough for all this fury.

The debate started in fact when in October, member of the publishing board of FAZ, Frank Schirrmacher, an icon of German conservative journalism, had argued “How the Internet Changes Man”, stating – this is already his follow up explanation of the original essay – why printed newspapers have a “purpose” in society as gatekeepers for reliable information and reading, hence are among the pillars of culture (as opposed to the pillows that couch potatoes and web surfers are sitting on, I suppose).

“The newspaper”, Schirrmacher argues, “lasts for at least 24 hours, and with its opinon pieces and reviews, it claims even to have a value for following generations.”

Now, this is an interesting point, as it says that durability, life time, is the measure for cultural value.

Two answers to this. First the Austrian version, which means to point to Karl Kraus, the 20th century critic and aggressive essayist against – newspapers, because of their sloppiness, bad language and shortsightedness (‘only for 24 hours!’); by such, he became the harshest benchmark for quality journalism, including for the FAZ. Kraus would never ever have thought for a second of newspapers as a guarantee for cultural value, as opposed to books.

This is the other answer: We see in this stunning German controversy a carbon copy of all those pointless debates over centuries why – please fill in your newest media beast – photography, radio, TV, the internet, comic books threaten the book, culture, civilized life.

At once, we find newspapers among the pillars, not the pillows of culture. How come? Remember the odd word of ‘nothing is less valid than yesterday’s paper’!

The German controversy on culture reflects, of course, the dramatic aging of newspaper readers, the loss of revenues from classified ads, and the competition from all those new actors who are more successful at the emerging online market place.

But the real offense comes from their younger readers whom the newspapers seem not to trust anymore. So they yell at them, in despair.

According to them, the web is  “also a medium that growingly makes not-reading or alsmost not reading possible” (Schirrmacher); those among the readers who post unfitting comments on the newspapers’ websites are “leisure activists with a little scum on their lips” (Sueddeutsche), or, in today’s FAZ: “Every serious blogger will change sides”.

So the argument points at a war – of the newspapers against a portion of their own audience. A civil war for the newsroom?

I guess not that much. It is the culture of the 19th century – where ‘culture’ equals a few knowledgeable, elder men (not women) educating the mass – against what? No, not some bland 21st century thing – but rather against the 18th century, that was much more experimental and laid the foundations of modern democracy, learning societies, peer review (Yes! Those interested readers giving their opinion on a piece, and the result is debate and, yes, often enough, squabble), yet turned from then small clubs and societies to the global mass sociteties of today, fragmented, volatile, dynamic as they are.

This points to a real and substantial cultural divide. A clash of cultures, not only in Germany. Interesting! Let’s see what’s going on next.

Writing in (and from) Croatia

Last week I had the pleasure to spend a few days in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and Zagreb, Croatia, talking to publishers and writers on a trip with book people mostly from germany, to prepare (a) next year’s Leipzig book fair where Croatia is the guest of honour, and (b) next year’s brand new Vienna book fair BuchWien where I have the pleasure and duty to prepare for a Central Europe / Tranlsation / Cultural Diversity program.

Being pretty familiar with Zagreb for a long time, which looks a lot like my native town of Graz, I was struck at first by the massive monuments (I had just forgotten about them, but to be frank, they are very much similar in Graz – apologies 😉

Anyhow, the point is how a bit more than a decade after the wars of secession within collapsing Yugoslavia, Croatia seems ready (and ambitious) to become one more normal ‘small’ country and culture, yet it is still struggling to impose that normalty as opposed to the shadows of the past.

A major breakthrew, politically, was when former general Gotovina was seized for trial at the Hague tribunal as of last year, after long behind the scenes negociations – while oddly enough, at the beautiful Dalmatian coast, where Gotovina fans and nationalists are strongest, the tourist industry started to really take off.

I asked a publishers friend of mine about this oddity of political geography, and he shrugged, saying that he just does not know. Along the coast, where, aside from Dubrovnik and Split, little war fare had occured, people voted ‘national’ (just as in those provinces of Slavonia, where indeed Serb had committed the severest war crimes), while in former Krajna,  in ever disputed Istria, and, well, understandably, in urban Zagreb, most non-nationalist votes were cast.

