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?

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.