Small Publishers

German Books Buck the Digital Trend

Inci Bürhaniye (auf dem Foto links) und Selma Wels. Source: Binooki Verlag / Stephan Pramme
Inci Bürhaniye and Selma Wels.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Despite low profit margins, small publishing companies continue to disrupt the publishing world one book at a time, introducing new authors and foreign genres.

  • Facts


    • Some 70 percent of the German book market’s $5.5 billion annual sales are made by the 23 largest publishers.
    • While e-book sales skyrocketed 1,260% between 2008 and 2010, the real paper book publishing industry is still afloat.
    • Membership of The German Publishers and Booksellers Association has grown over the past five years.
  • Audio


  • Pdf

Inci Bürhaniye often exits her office, leaving her sister and business partner Selma Wels to take care of things at Binooki, their two-person publishing house. The small outfit has one window, two desks, and rows and rows of binders, some of which have been shifted into the hallway, which belongs to Ms. Bürhaniye’s law firm.

The sisters launched their Turkish literature publishing house in Germany five years ago, introducing Turkish books to German readers. Binooki had its own office in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district but given the tough trading environment, it was forced to move.

Like other small German publishers, the sisters are fighting an increasingly digital world. Around the globe, screens have replaced paper and popularity is typically measured in clicks. In 2014, the German book publishing market made about €9.5 billion ($10.4 billion), not even a fifth of what Google generated that same year.

Bookstores are shutting around the world and publishers are throwing in the towel, but, despite our screen-based culture, sales figures are surprisingly stable. Every year, hundreds of thousands of books are published and young book-lovers continue to found small publishing businesses.

The German Publishers and Booksellers Association has 16 more members this year than it did five years ago. But what are these booksellers doing to buck the digital trend?

“It's all about the book.”

Jörg Sundermeier, board member, The Kurt Wolff Foundation

Some 3,000 German publishers sell books worth €5.5 billion every year; 70 percent of those sales are made by the 23 largest publishing companies, such as Random House, Fischer or Rowohlt. The Kurt Wolff Foundation, a supporter of small independent publishers, works with over 100 small publishing houses.

To qualify, members must make less than €5 million in sales per year. And surprisingly few are on the brink of losing their membership, even though business is tough: “You don’t set up a publishing house to get rich,” said Jörg Sundermeier, a board member at the Foundation. “It’s all about the book.”

The same goes for Selma Wels, co-founder of Binooki. A passionate storyteller, she describes the novel “Deliduman,” by Emrah Serbes which depicts long Turkish summers, where automatic sprinklers save public grass from burning.

Its young narrator Calgar tells of his friend who had a car accident. Calgar blames the water on the road, rather than on how his friend was gazing at a young woman passing his car. Calgar’s uncle is a corrupt mayor and a member of the Turkish ruling party. Mr. Serbes also wrote a story about the 2013 protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park – a tale of love and growing up.

Ms. Wels wants to show German readers that Turkish authors turn their pens to the same topics as their international counterparts. Mr. Serbes is a national celebrity in Turkey but in Germany, he is widely unknown. “Even the well-read have prejudices,” said Ms. Wels.

While many Germans have met Turkish taxi drivers and have developed a taste for doner kebabs, the idea of reading Turkish literature beyond Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk, has yet to take hold. Ms. Wels sees the Binooki publishing house as accelerating Turkish integration in Germany.

This would not be the first time a small publisher fueled an author’s rise to fame. For example, the small publishing house Matthes & Seitz was the only publisher who agreed to publish the manuscript of last year’s German Book Prize winner, Frank Witzel.

“Small publishers can publish books that the big publishing houses shy away from,” explained Mr. Sundemeier. “Huge conglomerates don’t want to print books in low circulation because it’s not worth it to them.”

This leaves the small publishers with a free hand to publish niche works of poetry, essays, and short form writing – at times the hardest to digest, often overlooked, but at times the most beautiful.