One writer had become famous from Croatia recently, telling about the war in Bosnia, Miljenko Jergovic, but he does not appear in public anymore. Instead, I met Zoran Feric, who has been translated recently, in a beautiful club run by a couple of women (booksa).

We’ve also been introduced to several of the local literary publishers, to Nenad Popovic of Durieux, an old friend indeed – who, walking us to Booksa club, had shown us the villa of former icon Tilla Durieux after whom he had named his publishing company (in the 1990s, when people just had forgotten that she had been with partizan resistance – what an absurd twist and irony in those Tudjman years of Croatia), or Fraktura.

Earlier that day, we had walked into a really great and huge book store, Profil – and almost, being a group of almost 20, driven out all regular customers – with a really substantial foreign language section (I still can’t manage my picture upload button, but promise to show a few photographs of all this soon).

Oh, and we had lunch and dinner with 2 rivalry publishers’ associations, learning from György Dalos, our Hungarian guide to Croation book country, that in Hungary they had successfully founded 8 (!) competing book associations by now (and I admit, such things are among my favourites), so I promise that I will tell you more about all of this soon, and bring pictures for testimony as well.

Book Publishing in China – A Paradox World to Explore

There are 577 publishing companies in China – versus several thousand in Germany alone – and all are owned by the state, sort of.

There are more than twice as many new titles published per year – 233,000 against 90,000 in Germany -, yet the Chinese book market  is only worth half of the German. But at a retail price of 1 Euro per book in China against more than 10 in Germany, one can start to marvel at the magnitude that the Chinese book market does represent.

We had a terrific seminar on these issues last week, in Vienna, Austria, and in Berlin, Germany, with Ou Hong of the trade magazine China Publishing Today, and Huang Jiwei of the primarily children’s book publishing company Jie Li (#27 among all PR Chinese publishing ventures) who introduced us to how things work in PR China.

The amazing paradox is that on the one hand, publishing is still supposed to be under state control. Yet at the same time, this is an amazingly expansive industry, and, second surprise, books and reading over there are very much targeted at young audiences in their 20ies – as opposed to book reading as a typically 50+ past time in Europe.

This is reflected by any bestseller list, such as the fairly reliable one researched by Nielsen affiliated OpenBook which is published on a monthly basis by Publishing Today (and recently, we proudly disseminate this list to major book trade magazines worldwide).  

We have a fair amount of pop star like writers in China today, like Han Han, Anni Baobei, or Guo Jingming, all in their early twenties, who cater to a likewise audience, obviously dwelling on their agenda of how to find guidance and meaning in a turbulent society full of change, and with few secured guidelines (with old fashioned Chinese literary critics asking desperately if those young folk can be seasoned enough to understand the depth of art and life).

On the other hand, we see how books and writers a growing into huge cornerstones for orientation and values in a society turned upside down every other month.

A few simple examples: Bill Bryson’s huge narrative across millenia of Earth and Human history, “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, has been turned into a must read for ambituous youngsters, and successfully so, because this is what “young people should learn to know anyway”. Oops, pardon me! This is not only a flatly ambitious statement. Anyone with some experience in branding and marketing will marvel at the daring approach of just turning around some global success story for free re-formating!

I also liked how deliberately global and home grown success stories have been shown at our workshops.

There is, for young readers up to ca. 12 years, the wild ‘we’re all happy’ books of Yang Hongying, about a kid with a toy designer papa and a super nanny all-is-good mom. Mrs. Yang traveled to 90 cities in 4 years, selling 12 million books domestically, plus rights to the US and to France.

More surprisingly, almost the same happened to Thomas Brezina, of Austria, except for the travelling, who authored the “Super Tiger Team” series, selling a few hundred thousand books in Austria and, to a lesser degree, in Germany. But now, 6 out of the current top 10 in children’s fiction are of his books – representing many millions in sales, and solidly more than J.K. Rowling with her Harry Potter series indeed!

