March 13, 2014

Amazon Publishing opens up German-language arm


The man about to introduce Germany to a little thing called the book.

The man about to introduce Germany to a little thing called the book.

You would think that Amazon might have been cured of its experiments with publishing. After all, we at Melville have covered its failure to smuggle books into bookstores and its failure to “disrupt publishing” by co-opting publishing and book world veterans like Larry Kirshbaum, James Atlas, and Nancy Pearl. Much is launched, much is promised, and yet the results so far have been significantly underwhelming.

But this week brought the news that Amazon has opened up a German-language publishing program as part of Amazon Publishing. According to Publishers Weekly, it’ll be based in Munich and run by publisher Sarah Tomashek. Twelve titles have already been acquired.

The debut list, set for this spring, has four titles so far, including Klang der Gezeiten (The Sound of the Tides), a new work of contemporary fiction by Emily Bold, who is published in the U.S. by Amazon Publishing. Also on the list is a new murder mystery by Alexander Hartung that features Berlin police investigator Jan Tommen, and a new edition of the first book in the Jan Tommen series, Bis alle Schuld beglichen (Until All Debts Are Cleared). New York für Anfängerinnen (New York for Beginners), a comedic novel by FOCUS Magazine New York bureau chief Susann Remke rounds out the list.

Amazon has apparently taken the success of some of its AmazonCrossing titles translated from German, most notably Oliver Pötzsch’s Hangman series, as a sign that there’s room for them to do more in Germany.

But there are two reasons I don’t think this is going to be very successful in the long run, and they are:

1. Amazon is not very good at publishing. See the examples above, but also perhaps how fast these promises have collapsed. Atlas’s line of biographies, due to start publishing in June 2013? Nine months past the date, and no sign of it. Kirshbaum, who stayed at Amazon for two and a half years, and published a very small number of books during that period, for which very large advances were paid? These are not the habits of a publishing house committed to building a list and sticking around for a while.

And what I think it really boils down is that Amazon doesn’t know much about publishing—or at least one side of it, but a very important side. It knows all about getting people things they want, and running a publishing house on this basis is certainly possible; lots of publishing houses coast on this principle for years. But making the customer your god, as Bezos and Amazon do, is a really disturbing abdication of critical thinking. And critical thinking about books specifically is what tends to make publishing houses successful.

Because they are, after all, selling books, the containers and provokers of thought, and not cheese or Wiffle bats or whathaveyou. And good thought, and good art, rises to the top. Not always, not immediately, and not uninterruptedly, but with enough consistency to say that publishing houses that are run by publishers and editors who make and stand behind their own critical judgments about books are the ones that tend to do the “disrupting”. Without that, you can fling all the tube socks and mistreated workers in the world at the business, and it’s still going to tank.

2. German publishers are really good at publishing. So good they invented it. We are talking about a country with vibrant books coverage and literary festivals, with celebrity literary critics, with thoroughly trained booksellers, with storied houses, a near obsession with publishers’ catalogues and the physical book, and a regulated marketplace’s designed to support exactly the type of publishing Amazon has not shown itself capable of doing. This is the origin and the heart of the publishing industry worldwide.

Michael Naumann, former CEO of Holt, described the country’s investment in books in an article for The Nation the year before last:

The fact remains that in Germany the cultural definition of the “book” as a major source of intellectual, scientific, economic and aesthetic self-improvement has carried the day over the capitalist notion that a book is a commodity and therefore deserving of no special considerations. The book as such is sacred. One does not throw books away.

This may overstate the case somewhat: Germany is also, of course, the seat of Bertelsmann, and there’s plenty of trashy German literature clearly not intended for self-improvement, at least if the bookstore chain Hugendubel’s bestseller list is any indication.

But the fact remains that Germany has a highly developed publishing culture, one that has already been tangling with Amazon over taxes and labor issues, and I really don’t think the Suhrkamps or the Hanser Verlags are going to be facing serious competition from Bezos & Co. Or are going to be willing to take it lying down. Amazon’s control over the e-book market, which it dominates in Germany as elsewhere, does make German publishers nervous. In a Der Spiegel article last spring by Markus Brauck, Wolfgang Höbel and Claudia Voigt, on Amazon and German publishing, they quote a number of major publishers’ pessimistic thoughts about the cultural shift that seems to have taken place: Jo Lendle, formerly head of DuMont Verlag and now head of Hanser, says that “many people no longer view book publishers ‘as a stronghold of culture, but merely as a transshipment point for cultural products.'” But though fear and change may rattle them, German publishers know what they are doing is important and they’re willing to fight for it. We’ll just have to see if Amazon’s ready for this.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.