Long-standing national book cultures take on digital revolution | Gutenberg in the Cyberstorm | DW | 17.12.2014
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Gutenberg in the Cyberstorm

Long-standing national book cultures take on digital revolution

Will technical developments change not only how, but what we read? DW's Jefferson Chase explains why he's not that concerned - and what the Germans could learn from the English-language book market.

One of the most obvious differences in the English-language and German book markets is that English-speaking audiences have easily and eagerly embraced e-books and e-readers, while many Germans have remained not merely skeptical but downright suspicious. If the "medium is the message," Marshall McLuhan said, could this be the start of a divergence in culture? Will the e-book mean that different sorts of works will be published in English and German?

I very much doubt it. While big data gathering techniques enable publishers to monitor readers' preferences and habits and could allow them to "customer-order" books with maximum appeal, such information is usually pretty flawed.

For instance, because I mostly use the service to shop for gifts for my American relatives, Amazon recommends me books on model trains and sludge metal CDs - the algorithm has done its best and concluded that I'm a headbanger with a soft-spot for Märklin.

Moreover, long before computer algorithms, other shadowy, calculating entities tried to get the jump on readers' tastes. They're called editors. Like many of us, editors make decisions they think they can justify to their bosses, should things go wrong. That includes publishing books that are like other books that have already been published, so if worse comes to worse they can say, "Hey, it was a cross between James Ellroy and Jane Austen - it should have been a huge hit."

Daniel Kehlmann, Copyright: Jan Woitas dpa/lsn

Daniel Kehlmann is one of Germany's few internationally known novelists

Those who worry about big data threatening the spectrum of what gets published should consider how narrow that spectrum already is.

As someone who has worked with both German and Anglo-American publishers, I'd say the rules of the game are almost identical for both. That's not to say that the German and English book markets don't differ from one another. They do - significantly. But the reasons are less technological than historical.

'If only they weren't so boring'

If you compare German bestseller lists for fiction with those from the US or England, you'll immediately be struck by the number of works in the former that are translation - most often from English. By contrast, with some popular (Daniel Kehlmann, Bernhard Schlink) and trendy (W.G. Sebald) exceptions, German fiction plays a negligible role for native-English-speaking readers.

So German fiction is more cosmopolitan, right? Wrong. Contemporary English-language fiction is vastly enriched by the fact that somewhere in the ball park of a billion people around the world speak it. That reflects both the United States' current influence and Britain's colonial past. Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Hari Kunzru, Aravind Adiga…the list of authors with roots in India alone whom I can name off the top of my head is massively impressive.

Historian Ian Kershaw, Copyright: AP Photo/Graham Heathcote

Ian Kershaw's Hitler biography is the sort of book that Germans rarely write

German fiction, of course, cannot draw on a talent pool anywhere near as large or diverse, but cultural and historical factors also serve to stultify creativity. In the 18th and 19th centuries, German literature served as a compensatory surrogate for national political unity, and even today there is a residual pressure on authors to sound culturally important. This sometimes trumps having anything individual to say.

On the positive side, for German authors, the money Germany puts into promoting literature means that if you're lucky enough to publish a novel, you can swing like an orangutan from one prize or stipend to the next without having to hold down a day job. On the negative side, for German readers, the number of second novels by an author holed up with writer's block in some backwater location while on a literary grant is voluminous enough to fill said orangutan's cage.

"I'd love to publish more German novels," a US publisher once said to me. "If only they weren't so boring."

Swastikas sell

German- and English-language non-fiction bestseller lists both feature more than ample portions of self-help, celebrity confessionals, "humorous" looks at everyday life, and political memoirs of the oft-given-as-presents-but-seldom-read sort. There is interest in German non-fiction works in the English-speaking world as long as they fulfill one crucial criterion: They have to be about World War II. If you can slap a swastika on it, so the implicit rule of thumb, you can sell it.

Books, Copyright: non/fiction

Rumors of the book's demise may be exaggerated

Not that I'm complaining. Down the years, I've been lucky enough to translate a number of innovative and interesting works by fine German historians and now know more about Hitler, the Holocaust and the Third Reich than is probably good for my emotional stability. Along the way, I've also noticed that there's a type of non-fiction book in English that is relatively rare in German - the serious non-academic study.

German trade non-fiction tends to consist of either vastly simplified popular primers or massive tomes with thousands of footnotes and academic literature reviews. Serious English non-fiction forgoes professorial trimmings and features more concise, linear argumentation and a livelier style. Publishers like Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Simon and Schuster and Metropolitan among others specialize in this sort of book, and it's not even that unusual for the Harvard or Oxford University Presses to land the occasional eminently readable bestseller either.

The difference doesn't reflect some intrinsic German fondness of footnotes. German publishers are socialized to believe that a serious work requires a certain layer of academic trappings, whereas English-language publishers see it as part of their mission to reach the broadest audience possible. Which brings us back to e-books.

A slim chance at emancipation

Jefferson Chase, Copyright: DW/O. Pock

Jefferson Chase is optimistic about the book's future

A few years ago I wrote a piece about how my retirement-age mother does most of her reading on a Kindle, while I just can't cozy up to the idea of e-books. I've tried and failed to sell book ideas to both English and German publishers, and yet the idea of self-publishing on a platform like Amazon somehow seems like cheating. I guess I'm somewhat conservative and German in that regard.

At the same time, I don't see any evidence that the greater prominence of e-books in the English-language cultures has resulted in any commercial thought control. On the contrary, if anything, new media seem to offer authors the slim chance of escaping from the conservative thumbs of the publishing industry.

So, ironically, I believe the German book market would benefit from a bit more of Anglo-American pioneering spirit when it comes to e-publishing. Anything to break down to the artificial distinction between "serious literature" and "entertainment" maintained by the German culture and publishing industries would, in my book, be worth a whirl.

I'm convinced that there are more good stories out there in the German-language world than are currently being told.

Jefferson Chase is the author of more than a dozen translations from German to English.

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