The interesting point is this: Reading books in China is obviously closely linked to being upwardly ambitious and young in PR China, and everyone, authors, publishers, of course foreigners, but also the domestic authorities are heavily experimenting on how to make these things happen most effectively.

Any major web 2.0 website, most of which are wildly popular in China, display prominently ‘book’ or ‘reading’ channels, displaying often entire books, sometimes for free, sometimes at a fee.

 I came apon the novel of a  „Zhi Feng 1133“ at sina who had clearly drawn over a million readers as of last week with a still unprinted story.

And of course it is at little risk to early warn about one of the top worldwide fiction discoveries in 2008 by quoting “Wolf Totem” by Jiang Rong, who had spent 11 years in Mongolia in the Cultural Revolution, sentenced to be re-educated, but in fact studying wolves and how they recognize and respect rank, and order, when hunting as a pack – which made him develop a theory of “wolf stratagems” – obviously a set of rules of behaviours and success that applies not only to China, but also to the rest of us. His book, “Wolf Totem”, sold for translations into many languages, will be in a book store near you at some time next year, with rumours of Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”) preparing to turn the unique story into a movie.

What else should I add? Let’s go China, if you want to check it out.

More on these pages and at my every once in a while over the next year.

Blogging slowly, as centuries go by, about the really messy library

Somehow I have difficulties with the hurry of blogging. I was at this wonderful daylong workshop about the “Really Modern Library“, organized by Bob Stein and Ben Vershbow of the Institute of the Future of the Book at the London School of Economics. That was more than 2 weeks ago. Is this still worth blogging?

In the meantime, I had to work (for my income), fight with my son (over adolescence issues), and see how my single and working life both go on.

In the New Yorker, I read a knowledgable and fabulously instructive piece by Anthony Grafton about the digitization of libraries, reviewing all the current efforts to digitize libraries and other knowledge stuff, concluding dryly: “A record of all history appears even more distant.”

 I suppose there has been some misunderstanding of Gafton’s point, as he is not really anti-tech, but he pragmatically shares a common sense with a certain type of Science Fiction novels and movies where, despite all of the splendid future achievements, there is always a lot just messy, or human.

Personally, I like this. I always feel kind of appalled by the more shiny anticipations, like “organizing all the information of the universe”, or such matter. Sure, it is marvellous that I can literally have much of my relevant information at my fingertips by now, and this is how I work on a daily basis. Frankly, it is just gorgeous that I can assemble my personal belongings plus partners and friends across several continents, plus pretty much effectively short cut censorship (well, not entirely, but much better then as it was under the old Iron Curtain), when these partners happen to include a few more odd destinations – and all this by the power of digital integration.

But the fantasy of a clean and seamlessly integrated information space is just a different story. Which is GOOD news.

 As I attended the “Really Modern Library” meeting, I directly came from the Frankfurt Book Fair where I had picked up a copy of Don Delillo’s new novel “Falling Man”, in German, yet not the book, which was released only a couple of weeks later, but a 20 odd pages short cut version in the supplement of the German high brow weekly Die Zeit. This was NOT a first chapter, but an abridged version of a full scale novel, reduced to its core (yet still very much readable!), not by some pirates or lunatics, but by the German editor plus translator, plus by Don Delillo himself.

Of course, the magazne version was meant to provide some innovative promotion for the book. But it was clearly inspired by the “Web” mode of dealing with text: There are just many ways of representing any text, or thought, or music – “or whatever” (as any 14 year old, like my son, would have it).

This comes with at least 2 problems:

1. There is no ‘one’ text anymore, but many texts for each piece (e.g. I wrote about this insight, a week ago, in German at Perlentaucher, but now rewrite it, in English for my blog – and don’t bother to have it in print anywhere at this point. So there is no definite, ‘reliable’ version of these thoughts).  Which directly brings me to

2. A serious problem for the copyright debate, as an ever enhanced copyright legislation desperately needs that one original piece of content to protect – yet exactly this is what is just falling apart, or even better, turning into drifting sands.

