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.

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.