Germans tend to fancy foreign literature over their own -- seeking more diverse and light-hearted reading, but small declines in foreign dominance may indicate a growing interest in Germany's up-and-coming writers.
Foreign fiction gives Germans a wider cultural experience
On a busy weekday evening at Bonn's Bouvier bookstore, customers perusing the fiction shelves were gravitating to foreign selections.
Gesa Weinert was looking for a book for her sister. "She likes crime stories -- mostly American and English,” said Weinert, who herself only reads classical German literature as part of her academic research job. “If I read foreign literature, it’s old -- classical.”
Weinert was an exception. Most customers, especially younger ones, said they usually prefer foreign fiction over German often because it's simply more interesting.
“There are very good crime novels set in Cologne,” said one customer. “But crime novels from the US present a different culture.”
More culture, less angst
Ulrich Greiner, chief literature editor for the German paper Die Zeit, offered several explanations for Germans' love of foreign books.
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"It could be because the Germans love to travel," Greiner said. "If you read a foreign book, then you get to know another country." But, he added, "German literature comes from a tradition of destruction and has been shaped by war. There is less to read just for fun."
"English-language books, and particularly American, are the most translated due to the sheer size of offerings," said Greiner, adding that the same domination of foreign titles can be seen in other countries.
A fixation for the foreign
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Popularity ratings seem to back up these allegations of literary treason. A 2004 survey conducted by German broadcaster ZDF found that "The Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone" ranked in the top 10 of the all time favorite books among Germans. Only one German book -- Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks" -- made it into the top 10. The list of the top 100 included a majority of foreign titles.
While sales of foreign titles are not reported and are hard to estimate, the Association of German Publishers and Booksellers reported that translated works made up the biggest share of fiction books -- at 20 percent of total new fiction titles for 2004. The share of foreign titles is more significant among individual publishers. For example, a spokeswoman for C.Bertelsmann in Munich estimated a ratio of 80 percent foreign hard cover titles and 20 percent German hard cover titles in fiction. The same figures generally describe the ratio at the Goldmann Company, also part of the Random House family in Munich, said press director Claudia Hanssen.
Companies usually have an incentive to publish English language books because their market performance is already known and critics have already reacted, said Greiner. But publishing figures for 2004 showed a 15 percent decline in the number of English-language titles among the new translated titles on the German market. Whereas in 2000, English titles accounted for 72 percent of new titles, by 2004 that figure had dropped to 57 percent. This can be partly explained by the increasing costs for English-language book licenses, said Hanssen.
"The book market is depressed," she said. "Even titles from very famous authors don't always bring a profit for the publisher, but it's good for a publisher's image to publish the latest edition from an author they regularly publish."
Investing in new German talent
Many students of the German Literature Institute in Leipzig have hit the market with a new literary style
In the fiction market, there were 5 percent fewer English titles released in 2004 compared with 2000 -- a development that may also be explained by a growing interest in promoting promising young German authors.
"In addition to attracting licenses from abroad, we also look at very talented young German writers who are likely to be successful on the German market," said Hanssen.
Some, such as those trained at the Leipzig Literature Institute (photo), are writing in a different style. Their writing represents something of a new movement and is growing in popularity, said Greiner. While that may be good news for German literature's stake in the market, foreign titles are not likely to lose their place on the bestseller lists.