Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Notes from a Tour of German Publishing

Greg Hunter, Senior Editor


The view from Arena Verlag, in Würzburg
Back in June, I had the pleasure of attending the German Book Office’s annual Editors’ Trip. Each summer, the GBO, a project of the Frankfurt Book Fair, invites a handful of editors from North American (and elsewhere) to learn more about the German publishing industry, and this year was all about children’s and YA books. Over the course of six days, my fellow editors and I traveled to Hamburg and then Frankfurt, getting perspectives on the culture of German publishing from more than a dozen rights agents and editors. What I learned could fill more than a dozen posts, but here’s die Spitze of der Eisberg.

Not me
Before our visit, my impressions of Hamburg had been limited to what I’d seen in The American Friend, Wim Wenders’s adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel and one of my favorite films. I’m determined to not make this post about The American Friendalthough The Criterion Collection rereleased it earlier this year—but early in the movie, Dennis Hopper, playing an American criminal sowing chaos in Germany, asks an accomplice, “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” A clash of cultures defines the film, in other words, but less so with the GBO Editors’ Trip. In fact, the culture of German book publishing is linked to English-language book publishing in some significant ways.

Books of foreign origin make up more than 50% of the lists of some publishers that we visited. And many of the titles that German publishers bring in come from the United States. (Though books from the United Kingdom have had a big impact in Germany too—the entire German children’s book market grew larger as a result of the Harry Potter phenomenon.) Among the books that German publishing houses release in translation, nearly a quarter of them are books for young readers.

Outside S. Fischer Verlag
The people I met during the trip agreed humor is the most difficult element to preserve while publishing a book in translation. A book celebrated for its wit in the United States may not fare as well in another language. Although I learned that German publishing houses nonetheless thinking of writing from the US as lighter and more eager to entertain than much of the writing from their home country. Writers from the US and the UK are also thought to do action-oriented novels well, although violence in books for young readers is more of a concern in Germany.

My fellow editors and I also learned that German publishers’ willingness to acquire so many books from other countries has to do with more than just economics—there’s a civic element as well. Some people I met mentioned that after World War II, cultural hubs such as the publishing industry resolved to be globally minded in their approach.

As an acquiring editor of graphic novels here at Lerner, I was especially curious how the comics culture in Germany compared to that of the United States. (We’ve published graphic novels from Germany ourselves, by the way: check out The Other Side of the Wall and First Man: ReimaginingMatthew Henson, both by cartoonist Simon Schwartz.) It did my heart good to learn that graphic novels have made significant gains in Germany throughout the last few decades. The number that German publishers release each year has increased, and so has media coverage (exponentially). One of my trip highlights was a visit to Strips and Stories, a small Hamburg comics shop with an amazing selection—an obvious labor of love. I even spotted the German edition of Terrorist: Gavrilo Princip, the Assassin WhoIgnited World War I, which Graphic Universe published in English in 2015!

Handkäse mit Musik (“hand cheese with music”), an infamous sour milk cheese dish of the Frankfurt area, and a pitcher of a regional apple wine

 I returned from the trip excited on behalf of the German editors I had met. The children’s book market has been expanding in Germany (one cool thing) and the country’s illustration culture is growing too (another). A week of traveling can feel both like a huge amount of time and no time at all, especially when your trip has an intense focus. As much as I learned about German publishing, I’m sure this was just the beginning of an education—after all, the nuances of book publishing in the US mean that learning here is never done. A takeaway I know I’ll keep, though: There’s no substitute for quality. Again and again, publishers shared situations in which where production values and attention to detail were rewarded with warm receptions from readers. Which is one more thing I think we have in common.

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