Germany’s Small Presses: Gourmet Reading for Book Gluttons

After a long break from this blog, I’m slowly getting back into the swing of writing. Here’s my most recent piece on the Leipzig Book Fair, which offers a glimpse into what publishers in Germany’s independent press scene have been up to lately. On that note, tomorrow is Indie Book Day in Germany, so if you love books and the authors, editors, designers and publishers who make them, go into your local bookshop and pick up a book; if your favorite bookstores are anything like mine, you’ll leave with at least a few new finds, and a long wish list of new titles – much like I did after the Leipzig Fair.

With no further ado, here’s the link:

http://publishingperspectives.com/2014/03/germanys-small-presses-gourmet-reading-for-book-gluttons/

And a few impressions of the Fair:

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Ethics or audience? Indie publishing questions the ethics of cooperating with Amazon

Catching up

I am miserably behind; not just in writing invoices, creating holiday gifts or doing my part of the brand-new Putzplan (housecleaning schedule) – I’m also behind on writing about the stimulating discussions and events I’ve attended lately. This past week or two, I was able to attend the Zugang Gestalten conference in Berlin, where many initiatives presented on their open access projects, from Europeana (European digital library site and app) to the Rijksmuseum, which has completely opened their digital archive for public use. As their digital director Lizzy Jongma says, “please use our images and make them visible” – but don’t forget to send the museum a picture so they can keep track of all the creative ways their art is being reused and reimagined. Then I was at the Netzkultur festival, which featured some thought-provoking speakers on what data protection – and the lack thereof – means for artists and writers. Juli Zeh made a strong case against allowing data to be used for prognostication, since glimpsing the future also means a certain responsibility to act – and this is a level of power which neither government nor the private sector can be trusted with. As Zeh says “wer keine Geheimnisse hat ist kein Mensch” (those without secrets are no longer people).

Data for convenience: a fair trade-off?

Yet certain internet companies are excelling precisely because their users have more or less no more secrets. Not just that, the more transparent we make ourselves, the more personalized and convenient their services are – whether Google’s customized search or Amazon’s tailored recommendations. Recently, in a rare TV interview on Sixty Minutes, Jeff Bezos explained that Amazon’s “customer-centric” philosophy. Thinking about the ease of purchasing on Amazon compared to other websites, customers’ loyalty to the online retail giant seems well-founded: they’ve created a simple and intuitive platform where one can find just about everything one wants at a competitive price. Of course this isn’t the whole story of Amazon, which has also been known to resort to bullying tactics with publishers, tax evasion and poor treatment of their workers.Fiction_Canteen

Small presses debate Amazon: Better to compromise your ethics or audience?

However, a recent panel discussion on digital publishing organized by Transfiction highlighted how Amazon has become an unavoidable if not indispensable platform which book publishers can’t get around – or they face the possibility of losing a large chunk of their audience. In Germany, the conversation about Amazon is mainly an ethical one: is it ethical to support a company which pays and treats workers poorly (evidenced by the major strikes in two of Amazon’s German warehouses)? And is it morally acceptable to support an online retailer whose competitive practices turn brick and mortar stores into little more than showrooms (e.g. one bookseller on the panel talked about how customers would take pictures of the books to buy them online)?

Amanda DeMarco of Readux Books pointed out that first and foremost, a publisher’s moral obligation is to reach readers. As this new publisher found out from her own experience, trying to bypass Amazon means that fewer readers will discover and buy your books – which is a far bigger disservice to authors and translators than it is to the online retail giant. In fact, the two digital only publishers represented on the panel – Culturbooks and Mikrotext – say that Amazon sales represent the majority of their total sales. So why would they even think of surpassing their most important sales channel?

However, to stay competitive on e-book platforms, publishers (and authors) have to sell their books at competitive prices. And for digital-first publications, low prices are also crucial to make the inhibition threshold as low as possible, since the titles cannot be found on bookstore shelves. Some of the publishers present at the Fiction Canteen admitted that they aren’t able to pay advances to authors and translators, but instead offer them higher royalties. This sharing of financial risk seemed ethically sound to most members of the panel (including Zoe Beck and Nikola Richter, who are both writers themselves), but not to a German translator in the audience, Katy Derbyshire, who elaborates on her position here.

Moderator and organizer of the event, Lucy Renner Jones, compared the changing payment models in digital publishing to the transformation in digital photography, where photographers were expected to “diversify or die”: suddenly everyone was expected to own their own digital equipment and use the corresponding editing programs, but accept lower wages. Granted, writing and translating are still much more lo-fi than photography, but it is true that authors are expected to shoulder a lot these days.

As I mentioned a while back, even traditionally published authors are expected to contribute to marketing their books, in particular by being active on social networks. As these channels require so much time and energy to use properly, there is a certain parallel to the photography metaphor. Moreover, if it becomes the norm that translators get most of their payment from royalties, then they’ll have just as much incentive to help market the books they translate. So not only does this payment model require the contributors to share the financial risk, it also encourages them to shoulder additional work. While this may not be an issue for authors, who put years of work and passion into their writing, as Derbyshire points out, it is a lot to ask from a translator, who is first and foremost providing a service to a publisher.

