German Sales Translate Into Profits for U.S. Books

Originally published in the International Herald Tribune, June 30, 1993

By Ann Brocklehurst

For publishers and writers of English language books in search of profits and audiences abroad, Germany has often proved their most lucrative foreign market. Germans are the world’s biggest book buyers on a per-capita basis, and the country’s publishers have become more aggressive about buying the rights to English books they believe will be a success. In turn, English-language publishers, authors and agents have been asking ever-higher prices for the licenses to print their books.
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As a result of the increased competition, book prices in Germany have risen to the point where most titles on the bestseller list cost almost 40 Deutsche marks ($23.50) or more. Michael Naumann, the head of Hamburg’s Rowohlt books, predicts that with the country in a recession, publishers will have to be more careful about what they can afford to pay for licenses.
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“Books can’t get more expensive, which means we can’t pay such high prices for licenses,” he said.
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Books, like most consumer products, benefited from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the access almost overnight to a new market of 17 million people. Book sales by West German publishers rose to 14.26 billion DM in 1991 from 12.74 billion in 1990. Sales figures for 1992 are expected to show slowing growth.
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Publishers say the book industry is generally a profitable one, but exact figures are difficult to come by since many of Germany’s 2,000 publishers are privately owned and the big conglomerates, such as Bertelsmann AG, do not always break down their figures.
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German publishers also prefer to keep quiet about license prices, unlike in the United States, where publishers often boast how much they have paid to acquire a book as a publicity ploy to boost sales. Rainer Heumann, the head of the Zurich literary agency Mohr Books, said license costs range from 100 DM to 1 million DM. “The prices paid by the German publishers are among the highest internationally,” he said. “The big conglomerates can pay the highest, but even smaller publishers pay a lot these days.”
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Mr. Heumann, whose company sells rights to English books to German publishers, said the German-speaking market of 100 million people, which includes Austria and German-speaking parts of Switzerland, is rivaled only by Japan in its financial importance for English-speaking writers.
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Of the almost 70,000 book titles published in Germany in 1991, every seventh one was a translation; two thirds of the translations were from English. The country’s current best-selling fiction list includes several authors and titles familiar to English readers: John Grisham’s “The Firm,” Stephen King’s “Dolores Clairbone” and Rosamunde Pilcher’s “The Shell Seekers.”
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But perhaps the most curious case is the book at the top of the list, “Shaman” by Noah Gordon. The American writer’s first book, “The Physician,” published by Simon & Schuster in 1986, sold only half its original 35,000 print run. The Munich publisher Drömer Knaur had, however, been impressed by the tale of a wandering doctor in the middle ages and bought the German rights. “The Physician” climbed to the top of Germany’s best-seller list, selling three million copies. Mr. Gordon’s German triumph led to translations into other European languages and new editions in English, although the writer remains relatively unknown to American readers.
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The case is not as isolated one. They are range from the mystery writer Patricia Highsmith to the New York intellectual Harold Brodkey.
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While some of the stories of fame and fortune can be attributed to quirks of German taste, in most cases, foreign authors’ successes, both great and small, are due to Germany’s book publishing and distribution system as well as to readers’ eclecticism.
.
“The Germans are still a book reading people,” Mr. Heumann said. Germans spend 120 DM per capita annually on books, more than double what Americans pay and 40 percent more that the British.
many has often proved their most lucrative foreign market. Germans are the world’s biggest book buyers on a per-capita basis, and the country’s publishers have become more aggressive about buying the rights to English books they believe will be a success. In turn, English-language publishers, authors and agents have been asking ever-higher prices for the licenses to print their books.
.
As a result of the increased competition, book prices in Germany have risen to the point where most titles on the bestseller list cost almost 40 Deutsche marks ($23.50) or more. Michael Naumann, the head of Hamburg’s Rowohlt books, predicts that with the country in a recession, publishers will have to be more careful about what they can afford to pay for licenses.
.
“Books can’t get more expensive, which means we can’t pay such high prices for licenses,” he said.
.
Books, like most consumer products, benefited from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the access almost overnight to a new market of 17 million people. Book sales by West German publishers rose to 14.26 billion DM in 1991 from 12.74 billion in 1990. Sales figures for 1992 are expected to show slowing growth.
.
Publishers say the book industry is generally a profitable one, but exact figures are difficult to come by since many of Germany’s 2,000 publishers are privately owned and the big conglomerates, such as Bertelsmann AG, do not always break down their figures.
.
German publishers also prefer to keep quiet about license prices, unlike in the United States, where publishers often boast how much they have paid to acquire a book as a publicity ploy to boost sales. Rainer Heumann, the head of the Zurich literary agency Mohr Books, said license costs range from 100 DM to 1 million DM. “The prices paid by the German publishers are among the highest internationally,” he said. “The big conglomerates can pay the highest, but even smaller publishers pay a lot these days.”
.
Mr. Heumann, whose company sells rights to English books to German publishers, said the German-speaking market of 100 million people, which includes Austria and German-speaking parts of Switzerland, is rivaled only by Japan in its financial importance for English-speaking writers.
.
Of the almost 70,000 book titles published in Germany in 1991, every seventh one was a translation; two thirds of the translations were from English. The country’s current best-selling fiction list includes several authors and titles familiar to English readers: John Grisham’s “The Firm,” Stephen King’s “Dolores Clairbone” and Rosamunde Pilcher’s “The Shell Seekers.”
.
But perhaps the most curious case is the book at the top of the list, “Shaman” by Noah Gordon. The American writer’s first book, “The Physician,” published by Simon & Schuster in 1986, sold only half its original 35,000 print run. The Munich publisher Drömer Knaur had, however, been impressed by the tale of a wandering doctor in the middle ages and bought the German rights. “The Physician” climbed to the top of Germany’s best-seller list, selling three million copies. Mr. Gordon’s German triumph led to translations into other European languages and new editions in English, although the writer remains relatively unknown to American readers.
.
The case is not as isolated one. They are range from the mystery writer Patricia Highsmith to the New York intellectual Harold Brodkey.
.
While some of the stories of fame and fortune can be attributed to quirks of German taste, in most cases, foreign authors’ successes, both great and small, are due to Germany’s book publishing and distribution system as well as to readers’ eclecticism.
.
“The Germans are still a book reading people,” Mr. Heumann said. Germans spend 120 DM per capita annually on books, more than double what Americans pay and 40 percent more that the British.
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