Exciting transformations in German publishing: How will independent publishers meet a turbulent future?

While over the last few days, everyone interested in German publishing was puzzled by the kind of harakiri staged by the two owners of the prestigeous Suhrkamp Verlag, their Munich peers at Hanser now use the moment – and the momentum – to show that a generational transition in a highly regarded literary house can also be exciting in a positive sense. A year before Michael Krüger will resign as he turns 70 in 2013, the announcement was made today that Jo Lendle (44) will succeed him from January 1st, 2014.

Krüger, for three decades, had developed Hanser into probably the best address in Germany for a pretty broad specter from really exclusive, high brow fiction, to bestselling titles from Umberto Eco („The Name of the Rose“), Isabelle Allende or Swedish crime star henning Mankell. Hiring Jo Lendle, who learned the job at DuMont in Cologne, wants to send out a clear message: „We know that things are changing, really, but we are up to go for the new times!“

Meanwhile at Suhrkamp, Ulla Unseld-Berkewicz, widdow after the legendary Siegfried Unseld, not only moved the publishing house from culturally sleepy Frankfurt to exciting Berlin – which could be understood as a similarly bold move. She also spent much time quarrelling with literally everybody who dared coming close to her aura, including several quickly resigning managing directors, and now with her co-owner of 39 percent, Hans Barlach, in a true soap opera, broadcast live via all German media: Their recent battles in court resulted earler this week even in a first instance ruling deposing the current Suhrkamp management (including Ulla Unseld-Berkewicz). (See here and here – in German).

But the Suhrkamp soap is not the really exciting news in fact. I am more interested in what Hanser – and perhaps a few more independent houses – will do, like Lendle’s DuMont (he was appointed to the post of publisher at DuMont, after being editorial director before,  just by January 2012), or Swiss Diogenes?

There are lots of turbulences in the market of publishing and books: The pressure from Amazon is mounting, the two local retail chains, Thalia and Weltbild, are each in dire straits. Ebooks so far have been largely driven by the three big groups – Random House, Holtzbrink (with S. Fischer, Rowohlt et al.) and the German part of the Swedish Bonnier group (Ullstein, Piper), plus a few other rather non-traditional book publishers (like Luebbe – which has a long tradition of doing ‚trash‘, but has re-invented itself in the digital arena, and just announced to open a creative writing school to train their authors, and a bookshop to better understand readers).

One doesn’t need to be a wizzard in economics to predict that the mounting digital tide will result in a new wave of consolidation. (Random House showed the pace with its merger with Penguin a few weeks ago – but remind you, the German part of RH was not part of that deal!). New players will come in, with both local start ups, and the big Globals (Kobo, B&N, plus Apple, Amazon, Google) expanding their share, and traditional roles in the business going topsy turvy.

Those literary minded publishers in the middle – the Hanser, Suhrkamp, Diogenes, DuMont – must re-invent themselves radically. Will the Gallimard model be one option (Gallimard, by acquiring Flammarion recently opted for a strategy of growth, to catch up with the big groups). Will family owned Hanser have talks via their new top person with DuMont? Will Suhrkamp go under – with a hugely interesting backlist ready for a takeover as the company itself disintegrates?

German readers are a clientèle anyone in the business of books can only wish for – books and reading are a part of the DNA of a broad cultural middle class, which at the same time seems to embrace digital, after early hesitations, now with a growing appetite and pleasure. This year’s Christmas should see a lot of digital sales, both devices and books.

The landscape seemed so calm only two months ago, at the Frankfurt Book Fair. But everyone well knew that this was not true. Now we are going to find out.

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