Trumpfing convenience with community

But where does that leave us in the David and Goliath debate about cooperating with Amazon? Everybody on the panel (which also consisted of Nerys Hudson, from Dialogue Books, and Volker Oppmann from LOG.OS) seemed to agree that boycotting Amazon is not an option, since getting books/ebooks into the hands of readers is the whole point. Mike Shatzkin recently said that publishers’ new value proposition has to be “we will help authors reach their whole audience”, which means making their books available in as many channels as possible. Until a formidable alternative to Amazon emerges (in Germany beam is worth keeping an eye on, and LOG.OS has big plans), indie publishers have little choice about working with Amazon, alongside the other ebook retailers. However, it’s still important to think about what independents can offer that Amazon can’t, and how to best leverage those advantages to win loyal readers in the long term.

Hudson made the point that where Amazon falls short is community – while it may be convenient, readers are hard-pressed to trust its algorithm like they would trust the recommendations of a friend or community bookseller. There is still plenty of room for growth and experimentation among the indies, as the Berlin bookshop ocelot has shown with their recent online store, which combines personal recommendations and blog reviews with the ability to personalize the online shop to suit each user’s taste.

As Bezos said in his interview, “complaining isn’t a strategy”. Instead, independent publishers and retailers need to get busy innovating and thinking about the long term of their business models – as these publishers in Berlin are definitely doing. This includes not only connecting with readers, but also working together with authors and translators as equals, since without them, there would be no literature to spread in the first place.

Netzkultur // Networked culture

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Playfully approaching the brave new digital world

Lately it seems like there’s a digital festival, installation or conference everywhere you look in Berlin. Nevertheless, it seems like it’s hard to find the right balance between art and politics, theory and practice. At the recent Cyberfest festival, one one hand the artists praised the possibilities the internet has opened up to them to collaborate on art and disseminate it for little cost – it’s a veritable digital playground. However, towards the end of the talk surveillance was mentioned, along with the question of how free are we to really express ourselves in this brave new digital world?

Making your digital mark, or erasing footprints?

And so it goes for many arts practitioners – including bloggers and writers. Many of us make the most of the internet’s possibilities – after all, web presence is indispensable if you work in media– , with perhaps a vague sense of insecurity about who might trace our footprints on the web, and what the consequences might be. On the surface, the benefits seem to far outnumber the risks, and that warm, fuzzy feeling of being connected outweighs everything else. Nevertheless, digital has changed everything: such as the way and the pace at which people consume culture (ie faster, but in smaller, byte-sized bits), and the volume of content we suddenly have access to (see my link list if you don’t believe me – I could read literature all day every day and never have to pay for a book again in my life). In other words, the networking of culture opens up possibilities and creates a new set of choices, both for what we share in our networks and what we consume. And since those of us who haven’t mastered programming or studied computer science are still bumbling around in the dark and relying on trial and error as we improve our digital literacy, it wouldn’t hurt to open up this discussion to the experts. In fact, I think it would make light years of difference to get more interdisciplinary and actually learn a thing or two about how all this pixel magic works.

A hackathon for the arts

So what better way to warm up this weekend than by cozying up with some cultural hackers to hack our way to a more sophisticated, knowledgeable digital culture at the Berliner Festspiele? This Saturday, the first event of Netzkultur, a 3-part series, will take place. All afternoon there will be hands-on workshops taking place where visitors can experiment with blogging, Twitter, mixing (and remixing) with Audacity, and learn how to protect your data at a “cryptoparty”.

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Stephan Porombka (author of Der letzte macht das Buch aus & Schreiben unter Strom)

Unlike a normal hackathon, the motley crew sharing their knowledge at Netzkultur is made up of wordsmiths and musicians. The author Juli Zeh will kick off the event with a talk on the internet as a ‘realistic utopia’. Then the real play begins, with workshops using 3D printers, audio editing and blog platforms. UdK professor Stephan Porombka is available for Twitter ‘office hours’, and sound artists will be talking about their methods. There will also be discussions on Surveillance & Culture (with Michael Seeman), Invisible Powers – man, machines and utopias (Frank Schirrmacher) and Who is Programming Whom? (Ralf Bremer (Google Deutschland), Helena Hauff (Produzentin), Petra Löffler (Bauhaus Universität Weimar) and Stephan Thiel (Studio NAND)). In the evening, international artists and bands will be sharing the results of their experimentation on the stage.

Getting back to the big picture and thinking about a more cross-disciplinary approach to digital culture, Netzkultur seems to be doing just that – combining theorizing and practice, and getting artists, programmers and hackers of all kinds in on the action. And with Nikola Richter from Mikrotext curating, how could you expect anything less?

It should be a fun and horizon-expanding day. I, for one, will be wearing my play clothes – those pixels can leave nasty stains.

