Monday, 28 February 2011

Berlin Verlag Founder Leaves

The Bookseller reported not long ago that the British publishers Bloomsbury will be adopting a "global structure" - effectively operating everything out of London: "four basic divisions of adult; children’s and educational; academic and professional; and information and business development," supported by "a sales, marketing and rights division, and a production division." All in London. All run by Brits.

The official reasoning is that they consider taste is becoming globally homogenized, especially in fiction. And the Bookseller piece gives three examples, all of which were written in English. Unsurprisingly. All very well; these people are running a business after all. Whether English books are published out of London or New York is perhaps largely unimportant nowadays - although I would expect there to be differences in the marketing, and I would think American editors might have a better feel for what US readers like. So no doubt jobs will go, which is sad but not unusual, but at least that great overarching value, literature, won't suffer all that much.

Except for one thing: they also happen to own the Berlin Verlag. As Gregor Dotzauer points out in the Tagesspiegel, Berlin Verlag is nominated for three awards this year at the Leipzig Book Fair. With three titles that would almost certainly not have come about under this "global structure". A German novel, a German literary non-fiction title and a translation of Peter Esterházy. Bloomsbury does not publish Peter Esterházy in English. Nor does it publish Berlin Verlag's biggest German authors, Ingo Schulze and Elke Schmitter. In fact, while Bloomsbury does some very fine books, I'd wager that next to none of them are translated from German. Which is up to them and certainly not an unusual phenomenon, but you'd think they might take advantage of the little jewel they have in the Berlin Verlag.

The people in Berlin have a genuinely excellent children's book list, some outstanding German writers (Anna Katharina Fröhlich and Henning Ritter are the Leipzig nominees, plus Rada Biller, Keto von Waberer, Jan Peter Bremer and a whole slew of young talents like Thomas Klupp, Daniela Dröscher, Leif Rand). They even put out the occasional poetry collection (Jan Wagner, Ron Winkler, Björn Kuhligk, Gerhard Falkner). The publisher Elisabeth Ruge recently set up Berlin Academic, "with special focus on digital developments and Open Access". And of course they publish translations of Bloomsbury writers like Margaret Atwood, Tobias Wolff and William Boyd, to name but three from the first page of their catalogue.

So the relationship has been in one direction all along, but now Berlin seems to have lost all independence. The company's founder Elisabeth Ruge is clearing her desk and leaving as of 15 March. And who can blame her? I can't read between the lines of all the press releases very well and have no internal insight whatsoever, but even I can see things don't bode well for a German publisher if it's being run from London.

Frankly, I resent the idea that literary taste is globally homogenous, and I don't want to read one-size-fits-all fiction. Some of the strengths of Berlin Verlag in recent years have been discovering new German voices that go against the grain, fostering unusual talent and organising great events in Berlin. So this is, without exaggeration, very bad news for German book-lovers.

Update: Richard Kämmerlings tells us in Die Welt (which I tend not to read because the opinion pieces get me too upset) that Birgit Schmitz is taking over from Ruge. According to Schmitz, who is about my age, the German book market is so different to the British market that she'll have to maintain "a certain amount of autonomy". And she apparently intends to make her mark on the catalogue. Good on her - I suspect it's her doing that Berlin Verlag has so many good young writers right now - but I'm not optimistic.

No comments: