Book Fair director Juergen Boos interviews two leading figures in publishing about their new roles. Last year Felicitas von Lovenberg moved from literary criticism to publishing, becoming head of the renowned Piper Verlag. Doris Janhsen has switched categories rather than careers, moving from children’s publisher Oetinger to the helm of Droemer Knaur, one of Germany’s most successful commercial publishing houses.
Doris Janhsen, in July you moved from one of the most renowned publishers of children’s books to a massively successful commercial publishing group. What are some of the more significant projects you are now focusing on?
Doris Janhsen: Having worked for the group in the past, it’s a great privilege to return there now in the role of publisher – especially in a period where our sales are bucking the trend and experiencing major growth. What delights me even more is that whether in literature, non-fiction or ‘mindful living’ titles, most of our success is down to German-speaking authors. Almost all of them are set apart by their own unique style of writing, which is by no means typically ‘German’ but, for the most part, truly international. By making this our focus and benefiting from the opportunities it brings, not least in marketing, we have developed a real edge.
The plan is to build on this as we continue to make our list even more distinctive. The competition from so-called ‘new media’ has changed the concept of reading – and the amount of time we dedicate to it. This also has consequences for the way stories are being told, however much we love the physical book. What was previously considered ‘commercial’ is now, in the truest sense of the word, based on something broader. For example, ‘mindful living’ titles are intersecting in new ways with the broad concept of ‘spirituality’, and commercial titles are finding a place in social media-driven forms of communication that are shaped by new principles, needs and desires. It’s crucial that we factor this into our overall brand positioning, our lists, and our approach to developing, acquiring, marketing and selling titles, and that’s something we’re keen to do.
Felicitas von Lovenberg, a year and a half ago, you swapped being published for publishing, taking up the role of publisher at Piper Verlag in March 2016. What are some of the more significant projects you have in the pipeline? Are you planning major changes?
Felicitas von Lovenberg: I’m sceptical of the idea that you can really plan major changes. In fact, in my experience, any change or transformation comes about as a result of many small steps leading in the same direction. Success in publishing requires the involvement of the entire team, and it’s exactly that collaborative spirit that I believe makes Piper special. We are currently working to define the profiles of individual aspects of our catalogue more clearly, and thinking even more deeply about our readership. For me, as for Frau Janhsen, the key issue is how to reach and appeal to readers in a society where the book is no longer automatically considered a defining medium.
Doris, in your opinion, how is business developing with regard to digital formats?
DJ: The trend towards digital in the books market isn’t moving quite as quickly as was predicted just a few years ago. However, we’re in the business of telling stories and we’re passionate about our work, so that shouldn’t mean that we sit back and leave it to others. On the contrary: the increasing digitisation of readers’ experiences is a tide which can’t be turned. It requires publishers and booksellers to tap into the desires that a sense of ‘digital alienation’ can provoke, in order to reinvent the physical book as a beloved, sought-after and carefully curated alternative to the daily grind of communication on social media.
At the same time, it compels us to strike a constant productive balance between analogue and digital – whether in marketing or in developing new business models and narrative formats. Opening up new spaces for authors to create and embarking on a constant process of collaborative experimentation in this vein will, in my opinion, be one of the key roles of a publishing house in the future. And Droemer Knaur, which has led the market in e-publishing since the 2000s, offers the most fertile ground for this approach to flourish.
How about you, Felicitas? Are there any brand new formats that excite you, and that you are experimenting with?
FvL: At present there are no signs of growth in the e-book market, but it seems clear to me that this is a temporary state of affairs. The audio market, for example, is booming in the United States – as well as in other countries – thanks to streaming. The way people experience and absorb what they read is changing.
As a response to this, we launched our e-book label ‘Piper Edition’ at the beginning of the year. It allows us to reacquaint readers with gems from the backlist which have been unjustly forgotten and have subsequently fallen out of print. Some examples of works that the label makes available are the complete works of Aldous Huxley, early examples of Fruttero & Lucentini’s legendary Italian crime thrillers, important writing from the major commentator Joachim Kaiser, who died this year, and the novels of Patrick White, the only Australian author thus far to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
What has your experience been of German literature that sells well abroad? Which themes are in demand?
DJ: Since we work with so many German-speaking authors, foreign rights are absolutely crucial for us. Our significant growth in this area reflects that. This doesn’t just cover best-selling literature and non-fiction from big-name authors, but also books on ‘mindful living’, a term which, for us, encompasses everything from Buddhism and spiritual guidance to healthy eating. Someone who has set a particularly high bar is, of course, Nina George, who is enjoying success in the US with The Little French Bistro, the follow-up to her 2016 New York Times bestseller. We’re keen to explore new avenues in this area too, through new formats – including digital – and we’re in preliminary discussions with publishers about how trail-blazing concepts can push us beyond current restrictions.
FvL: One of our best-selling titles abroad is a novel which also caused a stir among readers here thanks to its immediacy, its emotion, its warmth and its intelligence: Sieh mich an (‘Look at Me’) by Mareike Krügel. Although its protagonist is German, the novel poses questions that also preoccupy many people in other places: how do I balance family and duty with my desires? What happens to my life when major change occurs? And outside of roles such as mother, wife, or teacher, who am I after all? The story is also just really brilliantly told, with pace, enormous elegance and wit. That’s something that can be enjoyed in other languages too.
An international title we’re particularly proud of at the moment is Ein kleines Land (Petit Pays) by Gaël Faye. It’s the debut novel by a French musician with Rwandan roots, describing his childhood in Burundi, culminating in the carnage of civil war. The book took France by storm last year, and I have yet to meet anyone who has failed to be both moved and astounded by it in equal measure.
Which trends are currently particularly evident on the German literary market, and which developments do you believe have potential?
FvL: More and more people are becoming addicted to series, thanks to big-budget productions from HBO, Netflix and, increasingly, German broadcasters, and this is having a ripple effect on the literary market. Tales that span multiple books – whether by Elena Ferrante or Jeffrey Archer, Karl Ove Knausgaard or Joachim Meyerhoff – are enjoying immense popularity. I think there will be a few more exciting literary developments in that vein in the coming years. The second trend I have noticed is linked to this and was demonstrated very clearly by the success of the latter two authors, Knausgaard and Meyerhoff: readers’ interest in authentic, true stories – in everyday, ordinary life, as long as it is (or appears to be) presented without artifice. Where is the line between autobiography and fiction? I think in future there will be more and more authors who offer their own exciting answers to that question.
DJ: Suspense, suspense, suspense – both on the German market and internationally. And, increasingly, authors with a homegrown flavour, further afield as well as in this country. It’s also fascinating to see how the historical novel, long ago written off, is almost reinventing itself, dealing with periods ever closer to the contemporary era. This hasn’t replaced the ‘medieval novel’, but it has made the genre a bit more ‘international’. Last but not least, the trend towards a new kind of series, partly driven by ‘all-ages’ titles, and partly influenced by new viewing habits. It’s a new kind of ‘binge reading’, so to speak. All the rest is just reading the runes – and feeling safe in the knowledge that somewhere, at this very moment, a story is being written that is far beyond our imaginations, but set to excite millions.