On self-publishing, community and convergence: An article round-up

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Some of English literature’s most celebrated self-publishers; Stein, Austen, Proust, Whitman, Woolf, Twain

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-publishing lately, in part because of the discussions going on at a slew of book conferences – from the Frankfurt Book Fair talks to E:PUBLISH and Futurebook (from afar). Partly it’s from seeing the slow acceptance of self-publishing here in Germany, where authors have been fighting an uphill battle to be taken seriously in the industry. Also, in doing my own research on small presses, I found that independent authors’ strategies are often similar if not even more committed when it comes to directly marketing to readers (Joanna Penn and Suw Charman-Anderson are 2 great examples). Below I’ve tried to create a snapshot of the current discussion taking place about the advantages of independent publishers and the role of community in promoting books.

The marketing catch-22

Lately, a few articles on independent authors’ role in publishing have really stood out, such as this wrap-up of a CONTEC panel, in which Jane Friedman asks “Is self-publishing the most important transformation in the industry?”. Statistics show that readership and sales of self-pubbed books are growing fast – on one hand because they get more exposure via Amazon promotions, but also because the ebooks are being promoted to a wider audience (Amazon Singles are a great example of this, since many non-book readers are more open to reading short-form prose).

Friedman’s article also points out an interesting contradiction: whereas one study found that most self publishers (75%) saw marketing as the main advantage of being traditionally published, the Bookseller found that 53% of traditionally published authors contemplate switching to self publishing because they aren’t satisfied with the marketing of their books and the communication with the publisher. Add to that the fact that hybrid authors seem to be making more money than traditional or self publishers at the moment, and it seems like shouldering at least SOME of the book marketing is paying off for many authors.

Touchy-feely community

Another red thread running through the panel was reader relationships. Friedman observes that “Everyone working in the industry is thinking more about how to directly reach their specific reader community in an era of declining bricks-and-mortar stores and an increasingly digital environment,” and quotes Hugh Howey, who found that “everything is more focused on the reader experience,” these days, from the content to customer-oriented prices.

Recently Matthew Wayne Selznick wrote on why building a reader community is more important than marketing books. He emphasizes the value of having real, two-way dialogues with readers to build up a more loyal readership (and consequently sell more books). Direct contact with readers can also motivate writers and discipline them to hone their work for an audience. Talking about how writing Tumblr affected his approach, Tim Manley writes that “My standards for my work became higher because I was writing for a real audience—[…] readers who want something to be worth their time.”

Many talk about “community” or “community-building” to describe the one-on-one style of book promotion often used online in social media. Mike Shatzkin likewise underscored the importance of these direct relationships in a recent piece, in which he considered how publishers need to become more “audience-centric” to compete with self publishers and stay relevant. Amazon’s Jon Fine considers that self-publishing and traditional publishing will soon converge, a tendency which is supported by all the hybrid authors whose approaches fall somewhere in between the two models. As Porter Anderson elaborates on Publishing Perspectives: “The shifted economics of less-expensive ebooks and the joyous camaraderie many readers enjoy with their favorite authors in this space may well be firming up an eventually discernible, separate readership—interactive, socially engaged, participatory counterparts to the more traditional, largely passive readership of standard publishing.”

The tortoise and the hare approachSmart-Rebecca-@RebecSmart-150x150

At last week’s Futurebook conference, several speakers also touched on this. Simon Scott (Push Entertainment) talked about the value of rewarding fans to spur on word of mouth. At the “Big Ideas” panel, which Andrew Rhomberg writes about here, Rebecca Smart (Osprey Group) encouraged publishers to focus on lean publishing to get books out faster. That’s because indie authors can upload (ie publish) books instantly, without the long production chain. On the other hand, Jamie Bing from Canongate Books advocated a less-is-more approach; Canongate wants to reduce their number of titles to really focus on giving each book the time and attention it deserves.

But I don’t see these two approaches as being at odds – while Smart is in favor of getting books to market faster, Byng wants to promote them longer and more individually, making sure titles find their readers all the way down the tail. Both aspects are also incredibly important to authors, who want to get their content to readers as fast and smoothly as possible, but also understand that their books need to be continually promoted long after the launch.

Whether indie author or indie press, I think those publishers that “get it” are the ones nurturing those reader relationships, however subtly. I know this as a reader when I find myself rooting for certain authors or independent presses. Although I’m probably in the “fanatical five percent” in those cases, once I’ve shown my support, whether through a Tweet or book purchase, I’m more likely to spread the word about an artist or organization.

In the spirit of Seth Godin, author of Tribes, Selznick says “We thrive in our tribe. We want the people in our tribe to thrive,” which is why writers need to “build a tribe around your creative endeavors”, a community that supports one’s ideas and wants to be involved in the conversation.

This high frequency of communication with one’s readership is hard work, and authors can really benefit from a support network/sounding board when figuring out what’s necessary for each project. These allies can include fellow authors, editors and a publishing team, or an increasing number of start-ups and publishing services providers. In a way, this means that neither indie press nor indie author is ever truly a one-woman operation. As Andrew Laties says, “There’s no such thing as independent… Interdependent. That’s what being a person means. None of us exists without all of us” (Rebel Bookseller, p 140).

In this sense, the convergence has already happened, and now it’s up to individual creators to get (or hire) the expertise their book needs to be published and promoted. Shatzkin calls this the “atomization” of publishing, while Friedman refers to authors active in both traditional and self-publishing as hybrid. Whatever label you give it, though, this is definitely the age of the empowered author, and it will be interesting to see how traditional presses change their value propositions in this new publishing landscape.