With their ability to take risks, small publishers are also helping large publishing houses. The Verbrecher Verlag, founded by Mr. Sundermeier himself, discovered writers Lisa Kränzler and Dietmar Dath. Now, the two authors are published by industry titan Suhrkamp, where they receive higher royalties.

But when authors have a niche project and are prepared to take reduced earnings, they knock on the door of the small publishers. “For a large publishing company, selling 500 copies is a disaster,” said Mr. Sundemeier. “After all, they have a lot more mouths to feed.”

Mr. Sundermeier himself is a lone ranger of the book trade and cannot afford to pay employees fixed wages. And although he expects to make €500,000 in sales quite soon, but remains cautious. Anke Stelling’s novel “Bodentiefe Fenster” (Floor-level Window) was nominated for Germany’s Book Prize and already sold 10,000 copies. But if Ms. Stelling runs out of steam, so does the publishing house.

Mr. Sundermeier explains that some of his colleagues earn more because they have a small but clearly defined audience. The publisher Sebastian Guggolz is able to bring forgotten classics from Northern and Eastern Europe to Germany because anytime sales aren’t up to par, he knows he can earn the difference by participating in a German trivia show. Book lovers are often obsessives.

Selma Wels got her love of literature from her mother. She arrived in Pforzheim, a small city in southern Germany, without knowing a word of German and later became a German teacher. Ms. Wels, the youngest of three sisters, moved to Berlin when she was 16, looking for answers and torn between her parents’ homeland and her own.

She did not read Turkish books at the time, studied Turkish Studies for a few semesters, but eventually graduated with a business degree, took up a job at an insurance company and was unhappy.

But her life was turned on its head when she and her sister went to the Istanbul Book Fair in 2010. The place was awash with young writers and keen readers. Why don’t we have these books in German? she asked herself. And the rest is history. She wrote a business plan and they took on a loan.

When “’Deliduman” was translated, Ms. Wels says she was happy as never before.

“The first two years are all about luck, and then reality sets in,” said Jörg Sundermeier. Then, he says, you have to sell what you love. “We transform art into a commodity… but once our books are in buyers’ hands, they turn back into art.”

Books published by small publishers are usually designed very carefully and Mr. Sundermeier prefers to pay that extra cent. He hates seeing the same styles over and over again: books covered in curvy letters and cloudy skies, an image of bemused young girl, blood stains on a white background.

It’s hard to plan a bestseller, especially in a time when circulation numbers are declining and only the most viral topics get attention. After all, tacky book titles tend to go a long way.

In order to keep up, publishers need to be resourceful. Very few have the funds to have in-house representatives. Instead, publishers like Binooki moderate photo contests on Instagram; Selma Wels spent a many mornings distributing excerpts from “Deliduman.”

She even hung up a rope draped in flyers right in front of Dussmann, Berlin’s biggest bookstore and uploaded a video about her initiative on YouTube. And then someone showed up in her office, asking if he could have a book because all the excerpts were gone. It was Dussmann’s head buyer – a grand success for the two-sister business.

And the absolute best thing that can happen to a small publisher is appearing on Spiegel’s best seller list, which puts books on the shelves in the most-frequented train station bookshops.

Bov Bjerg’s “Auerhaus,” a beautiful little book published by the Blumenbar-Verlag, rose to fame this way. The book gets its name from the German misinterpretation of the 1980s hit “Our House.” When Christine Westermann, a German TV presenter, discussed it on the books program “The Literary Quartet,” the 2,500 copies that remained at Blumenbar sold out on that day.

And the publisher went a long way to make Ms. Westermann notice “Auerhaus.” It took actor Robert Stadlober singing a cover version of “Our House” as an intro the the audiobook and thousands of euros to receive limited rights to use the song, said Blumenbar founder Lars Birken-Bertsch.

Ms. Wels would not have been able to such costly publicity stunts. Mr. Birken-Bertsch probably should have also been more prudent: He has sold the Blumenbar Verlag after building it up for three years. Unfortunately, it’s not always all about the book.


Miriam Schröder is based in Berlin and covers the city’s start-up scene. To contact the author:

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