 This is probably one of the more tricky issues that any “Really Modern Library” will need to confront:

The books in the really old library were valuable BECAUSE its items, books, came with the quality of being reliable: They had a cover page and a back page, and a clearly defined content between those ends.

The stupid question that results is this: Can there be a library, without such books?

Global Rankking of Publishing at Frankfurt Book Fair

The Global Ranking of the Publishing Industry as presented at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair was echoed widely in professional conversations and small talk throughout the fair.

The presentation, held at the Press Centre on Wednesday 10 October 2007, brought together the editors in chief of several of the leading book trade magazines.

It was, in a nutshell, a state of the global publishing industry report, and will be updated from now on every year.

A Global Ranking of the Publishing Industry – or: Books are a genuinely European matter

Publishing today, at least in a global perspective, is not just about books and authors. It is about information, knowledge, and education. It is as much about digital publishing as about ink on paper. It is a mirror of the global balance of (economic and technological) power, yet with surprises: It is far less about US, or even Anglo-Saxon cultural predominance than one may expect, but yes, it is an American-European domain, with Asian countries only starting to become visible in the big picture. And sure, expectedly, any glimpse at global publishing will portray an industry that is currently subject to extraordinary change and even turmoil. The top 45 publishing companies worldwide combine revenues of ca. 53.5 bn Euros (or ca. 73 bn $). This is certainly not a big industry, if compared to computers, or cars. Toyota alone had sales of 179 bn $ in 2006. But as publishing (which, in our definition, includes books of all kind, scientific journals and professional information in commercially run databases, yet excludes newspapers, wire services and magazines, as well as non-publishing revenues within those companies that we have in our ranking) is at the heart of today’s information economy. It is about stuff that truly matters, as those books and electronic archives hold a fair amount of what shapes the brains and minds around the globe.


Within our ranking, the top 10 companies account for ca. 2/3 of the combined top 45 revenues. The overall 73 bn $ from the top 45 companies, or all publishers with revenues of more than 200 m Euros (or 250 m $) in 2006, compare to a global publishing market of ca. 80 bn $ according to a statement of the International Publishers Association (IPA) in October 2006 at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Even if the IPA definition is probably a bit more restricted than ours, it clearly shows that the publishing industry has pretty much consolidated over the past 10 years.

For more, come to our press conference at the Frankfurt Book Fair on Wednesday, 10 October 2007, at 3 pm in the Press Centre (hall 6.2) or check out the basic facts and further links here

Podcast on “Mapping English Reading Markets” available now

Over the past several years, English language books have been given increased shelf space in traditionally non-English reading countries. As this trend continues, publishers are searching for more ways to infiltrate these new markets.

We could organize a first set of expert panels to map thsi 3 bn $ market at BookExpo America in New York in June 2007. Participants include Pascal Zimmer, Libri Germany, Francoise Dubrouille ,International Booksellers Federation, Esther Allen, Columbia University, und Peter Clifton, Ingram International.

You can listen to the panel debate at the Podcast

Well yes, it IS unavoidable to write about HP7

So today, more than 48 hours before the official release date, the New York Times publishes a first review of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows – and guess what, aside from, of course, not revealing the end (which, also a matter of course, everyone interested could see already for a few days everywhere on the web as reveiled by cohorts of Harry ‘spoilers’ who posted a photographed early bird copy of the book), was full of praise for the ingenuitity of Mrs. Rowling’s art of story telling:
J. K. Rowling’s monumental, spellbinding epic, 10 years in the making, is deeply rooted in traditional literature and Hollywood sagas — from the Greek myths to Dickens and Tolkien to “Star Wars.” And true to its roots, it ends not with modernist, “Soprano”-esque equivocation, but with good old-fashioned closure: a big-screen, heart-racing, bone-chilling confrontation and an epilogue that clearly lays out people’s fates.” And, if this is not enough, here the reviewer, MICHIKO KAKUTANI, goes on: This same magpie talent has enabled her to create a narrative that effortlessly mixes up allusions to Homer, Milton, Shakespeare and Kafka, with silly kid jokes about vomit-flavored candies, a narrative that fuses a plethora of genres (from the boarding-school novel to the detective story to the epic quest) into a story that could be Exhibit A in a Joseph Campbell survey of mythic archetypes.”