Here are links to some of the studies mentioned at CONTEC:

http://www.wischenbart.com/upload/Global-Ebook-Report2013_final03.pdf

http://www.bod.de/self_publishing_studie_2013.html

http://www.schilling.dk/web/guest/whitepaper/author-and-publisher-relations

Connection: In the body, in the world and in Berlin with Eve Ensler

Some people impact your perspective of the world more than you realize. For me, one of the voices that shaped my understanding of female identity in college was Eve Ensler. Her piece The Vagina Monologues demonstrated in a palpable way that it’s still a radical act for women to tell their stories in a public forum. As it did for many in my generation, the Monologues finally turned my understanding of gender equality on its head.

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Photo courtesy of Dialogue Books, Lacombe

Last week Eve Ensler came to Berlin, where she gave a talk and reading for free at Soho House, which was organized by incredible team at Dialogue Books. She read from her newest book, In the Body of the World, which really shows her artistic (and activist) progression since the Vagina Monologues. Ensler also spoke on the founding of V-Day, a day to end violence against women, which has expanded into a global movement.

Ensler explained how the Vagina Monologues started. She had written the piece “The Flood” about a seventy-year-old woman who didn’t have sex for her entire adult life after being shamed as a teen. She read the story at an open mic night, where other writers encouraged her: “you have to do this vagina thing!”. After the Monologues opened in New York, Eve experienced a veritable flood of women coming up to her and wanting to share their own stories of abuse, repression and strained relationships with their bodies. It was as if “whatever they had heard had uncorked their stories,” which they desperately needed to share.

After the Monologues ran for a year or two, it became clear to Ensler that something had to be done to “combat this epidemic” of violence against women. That’s why she started V-Day on February 14, 1998, as a day of activism to break this cycle. Since then, the initiative has grown into a global movement: active in over 167 countries, Ensler’s nonprofit has raised over 100 million dollars. This money has helped to open the first shelters for women in Egypt and Iraq, sponsor annual workshops and donate satellite-phones to women in Afghanistan. It was also instrumental in the founding of Karama, a program in the Middle East and North Africa the works to end violence against women by collaborating with local women’s organizations and other advocacy groups.

But that still doesn’t explain how she came to write her new book. As Eve sees it, the intense emotional strain of hearing story after story from women all around the world – which pinnacled in the Congo, where she met women who talked about their experiences with the rape and violence being used as a systematic weapon in the country’s ongoing civil war – impacted not only her emotional, but also her physical well-being. When she was diagnosed with uterine cancer, she had to put everything else on hold, and turn inwards.

Cancer threw me through the window of my disassociation into the center of my body’s crisis. The Congo threw me deep into the crisis of the world, and these two experiences merged as I faced the disease and what I felt like was the beginning of the end. (In the Body of the World, p. 7)

The irony is that after spending so many years standing up for the female body, until her illness Eve had felt disassociated from her own body due to the sexual abuse she experienced as a child. The process of undergoing cancer treatment, in which her body was “pricked, punctured, probed and scanned,” she became “all body.” This experience transformed how she views the world; she now connects the personal with the universal, the body with the environment, and what she terms as the global assault against women with the systematic exploitation of the Earth.

Suddenly the cancer in me was the cancer that is everywhere. The cancer of cruelty, the cancer of greed, the cancer that gets inside people who live downstream from chemical plants, the cancer inside the lungs of coal miners. The cancer from the stress of not achieving enough, the cancer of buried trauma. The cancer that lives in caged chickens and oil-drenched fish. The cancer of carelessness. (p. 7, In the Body of the World)

That’s how Eve sees the world – as interconnected, and everyone is dependent on everyone (and everything) else. Although the above passage might seem negative, it’s hard to express the strength and energy that radiates from Eve. She talked about the power of dance to heal, in particular to heal people’s traumatized relationships to their bodies. The newest incarnation of V-Day, One Billion Rising, mobilized women in 167 countries to come together and dance – not only to protest, but to demonstrate the power women truly have when they stand up for each other and themselves.

Afterword

Here are a few stray lines and thoughts that stood out to me during the evening. For instance, on chemotherapy: with the help of her therapist, Eve was able to visualize the chemo as an empathetic warrior that “burned away” the negative – in her past and in her traumas. She talked about how undergoing chemo puts you in an extremely sensitive state of being; she’s in conversation with doctors about how to leverage things like visualization in this state to help patients steer the effects of the chemo and overcome cancer. Or on setting an example: No one is telling the truth (about what has happened to them) – you have to stand up and be a leader. This creates a chain reaction and empowers others to stand up and do the same. Everyone is interconnected – those in power have a stake in maintaining this illusion of separateness, otherwise we would rebel. On that same note, “start defying authority, trust what you know to be right” – and act on that knowledge. During One Billion Rising 2013, women in Mogadishu also rose up and organized the first dance protest ever. Since then, the first rape cases have been prosecuted in the country.

At E:PUBLISH 2013: German publishing looks forward to growth instead of forecasting its demise. But who will be driving that growth?

