We have the afternoon off from our whirlygig schedule at the Literary Colloquium, so I'm sharing today's content now before I forget it. This morning saw Oliver Vogel from S. Fischer Verlag and Volker Weidermann from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung talking about the publishing/reviewing/bookselling bizz. There was a slightly charged atmosphere - I don't think they knew each other beforehand, and there may have been some strange primate-level male rivalry going on between them that they were unaware of, lecturing to a group with a high percentage of gorgeously beautiful and intelligent female translators as they were. A fair amount of digs from the publishing side at the papers and the papers side at the publishers... But maybe I'm interpreting too much into it.
In general, they agreed, there are more books and fewer review-readers now than ten years ago, although Sunday papers are getting more successful. They're actually a newish invention here, as there used to be hardly any shops open on Sundays where one could buy them. If you live outside of a major city, that's probably still a problem. And they also agreed that the book market is becoming more densely concentrated, with 60-70% of sales coming from just three large booksellers, which means they can basically determine the terms they want and need a great deal of wooing and special attention. Because getting books on shelves is THE most important thing. I suspect the buyers at the big chains have very large waistlines, what with all the wining and dining that seems to be done.
Today's big hits are BIG - selling more than anyone could ever have imagined ten years ago. That means, though, that the other titles don't do quite as well, sometimes struggling to make the 50-60,000-mark that counts as a success for an established author. On the other hand, big-gun titles can pull up the rest of the catalogue. The goal for the publishers is to bring out a book that sells well in hardback and then sells steadily over several years in paperback. Foreign rights, on the other hand, don't make a great deal of money but are very good for massaging authors' egos. And once you've sold translation rights to Bulgaria, Macedonia, Croatia, Taiwan, Hungary, Belarus, Greece, Egypt, Turkey and Belgium, you can write that the author has been translated into ten languages. Plus it makes publishers feel good - and it's not as if they have anything to lose by having their books translated. There was some gossip flying around about the price paid by a publisher in a, ahem, small country for Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World - suffice to say the sum was less than my monthly rent. And rents in Berlin aren't exactly high.
The big book prizes awarded in Leipzig and Frankfurt have pushed the market concentration even more, as one might expect, with titles vying to pass through the longlist/shortlist funnels - and the ones that don't make it can then fall by the wayside. And attempting to make the lists is hard work for publishers, with all the emotional aftercare to be done if that all-important book doesn't scrape on. But the big prizes can be a boon for lesser-known authors, and are very useful for journalists, especially as the judges often choose rather unexpected titles.
Asked how he chooses the books he covers in the FAS, Weidermann said he gets sent about 2000 a year. There are some big guns that you just can't ignore without appearing overly arrogant, apparently. With the rest, he asks: Is there a story behind it? Does it look interesting? And finally: is it good - or unexpectedly bad? He was also visibly annoyed about us readers going online and thus escaping paying good money for his hard work, although the German papers aren't yet as hard hit as those in the USA, for example. The FAZ now has value-added book stuff online in its reading room Lesesaal - not unlike the Words Without Borders book club but much, much glossier. Basically, the idea is to give readers extra information on certain hot-topic books for free in the hope that they'll carry on buying the paper, and I suspect it probably works - but I'm surprised it's the FAZ that's doing it rather than the publishers themselves.
That's all for now, but there's a lot more to be transcribed straight from my trusty notebook during the next free moment. That may not be until next week, though...