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Transforming media

The next chapter

München, 03/10/2014

The Leipzig Book Fair opens in a few days, and the impact of digitalization on the publishing business will be a hot topic in the exhibition halls. But book historian Christine Haug is not expecting the imminent demise of the printed book.

(Photo: Leipziger Messe GmbH / Norman Rembarz)
Photo: Leipziger Messe GmbH / Norman Rembarz

“I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill, and subjecting me to this ordeal.” These are the opening lines of Fifty Shades of Grey, a global bestseller which only appeared in print thanks to the internet. By the end of 2012, no fewer than 70 million copies of the trilogy Shades of Grey had been sold. The German weekly Die Zeit characterized the novels, centering on a sado-masochistic relationship, as “crushingly boring”.

The English author Erika Leonard, alias EL James, had the good fortune to write them at the right time. It has never been so easy to publish a book. Online self-publishing makes it possible for any author to turn a manuscript into an e-book that can be read on any sort of screen, directly and at no cost, and without having to convince a single editor that it is worth publishing. – This is how Fifty Shades of Grey made its debut.

In the topsy-turvy world of self-published e-books, the critical appraisal previously undertaken by the publisher takes place after the book has reached the market. Authors whose work finds enough enthusiastic readers on the internet can turn to the world of traditional publishing with high hopes. After EL James had sold a quarter of a million copies of her novel on the web, Random House acquired the rights for over a million dollars.

“The idea of depending on the recommendation of ordinary readers works very effectively. Readers’ reactions on the internet can set a trend, but do not guarantee that a book will sell well on the print market,” says Professor Christine Haug, who heads the study program in Book Science at LMU. Haug has close contacts with several publishing firms, including Droemer Knauer, and is intimately acquainted with the challenges with which digitalization confronts the business.

Droemer Knaur started its own online platform several years ago in the hope of discovering work that had bestseller qualities like those of Shades of Grey. The platform, neobooks-de, systematically collects and analyzes readers’ responses to books that appear there. The authors themselves publish their manuscripts there, and readers evaluate them online. Books that particularly impress the online community are passed on to the editorial department, and their authors may be offered a contract by the company. The online readers effectively have a say in what appears in the publisher’s catalogs, and ultimately lands in the bookshops. “Neobooks is a canny business model,” says Haug, and the platform is now run by graduates of her course. Authors whose work does well there can get their careers off to flying start and are quickly signed up by the firm. Thanks to the platform, the publisher also profits from the fact that online readers report their reactions to books on the social media.

Authors too – especially those who self-publish online – are beginning to exploit the interactive nature of the internet. They enter into direct contact with their readers via social networks or on their own websites. Indeed, readers can now be involved in the process of production from the outset. They organize crowd-funding campaigns to finance projects, contribute to background research, follow “their” author’s progress or even do some of the writing themselves.

All that may sound new, but we’ve been here before, as Christine Haug points out: “In the 19th century serialized pulp fiction became part of popular culture. The serial form enabled readers to influence the progress and development of the plot, as in the case of the famous Tom Shark detective series in Germany,” she says. Even serious authors, like Charles Dickens, who published their novels in installments in the better magazines, sometimes bowed to their readers’ wishes.

A look back at the history of book publishing provides a more nuanced perspective on the impact of digitalization, such as current debates on “internet addiction”. “The arguments here – it poses a danger to health, encourages criminal behavior – are the same as those cited by critics who warned of the alleged addictiveness of reading in the 18th century. The same fears in the face of new developments, which are always provoked by processes of change, are with us again,” says Haug. She is also regards the contention that the internet will put an end to the age of reading with skepticism. “There is no evidence whatever that support such a notion,” she says.

“I see digitalization as another transformation of the media landscape, the latest in a long line,” she says. She believes the new media will supplement, but will not displace, the book. I am firmly convinced that the book as a printed product will survive. Nicola Holzapfel