A month after the Frankfurter Book Fair, when German publishing declared “the year of the start-up,” the 2-day E-PUBLISH conference took place from November 6th to 7th in Berlin. Several keynote speeches and smaller ‘table sessions’ continued the book branch’s focus on start-ups and innovation in digital publishing, with topics like entrepreneurship, new business and pricing models such as subscriptions, as well as the BUDIP award for innovation.

Seth Schwarz opened both days of the conference with his electric violin and loop machine – definitely a musician to keep an eye on! (image courtesy of @thorbeng)

Reader relationships are key

Several speakers touched on the changing role of the author. Dr. Gunter Faltin (Free University) compared self publishing to the fair trade movement, highlighting how “cutting out the middleman” enables authors to create one-on-one relationships with readers. The evening speaker, Dirk von Gehlen, journalist and writer of Eine neue Version ist verfügbar (A new version is available), emphasized the importance of connecting with readers by drawing from his own experience with crowdfunding. By crowdfunding, authors can share the writing process with readers, which means that readers are not just buying a book, but the experience of seeing how a book comes into being.

The German Book Prize winning author Katharina Hacker introduced the new author collective Fiktion, which started with a declaration. As a laboratory for international authors, Fiktion wants to radically rethink e-book distribution. For instance Hacker asked “Does free access lead to the destruction of traditional payment structures, or help authors to (re) discover readers?”. They hope to develop solutions through collaboration – both with authors, universities and lawyers. Hacker expressed that fiction writers are increasingly worried that changing media consumption makes readers less able to concentrate on complex, long texts. She said: “we aren’t concerned that content can be distributed for free online, circumventing us, but that our way of writing and thinking is being marginalized.” While she didn’t offer any concrete solutions, like other participants in this year’s E:PUBLISH conference she emphasized the necessity for experimentation, being open to new approaches and not being afraid of failure.

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Katharina Hacker, German novelist and winner of the Book Prize in 2006, presents the Fiktion author collective

As self-publishing is on the rise in Germany, there was much also debate about how publishers can prove their value to authors. Elisabeth Ruge, head of Hanser Berlin, emphasized that publishers shouldn’t forget the importance of sharpening their own profile. Another workshop group concluded that book publishers have to increasingly become service providers, topic scouts and community managers. In other words, the focus has to be on serving authors and appealing to readers with relevant content.

Rethinking formats & content

Many presenters also concentrated on the future of formats. ePub 3 and interactive formats, such as the Tiger format for animated children’s books, were widely discussed. In one keynote, the blogger and children’s book expert Manuela Schauermacher shared her experience on how kids read in the digital era. For instance, older kids consider animated books to be too childish. Several school kids told Schauermacher they preferred to work online as opposed to with e-books: “I’d rather work online, where I can click to other websites, copy text, watch videos.” Finally, Schauermacher made a case for using digital mediums more inclusively – why not portray more children with different body types or ethnic backgrounds? Why not offer more bilingual e-books? She concluded with the appeal that “the internet is international – cooperate with digital.”

New approaches, new business models

At the conference a number of new approaches to digital publishing were discussed. The CEO of GRIN Verlag, Christian Damke, said that publishers have to realize they are “IT companies with a cultural mission.” GRIN and their partner marketing agency Bilandia help publishers develop content strategies in which all channels work together as part of one unified “ecosystem.”

‘Digital first’ publishing was also on everyone’s minds. E-book only publishers such as Dotbooks, CulturBooks and Sobooks (a browser-based e-book store and publisher) were often mentioned as examples of true innovation in publishing. Dotbooks offers “XXL-sized book excerpts”, as they’ve seen that readers are more likely to buy a book after reading up to 40% of it. The digital first publishers can more quickly adapt to the demands of a rapidly changing marketplace. Those which sell directly – such as Sobooks plans to do – see the benefits in owning customer relationships and the data about their target groups’ reading habits.

Dennis Brunotte, head of “agentme” (winner of the start-up award BUDIP)

Start-up prize

E:PUBLISH also awarded the BUDIP prize (Buch Digitale Innovation Pitch) for innovative ideas in digital publishing. The candidates had to propose ideas to the jury in 3-minute blitz presentations. They offered a variety of creative solutions, from the “emo-meter”, which could recommend books based on mood, to Blinkist, an app which lets users read bite-sized articles based on nonfiction books as a way of discovering new reads. This year’s prize was awarded to Dennis Brunotte for agentme, a platform which connects authors, agents and editors to sell rights internationally.

Changing attitudes

Overall, E:PUBLISH 2013 provided few hard facts about the state of digital publishing in the German market. Instead, the gathering captured publishers’ and authors’ yearning for change and gave a good sense of the mood in the industry. Beyond ‘start-up fever’, many publishers still have reservations about how to create sustainable business models in the changing market. As von Gehlen mentioned, since digital largely solves the “problem of scarcity” in the arts, it’s more difficult to monetize that content. As cultural products shift more and more to being experience-based, book publishers need to change tack in order to offer more added value. In table session conversations, many suggested adding additional functions to e-books to make them more appealing. However, other participants recognized this product-based thinking as problematic. Do readers really want extra frills, or simply the opportunity to interact and connect?

