Diogenes: A Publishing Original
Daniel Kampa celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the Swiss Publisher Diogenes and salutes its founder.
'If you absolutely want to lose money, then in God's name go ahead,' said an unknown author whose play, The Double-Bass, Daniel Keel wanted to publish. Two years later, the same author contacted Keel to ask if he would read the manuscript of his novel. The author was Patrick Süskind and the novel was Perfume. Keel planned a first edition of 50,000 copies; Süskind suggested 5,000. Neither man could have been more off track. Since 1985, the novel has sold 12,5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 38 languages. It was the turning point for Diogenes, the publishing house founded by Keel in 1952.
The beginnings were rocky: Keel wanted to establish a list of cartoon and art books. All in Line by Saul Steinberg was to be the first. The contract was signed, the proofs at the printer, when a postcard arrived from Istanbul with a pithy message from Steinberg: 'Please don't print the book.' It was subsequently published by Rowohlt. The first book Keel published was Hurrah for St. Trinian’s! by the British cartoonist Ronald Searle. Searle's agent was also hesitant: 'There's a young maniac out there who wants to buy the rights for a company that doesn't even exist yet,' the agent said to his assistant, but nevertheless signed the contract. The first book was published while Keel was still a bookseller in Zurich. On the cover it sported Diogenes Verlag. Keel, who didn't want to read his own name on the book, had made a list of 100 names and decided to choose the Greek philosopher as a figurehead. 'I found Diogenes especially appealing because he battled against every sort of convention not just theoretically but also in his lifestyle. And what really pleases me: he left no written record whatsoever, and yet his spirit lives on.'
For years, Keel's office was his bedroom in a run-down flat. The accounts were stored in an old cardbox beneath his bed and Keel was his own sole employee, until a part-time secretary was hired. Her first duty in the morning was to make the publisher's bed (and sometimes wake him up). In 1960 Diogenes moved into real offices, left vacant by the Swis Federation for Physical Exercise. The hobby became a bona fide publishing company. In Diogenes's tenth year, 37 books were published; there was a backlist of 163 titles; and the company had 12 employees.
When the list turned towards literature, business got hard. To make money with good books seemed almost impossible, even with star writers like Muriel Spark (Diogenes's first English author), Carson McCullers, Harold Brodkey and Patricia Highsmith (who were the first Americans on the list). Back in the 1960s these authors were virtually unknown in the German speaking world. Diogenes nearly went bankrupt three times.
An old friend from Keel's childhood and boy scout years saved the company: like Keel, Rudolf Bettschart was born on 10 October 1930, but exactly two hours and twenty minutes later. At school Keel had written Bettschart's essays, while Bettschart helped Keel with his maths – a dream team. In 1966 Bettschart became Keel's business partner and co-owner of the firm, looking after the marketing and finances. The crisis of fiction in the 1970s turned out to be Diogenes's great opportunity. 'When the revolution of the non-fiction book and later the death of the novel were proclaimed in Germany, it was Daniel Keel who placed his bets on literature and championed the primacy of fiction. Diogenes has succeeded in bestowing literary respectability on the reading layman's alternative', wrote the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
Today Diogenes is the biggest European publishing house, with sixty employees, dealing exclusively with fiction. In fifty years more than 3,400 books by 700 authors have been published, making a total of more than 150 million copies. No fewer than 1,744 titels by 350 authors are still in print, from classics like Homer, Montaigne, Shakespeare and Balzac to modern classics like Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Orwell, Chandler, Simenon and Friedrich Dürrenmatt and bestselling authors like Barbara Vine, Ian McEwan, John Irving and Paulo Coelho. Of course Diogenes also has a strong list of successful German-language authors: Doris Dörrie, Martin Suter, Jakob Arjouni, Ingrid Noll, Patrick Süskind and Bernhard Schlink to name but a few. Schlink’s The Reader was the first German novel to make it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. In addition, Diogenes handles world rights for a number of foreign-language authors, such as Patricia Highsmith, Donna Leon, Leon de Winter, Victoria Tokarjewa, Liaty Pisani, Magdalen Nabb, Tomi Ungerer and Federico Fellini. In its jubilee year Diogenes has been voted 'publisher of the year' for the fourth time in a row. What is its secret? 'Every kind of writing is permitted – except for the boring kind,' answers Keel. 'I divide all works into two categories: those that I like and those that I don't like. I have no other criterion.' He continues: 'And since I'm a poor slob of a publisher who – as the critics rightly suspect – is himself unable to read or write a decent sentence, I borrowed these two phrases from two of our authors, namely Voltaire and Anton Chekhov.'
Daniel Kampa is Assistant to the Publisher at Diogenes and the author of a comprehensive history of the company (due to be published later this year). He has been co-editor of the literary magazine Tintenfass since 1997. For more information on Diogenes, visit www.diogenes.ch.