January 14, 2014
German publisher/bookseller Weltbild starts insolvency proceedings
by Alex Shephard
Weltbild, one of Germany’s largest publishers and booksellers, has begun insolvency proceedings, citing online competition—the Financial Times reports that it had initially warned investors in September “that high initial investments in its transition to online retail was resulting in temporary losses.” Last week, board member Peter Beer told the FAZ that the company’s struggles are a direct result of its failure to transition into the digital marketplace and compete with Amazon. Beer is also a priest—in fact, he’s vicar-general of Munich; Weltbild is owned by the Catholic Church.
According to Weltbild’s website “every fifth book in Germany is sold through Weltbild.” The company currently employs 6,800 people and serves millions of Germans in its 300 shops. As of 2012 it had a yearly revenue of 1.59 billion Euros. Weltbild has previously claimed to be Germany’s second biggest online book retailer (Amazon.de is first) and its best known publishing company.
But the last few years have been rocky for Weltbild. The company, like most in the publishing industry, has struggled to transition into the digital marketplace; these struggles have only been exacerbated by conflicts stemming from the fact that they’re owned by 12 German Catholic dioceses. In 2011, it was revealed that the company sold over 2,500 erotica titles as well as DVDs that “would be deemed pornographic by normal Christian standards.” According to the ultra-conservative LifeSiteNews, the Church defended itself by using the age-old defense of “Hey, it’s erotica, not porn, so Jesus is totally down with it”:
But since the story broke in the German media, the publishing company has been removing offensive pages from its website and disabling search engine functions for searches on its website using words such as ‘erotic.’
“It should be noted,” said Weltbild in its press release, that “’pornography’ is a clearly defined legal term.” They add that according to that definition, “Weltbild offers no pornography and has never done so before.”
Then, last summer, Weltbild found itself in hot water once again when it refused to sell books from the small Canadian publisher Icon Empire Press, which publishes “romantic gay fiction for men,” in its stores because the books did not meet what Weltbild described as its ” rather traditional values.” Unsurprisingly, critics (rightfully) cried hypocrisy and the German media ran with the story, causing a massive PR headache for Weltbild. It’s unclear if Weltbild’s love of Adam and Eve “erotica”/hatred of Adam and Steve “pornography” was a factor in its decision to file for insolvency.
Weltbild is currently holding out hope that the state of Bavaria will throw them a life line, but government officials, including the Bavarian Economic Minister, have said that there’s no tax money available for the struggling company—hey, they’re not Greece. Government officials are concerned about what will happen to Weltbild’s employees, however, and both the Economic Minister and Employment Minister will meet with affected workers on Thursday. According to Reuters, “business will continue while the court-appointed insolvency administrator works out a plan to restructure the business.”
Cool Pope Francis was unavailable for comment.
Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.