One side comment was particularly telling. A participant explained the Wattpad business model as “a publisher which only consists of a technical platform, and they don’t even want to make money!”. While this is a gross exaggeration at best, it aptly captures the gap in thinking between traditional publishing models and online publishing. At the same time, projects like Sobooks and Flipintu acknowledge that book publishing needs to learn a lesson or two from online models in order to remain relevant and user-friendly – which even school children recognize.

At the E:PUBLISH conference one could sense the excitement and curiosity about what lies ahead for German publishing. Many echoed the statement of Günter Faltin, who emphasized that “innovation needs to come from outside” the industry. This year’s conference hosted a variety of newcomers. Yet the question remains: will a changing of the guard be enough to create a large-scale shift in publishers’ attitudes, or will ‘digital first’ thinking remain the territory of authors, start-ups, and industry outsiders? And if so, is that such a bad thing?

DZANC – a small press ebook sale!

The lovely Michigan-based press, Dzanc, is having an ebook sale. They already spread lots of ebook love, considering each person who buys a print book from Dzanc’s site receives the ebook for free. However, if you like your indie literature digital (or can’t afford international shipping, hint hint) the time is ripe to browse Dzanc’s shelves. But don’t wait too long – at midnight this Saturday, the free ebooks will dissolve back into the ether. Before then, all you have to do is pick one ebook from Dzanc’s vault and email Dan Wickett (dan@dzancbooks.org) with your two other choices. 

Also, all of their ebooks are DRM-free and offered in every format, including MOBI, ePub, and PDF formats, so people can read them on whatever platform they choose. Just another way Dzanc is the best!

Here’s a little taste of Dzanc’s list:

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Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, by Alissa Nutting

This is the debut story collection by Alissa Nutting, whose novel Tampa received lots of attention this past summer. Judging from the reviews, this collection is definitely darker and much, much stranger… The amazing Kate Bernheimer compares these stories to “the futuristic love child of Mary Shelley and the Brothers Grimm”.

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The True Actor, by Jacinto Lucas Pires

A Portuguese murder mystery quickly becomes about much more – the blurring boundaries between acting and life, the potential to escape into ones dreams. This is the English debut of a contemporary Portuguese writer, but I’m sure his translators will see to it that it’s not his last. (note: not yet out as an ebook, but definitely one to keep an eye on)

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Dancing Lessons, by Olive Senior

I had to choose this Jamaican novel, narrated as a motley collection of journal entries by a woman rediscovering her identity in later life, since it’s so different. Carried by a strong character with a refreshingly humorous take on life and ageing, this book stands out from Dzanc’s rather moody, experimental books. Jamaican born Olive Senior is a celebrated Canadian writer.

This is just a brief glimpse into the many manifestations of Dzanc’s unique brand of fiction: risk-taking, playful, and when it’s not too aware of itself, quietly brilliant. I first became acquainted with the writing of Matt Bell through Dzanc, whose work is an ever so slightly skewed mirror of the American psyche, and have trusted Dzanc’s taste ever since. I highly suggest browsing Dzanc’s off-the-beaten-path finds.

Blurring boundaries, artificial walls: A discussion on digital versus print

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On Friday night I attended a discussion panel on “print or digital: literature finds its way”. It was put on by Ocelot, the Berlin-based bookstore which recently celebrated its first birthday and (re)launch of its brand new, customizable online shop, in cooperation with the neighboring Phillip Schaefer library for the Lange Nacht der Bibliotheken.

For the Print or Digital discussion, three author/publishers represented print (Hendrik Rohlf from diaphanes, Markus Feldenkirchenn from KEIN&ABER, Peter Graf from Metrolit Verlag) while the other two participants – Nikola Richter (mikrotext) and Wolfgang Farkas (shelff) – spoke from a perspective of e-publishing. Although nearly all participants represented an indie publisher, the moderator more or less divided them into two camps – and two sides of the stage – to discuss the pros and cons of digital publishing, reading and the changing meaning of the book as an object. It was a shame that the moderator wanted to turn it into a debate at all, since it would have been much more interesting to let each indie publisher talk about what they are up to in e-publishing. Instead, only Nikola Richter (Mikotext founder) and Farkas (Shelff Cofounder) really touched on how focusing on digital changes the process of publishing and marketing books.*

Wolfgang Farkas (Shelff), who also founded the German independent press Blumenbar in 2002, was surprised how freeing it is to be an e-only press. It reminds him of the living room literary salon evenings he and his colleagues had when they were starting Blumenbar. Digital publishing enables editors to “return to a fresh, direct way to produce books”, says Farkas.

Nikola Richter of Mikrotext agrees. Richter, who is herself a blogger and published author, explains that she publishes with the author’s perspective in mind. It’s also freeing to have a much quicker turnaround with ebooks, which can be produced in a matter of weeks or months. In addition, a lot of the German ebook presses are focusing on shorter, hybrid forms of literature (some of which I outlined in this post). In this sense, Richter considers that Mikrotext is publishing the short form prose that may have otherwise never been published – at least not in book form.

