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German Book Prize Rising to the Challenge

Sarah Faupel (kc)
September 15, 2006

There are plenty of awards and scholarships offered every year in Germany's literary scene. But the German Book Prize, founded in 2005, is hoping to earn a place in the international arena.

A prize-winning book is a sure sales magnet

When it comes to contemporary literature, Germany is still largely an importer, not an exporter. Readers abroad seem to have the misconception that German literature is highbrow and intense.

“This is not because German writers lack quality and creativity,” said Anja zum Hingst, communications director for the German Publishers & Booksellers Association. “The problem is that outside of Germany hardly anything is known about young German writers.”

And for those readers abroad with an interest in German literature, the choice of books available in translation is often limited.

Significant sales boost

The German Book Prize was founded in 2005, partly to even out the balance of German books abroad. This annual award for the best German-language novel is sponsored by the German Publishers & Booksellers Association and offers a total of 37,500 euros ($47,600) in prize money.

The prize's debut last year proved to be a great success.

Deutscher Buchpreis 2005
Arno Geiger's book "Es geht uns gut" (We're doing fine) won in 2005Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"Before, sales of the winning novels were at around 2,000, but after the announcement they jumped to about 200,000 within a couple of weeks," said zum Hingst.

As soon as the jury had announced their shortlist the media began extensively covering authors they had otherwise ignored. Most importantly, the prize made waves internationally and numerous international publishing houses started making inquiries about translations and the rights to the books.

But it's still an uphill battle for zum Hingst, who said the word hasn't spread far enough. Ion Trewin for example, director of the renowned Man Booker Prize, had never heard of the award. Ironically, the German Book Prize was closely modeled on this very prize.

A seal of approval

The Man Booker Prize was set up in 1969 and is awarded to novels in the English language by authors from the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.

The first prize is worth a hefty 50,000 pounds ($94,000), but the immense international media attention it draws is invaluable.

“The winner of the Man Booker Prize can expect an increase in sales of a quarter million,” said Trewin. "Even abroad, and especially in the US, a Man Booker Prize is seen as a seal of approval."

The same applies to the "Oscar" of the publishing industry, the Pulitzer Prize. As soon as a book receives a Pulitzer sticker on its cover it’s as good as sold. This prestigious American award has been handed out in 21 categories since 1917.

But the German Publishers & Booksellers Association doesn't want to compare the German Book Prize to the multi-category Pulitzer Prize.

"Our concept is much more like that of the Man Booker Prize. We single out one German-language novel," said zum Hingst.

Fame, honour and the burden of moral responsibility

Seeking out the very best in contemporary fiction is also the concept of the French Prix Goncourt, which was the inspiration for the Man Booker Prize. Founded in 1903 by two brothers, writers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, it quickly became established as France’s most prestigious literary award and is famous the world over.

The winners don’t profit directly from the Prix Goncourt, whose prize of 10 euros ($12.70) is merely symbolic, but the fame, honour and -- needless to say -- the sales revenues that come with it cannot be overestimated.

A literary award, however, doesn’t necessarily bring instant happiness and a career boost. Jean Carrière, the winner of the 1972 Prix Goncourt, felt overwhelmed by the moral responsibility of the prize and was unable to publish for the following 15 years.

"The Prix Goncourt is the original experience of a double-edged sword. The most important task of a writer who undergoes this experience is to forget it," he said.

Deutscher Buchpreis 2006
The jury for the German Book Prize 2006Image: Harald Schröder, Frankfurt

Celebrating German novels

But even if prestigious awards might daunt some writers, they are still essential for the literary market. Without renowned national prizes for literary excellence like the Man Booker Prize, the Prix Goncourt and the German Book Prize, interest in contemporary literature would wane even more.

Publishing houses would then have to increasingly resort to focusing on authors like Dan Brown, Joanne K. Rowling and others who churn out sure-fire best-sellers. Without the prizes young writers would never be able to step out of the shadows and gain international recognition for their achievements.

With its prize, the German Publishers & Booksellers Association is setting out to celebrate the German-language novel -- and hoping the award itself will get noticed too.

"It's our goal that very soon the German Book Prize will be mentioned in the same breath as the Man Booker Prize and the Prix Goncourt," said zum Hingst.