By the fact that, sitting in Vienna, Austria, I am in no position to walk over to some New York book store and pick up the book way before official delivery, as the NYT seems to have done, I can only humbly hint at that magic that HP has brought to the book world. I wrote a small piece about this in Perlentaucher, in German, and these are the main thoughts:

For sure, HP will have changed the world of publishing and book retail like no single book before, but with pretty mixed results for various actors:

1. We learned over the past few weeks that studies on reading habits of youth point out that even kid who absorbed high level doses of HP won’t necessarily read other books as well;

2. While a few, like JK Rowling herself and her original publisher Bloomsbury (very deservedly, I think), wholesalers and some marketers earned a lot of money, but for many others it was more of a rollercoaster, or playing at a casino, with the highest risk due to sky rocketing fees for every right sold that could be attached to HP

3. Those mega marketing pipelines that have been build around HP for over 10 years are ready for more fuel now – and nobody will care, if that is to benefit books, or games, or whatever – so it is not necessarily a winning scheme for book lovers

4. Small indie book stores all over the place are likely not to get rich, due to discounts, or even, in countires with fixed book prices like Germany, Austria, France, a first tsunami comes with the (flexibly priced) original English language edition, which will be a hard reality check to pricing discipline everywhere, bringing up my next point;

5. English original editions have learned to fly across language barriers as if they traveled on broomsticks, which is good, I guess, as it show’s people’s ability and readiness to go for what they want, and depend less on those established content channels, but which brings ever more competition to the established, if you wish ‘old fashioned’ book trade;

6. From now on, even if that is not entirely new either, there will be ‘books’ – and those other books, meaning, those rocketing to the sky, on a global scale, and those many many other titesls that travels slowly, to limited readerships, and honestly, we shouldn’t expect that those completely diverging entities can live under one and the same economical parameters, meaning: I am deeply sceptical if for these many books (and their publishers, and the related enthousiastic book sellers) one will expect to earn money.

About saying ‘me’ differently

I was really puzzled when I realized the amount of interest (and feedback) I had the other day with a piece written for Publishers Weekly about how autobiographies are classified in different ways in the AngloSaxon world, and in the rest of Europe:

While Americans and Brits expect writers of autobiographies to say the truth, somehow, in France, Spain or Germany, those same books are routinely classified as fiction.

Think of German Nobel laureate Gunter Grass’s autobiography “Peeling the Onion”, which was released last week and promoted with a talk between Grass and Norman Mailer in New York, a book reveiling the fact of Grass, the moralist, having been a member of Nazi Waffen SS as a youth, which of course was listed as fiction in Germany last year. Or even more stunning, John Grisham’s The Invisible Man, an essay against the death penalty – again read as a book of fiction in Europe due to the author being a writer of novels primarily. 

One of my interview partners for the piece, Bernhard Fetz, a Vienna-based researcher with the Austrian National Library, and a specialist in the genre, pointed to a pretty  complex set of traditions beneath the odd differences in classification, as he told me:

“The differences of perception go back to antagonistic traditions in philosophy and cultural history: While Germany, or France, have a mostly idealist tradition in culture, Britain, and hence the U.S., have always had a more pragmatic approach. Essays by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or Goethe, always combined factual accounts with personal intuitions and selfreflections of the author, giving autobiographies also a political angle by defining a life story as exemplary for a nation. The Anglo-Saxon tradition was instead much more and much earlier influenced by science, and therefore supposed to rely on facts, and less on intentions, Fetz says.

Amazing, I think, and you understand why reading the same book in different cultural surroundings may provide a very different read (and understanding) indeed!

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