Whereas the defenders of print regressed into platitudes about what constitutes a “real book” and scoffed at the low number of ebook sales in Germany, the ebook publishers weren’t afraid to admit that they’re on unfamiliar ground. Farkas explained that his initiative Shelff had a longer incubation phase because “at first we didn’t really know exactly what ‘digital publishing’ meant”, or all the possibilities that e-publishing opens up.

For Richter the answer is the ability to leverage the online presence of her author,s who write by and large online, such as Jan Kuhlbrot, whose prose pieces incorporate the input of his blog readers, or the Syrian writer Aboud Saeed, whose ebook (The Smartest Guy on Facebook) consists of a series of Facebook status updates. By making the most of these authors’ already existing readership, Mikrotext’s books can have a far reach based on word of mouth alone. Saeed’s book will now be the first Mikrotext to be transformed from pixels to pages, since the press will be releasing it as a print book. In digital form, “these books have already found a readership,” says Richter; once they’ve proven their worth, it’s only natural that they will likewise reach readers in print.

In short, although this was by no means a proper debate, from my perspective the e-only presses nailed some of the key advantages of digital. They are excited about the flexibility of publishing both short and long formats, fast turnarounds and reaching readers in a variety of places. And whatever the future holds for digital reading in Germany, these initiatives have the advantage of being small, with little overhead, low production costs and of course no physical storage costs. Assuming they find their readers, these e-only start-ups could very well be the trailblazers in a much bigger movement to publish more off-the-beaten-path literature digitally. At least a reader can dream …

*aside: I really hate to neglect discussing the incredibly cool Metrolit, Kein & Aber and diaphenes publishers in this piece, since each has a very interesting focus; Metrolit on cosmopolitan culture and history, also in literature and illustration; Kein & Aber produces books, ebooks and CDs; and diaphenes, which puts out a number of books on literature, art, philosophy, essays and more, including a series of “eTexts” – individual articles which the press sells or offers for free as open access.

From crowdfunding to author advances: The many faces of self publishing in Germany

In Germany, the land of Gutenberg, where book critics can receive “rock star reception” and publishing houses still have an aura of the cultivated gatekeepers of culture, it’s striking that many of the recent initiatives for self-publishers have been instigated by larger publishing houses. Both the variety and popularity of these initiatives testify to the fact that German publishers are willing to partner with independent authors, while the newest initiatives display creativity and a readiness to experiment to adapt to a quickly changing digital era. The examples below are by no means a comprehensive list of publishing services companies; instead, this is a small cross-section meant to show the wide variety of self-publishing models which are being implemented in Germany.

 

Self-publishing on the backs of giants

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The newest of these projects is 100 Fans, a crowdfunding platform backed by the Munich publishing house Münchner Verlagsgruppe. Any author can launch a crowdfunding campaign for their book and if the project receives 100 or more fans, it is produced as a print and ebook (including professional cover design, editing and layout) and distributed to online shops and can be ordered by brick and mortar stores. When a book project on the platform reaches 1,000 fans, the book is not only produced and distributed; it is also included in the publisher’s catalogue and receives the same treatment as any other frontlist title, including representation in bookstores. However, in exchange for officially being a part of the publisher catalogue, 100 Fans authors receive a mere 25% of the net profits on their books.

neobooksSince fall of 2010, the ebook platform neobooks (Knoer Droemer) has offered authors a twofold opportunity. On one hand, it provides advice, distribution for their finished ebook and 70% of the book proceeds. On the other hand, neobooks also provides the chance for particularly successful books to be published with Knoer Droemer. More than 50 authors have been signed through the ebook platform, several of which have also been published in print. For instance, Dana S. Eliott’s debut Taberna Libraria quickly climbed neobooks’ sales charts, and will soon be released in paperback.

Print & ebook, Deutsch & English

epubli, a publishing service provider for authors, academics and companies, has been grepubli logo_fullowing steadily since it was founded in 2008. The Berlin-based company boasts over 10,000 published titles – either as ebooks or Print on Demand – and offers a wide range of services to its clients. In particular, epubli focuses on supporting authors throughout the publishing process. Their blog offers tips on writing, designing and marketing books, and they recently expanded their author support team with three new employees. epubli has also worked with a variety of other organizations, such as the Tagespiegel daily paper, the small publisher Propyläen Verlag and the Max Planck Institute, among others. It has also partnered with neobooks to offer Print on Demand to neobooks authors. Since April of this year, the company has expanded to offer its services to English-speaking authors.

Quality distinctions and hybrid models

Qindie, the “author corrective”, began in May of this year as a quality label to help readers find quindie-rot1-300x278self-published books on an increasingly crowded market. Since their spring launch, Qindie has developed a considerable network of authors, readers, reviewers, as well as service providers such as editors, graphic designers and translators. Self published authors can submit their ebooks to the community for consideration, and whoever passes the Qindie test (ie, a majority of the current authors, readers and reviewers approve the book) may design their own author page, connect with readers, reviewers and service providers on Qindie’s active forum, and participate in a number of ongoing promotions. Qindie features giveaways, a book of the month selection, author columns and more on a rolling basis.

