Gerald Ganglbauer: Evading the jaws of giants

Independent publishing in Austria

Es gibt Verleger, die produzieren Bücher, um Geld zu erwirtschaften,
und andere, die benötigen Geld, um Bücher produzieren zu können.

There are some publishers who make books to make money;
and others who need money to make books.

Helmut Volpers

Austria has more in common with Australia than the first five letters of its name. Both countries have many excellent writers, and both have relatively small populations. (Austria has even fewer people – just over 7.5 million.) Both countries import large numbers of titles, which makes it even harder for publishers to stay independent. Austria’s big brother in the book industry is Germany, of course.

While more and more publishers have been taken over by big concerns, a few independently owned publishing houses have survived in Austria. Recently, they formed an association – the ‚Arbeitsgemeinschaft Österreichischer Privatverlage‘ (or the Austrian Independent Publishers Association) – as a means of protection against German competitors and to market Austrian titles more effectively in Germany. Believe me, this is as hard as getting Australian books on the American market.

The facts in Austria first: in the mid-1980s, 5.7% of the German language publishers produced 62% of the titles; 7% of the publishers controlled 73% of the book industry’s total annual turnover.

The three big giants are Holtzbrinck-Konzern (which owns Rowohlt, Fischer, Droemer, Kindler and others), Bertelsmann (which controls Goldmann among many others, including English language publishers Transworld, Corgi, Bantam and Doubleday) and the Axel-Springer Group (Ullstein Verlag etc). Industry concentration wherever you look. (And in the light of Penguin’s take-over of McPhee-Gribble, this must be familiar to Australian readers.) But there is still hope, especially for small and clever publishers working together.

Independents have always had a great impact on contemporary German language literature and culture and its philosophical and political voices.

In 1929 Victor Otto Stomps founded Raben-Presse, only to be closed down in 1937 under pressure from the Nazis. A few small presses appeared immediately after World War II – for instance, Eremiten-Presse, which first published some of the most important post-war German writers, such as Christoph Meckel, Guntram Vesper and Martin Walser.

Most of today’s independent publishing houses have their roots in the 1960s. The confidence of the scene during the 1970s being encapsulated in the catch-cry ‚Bertelsmann, wir kommen‘ (Bertelsmann, we’re coming). But, as with Australian independent publishers, life for these houses was a constant economic struggle. And while some of them eventually had to close, a large amount of important contemporary publishing resulted.

Helmut Volpers from Göttingen, Germany, surveyed independent publishers in the mid-1980s. He found that 83.5% of them simply could not make a living from the business, and that a further 10.7% could feed only themselves – with no cash left for staff. Of around 3,000 books produced by small presses, 59.2% had a print run of under 1,000, and most of these publishers can only afford to publish between 2 and 20 titles a year.

Still, there are many worthwhile books under independent production. Some say it’s the only place where literature belongs, since the Big Ones don’t look after authors who don’t fit the common (read ’saleable‘) taste. Many writers who have finally received contracts with large publishers soon become disillusioned with the way they are treated – being last on a long list of programs instead of first on a smaller list, and in personal contact with editors and publishers.

Nonetheless, the books have to be sold. Marketing and promotion were always the last things independents thought about – and this had to change. And so about twenty publishers – including Christian Brandstätter, Dieter Bandhauer, Erhard Löcker, Max Droschl and myself – formed the Austrian Independent Publishers Association. My own publishing company, gangan verlag, is the only one with an overseas branch here in Sydney.

Collectively, we could afford advertising in important foreign papers – such as Germany’s number one newspaper, ‚Die Zeit‘ – and launch joint promotional catalogues. The media treats our association with more regard than they previously did each single publisher. The Austrian equivalent of the Australia Council’s Literature Board has provided subsidies to help run Public Relations agencies in the middle of our most important foreign market, Germany.

The 1990s will show the extent of our success. For most, the question remains one of survival. Only a few reach an annual turnover of more than $100,000 – a figure too little to live by yet too much to die from.

But, as necessary as it is to reach out for foreign markets (Austria, Germany and Switzerland remain relatively open markets with regard to copyright), it is just as important to receive enough support at home, where authors and publishers live – whether it is Austria or Australia.

First published in print by EDITIONS Review (Ed. Gregory Harvey), Sydney and Melbourne.

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