Books Boost

The Power of Words

Salman Rushdie imago
Salman Rushdie at this year's literature festival in Berlin.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Literature festivals are giving the struggling book industry a much needed boost.

  • Facts


    • Litcologne attracted 105,000 attendees this year, more than the attendance for the entire season of the city’s opera and theater houses.
    • Even relatively unknown writers attract large crowds while best-selling authors are treated like rock stars at such festivals.
    • A mix of provocative discussion sessions and literary trends attract sponsors willing to pay thousands to be involved.
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Reality is a miserable narrator.

At least that’s how Spanish writer Javier Marias views life. The truth can only be told “behind the bashful mask of an invention,” he said at a literature festival in Berlin.

At a similar event in Cologne, musician Herbert Grönemeyer conversed with award-winning lyric poet Michael Lentz. In Munich, Salman Rushdie, the self-proclaimed representative of the ‘60s generation, said, “uncool people are taking over the world.” And in the Uckermark region, successful author Sasa Stanisic read from his novel “Before The Party.”

These are just a few of the memorable moments taking place at German literature festivals, which are attracting growing numbers of fans.

Tickets are sold out months in advance for the highest profile writers such as the American best-seller author Don Winslow. His request to participate in Litcologne reached organizers too late for inclusion in the official printed program, yet half the tickets for his appearance were gone just two hours after going on sale.

Literature festivals have somehow captured the zeitgeist, and new ones start up every year. Even unknown authors read in front of packed rooms while best-selling authors fill opera houses and theaters at the Hamburg Harbourfront Festival, the International Literature Festival in Berlin, the Literature Festival in Munich or the Poets’ Festival in Erlangen. Additionally, there are regional festivals such as Erfurt’s Autumn Selection and the Word Garden literature festival begun this year in Uckermark.

“Almost every district town has its own literature festival,” said Holger Ehling, the former deputy director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, who now runs the agency Ehling Media. “The trend reached us from France and England and fell on fertile ground here, considering the reading culture German bookstores have fostered for decades.”

The largest North German literature festival is Harbourfront in Hamburg, which brings in about 20,000 visitors. The majority of its budget of between €500,000 and €600,000, or $547,000 and $656,000, comes from a foundation created by logistics entrepreneur Klaus-Michael Kühne. The second-largest financial backer is the city of Hamburg.

“When we started the Harbourfront Festival, we oriented ourselves toward Litcologne in Cologne,” said co-founder Heinz Lehmann.

Mr. Ehling the book expert considers the festival in Cologne to be “seminal.” The mother of all large German literature festivals is financed almost entirely with ticket sales and sponsorships. The city makes some free advertising space available and reduces rental fees for hall, but makes no financial contribution. Cologne uses the festival to present the recipients of the Award of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia for Poetry and Writing.

“Earlier, the big names took a detour around Cologne,” said Rainer Osnowski, the head of Litcologne. “Today, Don Winslow says he will only travel to Germany if he can come to us. We’re proud about that.”


“The refugees must not only learn our culture, but we must learn their culture as well.”

Henriette Reker, Cologne mayor

About 105,000 visitors attended Litcologne this spring. And at least 32,000 attended the International Literature Festival in Berlin, which features contemporary prose and poetry from around the world and presents many authors unknown in Germany.

“The festivals have managed to open up a large stage for literature,” said Rainer Moritz, head of Literature House in Hamburg. He also is co-organizer of the Murder-Mystery Festival in the city and with his own current book – a collection of literature’s most embarrassing sex scenes – draws big crowds.

He also cites Litcologne as the pioneering festival that turned literature into an event. “The audience also celebrates itself there,” he said. “This is a recognized social event.”

“One of the reasons for the success of the festival is that literature is a comparatively inexpensive artistic genre,” said Mr. Ehling. “As a rule, authors receive between €200 and €500 per reading. The stars get between €1,000 and €2,000 per performance.” Best-selling authors such as Nobel Prize for Literature winner Jussi Adler Olsen of Denmark are audience magnets. For a discussion between artist Ai Weiwei and Chinese writer Liao Ziwu, the Berlin Festival rented out the Philharmonic Hall to accommodate the crowd.

Ulrich Schreiber, head of the Berlin Literature Festival, extolls “a unique atmosphere in which literature is presented in condensed form.” And Mr. Moritz, who is familiar with the branch, added, “That brings in the sponsors.”

The festivals have pulled literature out from its shadowy, cerebral existence. Since Litcologne opened in 2001, literature stars get the red-carpet treatment. Mr. Osnowski of Litcologne said festivals no longer need to justify their existence. “We offer sophisticated literary art, but also good entertainment,” he added.

Next year’s version of Litcologne promises to be as provocative as it is popular as the festival will make the refugee issue its main focus. “We are not getting involved in inter-party controversy,” vowed Mr. Osnowski. “We are saying, ‘Please take the final step to integration. Please learn the German language.’”

Litcologne wants to help that effort through several program events including a benefit evening called, “Now You Too Are Germany!” in support of the Til Schweiger Foundation. In March, the actor, along with Frank Schätzing, Annette Frier and Nina Hagen will appear at the 18,000 seat Lanxness Arena. On another evening prominent figures including Cordula Stratmann and Clemens Meyer promise to cast new light on the 200-year-old story of flight, “Hansel and Gretel.”

Henriette Reker, the new mayor of Cologne, survived an assassination attempt in October, when she was stabbed by a man shouting about the influx of refugees to the country. This year, she came to the literature festival keen to promote a dialogue between Germany and the newcomers.  “The refugees must not only learn our culture, but we must learn their culture as well,” she said.

Litcologne is political, provocative and popular. Regardless of what genre it moves in, it always seeks to entertain. Prominent actors, singers and commentators read works by classic authors such as Heinrich Heine or Bertolt Brecht. Best-selling authors including Robert Harris, William Boyd and Martin Walser present their new work. And visitors who otherwise don’t read very much are enticed by presentations with titles such as “The Art of Drinking Champagne,” “Stories That Would Never Happen to Men” or “The Piano Key-Fucker and Orangutan Klaus.”

In 2015, 96 percent of seats were filled and 105,000 visitors attended, which is equal to attendance for the entire season at the Cologne Opera and Theater. Most tickets for the upcoming Litcologne in March 2016 are already sold out.

For its 16th edition, the 12-day festival will feature 186 program events. Organizers are particularly proud about the planned visit of Alvin E. Roth, the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Economics, who will present his book “Who Gets What – and Why” and an event featuring Pussy Riot activist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who will read from her book “Instructions for a Revolution.” There also will be a discussion of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” because the copyright for the book banned in Germany expires at the end of 2015.


Kai-Hinrich Renner, Simone Wermelskirchen and Claudia Panster are editors at Handelsblatt. To contact the authors:, and

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