In 2008, Bookrix (and Bookrix.com) started as an online book community of readers and writers, which now boasts over 500,000 members. In early 2012 the community launched a self-publishing arm. Bookrix distributes members’ ebooks to all of the major digital shops and offers authors 70% of the net revenue, as well as the chance to connect with readers in the community. Most recently Bookrix announced a new program, BookRix Selected, which will offer advances to select Bookrix authors for their next book projects. In a recent interview, CEO Gunnar Siewert explained that the Bookrix Selected authors will be supported through the entire publishing process to ensure “successful and long-term cooperation”. At the same time, Bookrix respects the philosophy of self publishing, and assures that their authors will still have creative freedom. With this new initiative, Bookrix counts itself among the trailblazers in German indie publishing: “We combine the best of both worlds and provide authors with the advantages of self publishing as well as those of a classic publishing house,” Siewert says.

These different service providers show the wealth of possibilities out there when it comes to self publishing. They leverage online communities, networks of reviewers and service providers and in-house expertise to offer authors (and companies) a wide variety of alternatives to the traditional publishing routes.

At the Book Fair

Both epubli and Bookrix will be participating in Ignite, a self publishing panel at the Frankfurt Book Fair on Saturday, October 12th, 10:30 – 12:30 (Hall 8, Publishing Perspectives Stage). neobooks is also hosting a series of informational events for authors on Saturday, October 12th.

Indies everywhere! New German publishing initiatives on the horizon

Once again, time has gotten away from me and it’s been a whole month since my last blog post. For the past four weeks I’ve been busy interviewing various small presses for the Frankfurt Book Fair and polishing my Master’s thesis till it shines.

I’ve also been exploring German publishing at a few events as of late, such as the Pub N’ Pub series, where the longtime publishing figure Elizabeth Ruge spoke on the role of the publisher – and why it’s important to experiment more with the possibilities of digital. For example: to enable text-to-voice functions on ebooks for the blind.

I also went to a “Nachwuchstreffen” for students of book publishing, where I was encouraged by the forward-thinking keynote speeches by Leander Wattig and Volker Oppmann. In particular, Volker Oppmann is someone in German publishing to really keep an eye on, as he has a huge project in the works, Log-os, which intends to position itself as an open-source platform for book buying and social reading which may become the independent alternative to Amazon.

Small presses sprouting up on the German landscape

In the spirit of delving more into German publishing, here are a few of my recent finds in Berlin and slightly further afield – all of these were founded in 2013 – talk about the year of the small press! What most of them have in common is they are focusing on the small form – from Mikrotext’s e-singles to Readux’s “teeny books”. There is also a definite enthusiasm to try out new formats, publish genre-bending short work, and even release titles in English. With no further ado:

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Beben: This press is named after the German word for “quake”. With a focus on e-book novellas meant to shake things up, so far Beben has released 6 titles: from skewed creation myths, to unsettling social criticism, to a criminal posing as a mushroom hunter, and a lighter story of the Wnukis, who perhaps have the secret to happiness; these off-the-beaten path shorts could be well on their way to ushering in a renaissance of the novella.

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Mikrotext: An e-only press started by Nikola Richter, blogger and author of Superdemocraticos fame, Mikrotext has released a smattering of political, experimental, and above all, highly modern literature. Take Thomas Pelzer’s Spam Poetry (inspired by his spam mailbox), Chloe Zeegan’s Berlin Trilogy or Aboud Saeed’s The Smartest Guy on Facebook (Facebook posts about Syrian revolution), every e-book (and e-single) that Mikrotext has published seems to be both a product of its times and at the same time reflecting about its social-historical context in a nuanced way. And they have two titles in English!

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Readux: This new press for literature in English translation is one of the only projects here to put out books in the revolutionary format of paper – and these beautiful books definitely deserve a place on one’s shelf, not just for their aesthetically pleasing cover designs, so that these literary morsels can be devoured, marked up and shared. The first four titles  include the likes of Franz Hessel, who documents 1920s Berlin in lively prose, and Gideon Lewis-Kraus, whose essays explore the city’s continued magnetic pull today. Also, the press will release 4 little books three times a year, in a magazine-like cycle. Readux Books is the brainchild of Amanda DeMarco, who writes the books & publishing blog of the same name. I salute her for this high-quality first series, and am happy to note the books can also be bought as a set!

Fiktion: These last two projects are brand new and still surrounded by an aura of mystery. Fiktion ups the ante with a publishing model that seems too good to be true: they want to release books simultaneously in German and English, create an international network of writers, make their ebooks available for free, and experiment with new formats. Their manifesto is available on their site, but the truly curious are well advised to join their newsletter. Although not strictly an “indie” project, since they’re backed by German Federal Cultural Foundation and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (where Fiktion will host a conference on literature in the digital age), it will still be exciting to see where this thought experiment leads.

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Kladde: The last project is likewise enigmatic. Their website is virtually empty, but they’ve already been nominated for the Virenschleuder Preis for creative marketing. This video comes the closest to explaining why. Much like Unbound in England, Kladde aims to fund its carefully selected (and oh so mysterious) book projects via crowdfunding. They seem to hint that the “crowd” might participate in more ways than financially, but again, we’ll have to stay tuned to find out what precisely sets this project apart.