An Amazon Problem: The Book Is Dead, Long Live the Book

PHOTO: Employees of Amazon.de, the German branch of US online retailer Amazon.com, pack books into parcels ready to be sent to the clients, December 4, 2004 in Germanys Amazon distribution central in the western town of Bad Hersfeld.

Publishing houses are Germany's intellectual backbone. For many years, they created a culture of literary abundance and generated healthy profits. But in the age of Amazon, e-books and self-publishing, they could be facing demise.

It's quite a drama, practically tailor-made for a TV miniseries with at least seven episodes. The main character is the beautiful publisher who takes over the business when her husband dies, and apparently believes that she inherited the aura of omnipotence from him. Her adversary is a cold-hearted businessman who seems to be interested in only one thing: money, money and more money.

She makes him feel like a cretin. Whenever she can avoid meeting him in person, she sends her lawyers instead, or she hides behind sunglasses when they do. He exacts his revenge for this humiliating treatment and fights her on the terrain he knows best: the world of numbers.

In reality, the plot revolves around Germany's Berlin-based Suhrkamp publishing house, and the struggle between Ulla Unseld-Berkéwicz and minority shareholder Hans Barlach. It's a duel that critics portray as a soap opera. But the real question at the heart of the dispute affects the entire industry: What does the future of book publishing look like?

It's a little reminiscent of the story in the British television series "Downton Abbey," in which an aristocratic family struggles against its growing loss of importance. The series concerns the English aristocracy at the beginning of the 20th century, while the real-life story today relates to the intellectual aristocracy at the beginning of the 21st century. Both are tales of the demise of an old world.

For decades, this publishing aristocracy could take special pride in two things: it made money and it represented more than just vile profit. A colorful intellectual elite was created as a result, as well as a culture of literary abundance -- the intellectual backbone of the nation.

Some important names represent this tradition: Suhrkamp, of course, but also publishing houses like Hanser, Ullstein, Fischer and Rowohlt. They are names that every German reader associates with great authors, wonderful works of literature and late nights spent reading a book.

A Precipitous Decline in Book Sales

Book revenues have been crumbling for the last two years, a development that will only accelerate, and brick-and-mortar bookstores have been steadily losing ground for the last five years. Long derided by publishing houses, e-books, though still a minority phenomenon in Germany, are experiencing tremendous growth. Today, about 11 percent of Germans are reading digital books on devices like the Kindle and the iPad, up from only 4 percent two years ago. In the United States, e-books already make up more than 15 percent of volume in the bookselling industry, mainly because they are more affordable. All of this indicates that margins will continue to shrink, as the book business becomes increasingly hectic, nervous and profit-driven.

"The golden era of publishing, that is, of reading, contemplation and literary education, has somehow come to an end," says Michael Krüger, the outgoing head of the Munich-based Hanser publishing house, who has the reputation of being one of Germany's last great publishing figures. Many people no longer view book publishers "as a stronghold of culture, but merely as a transshipment point for cultural products," says his successor Jo Lendle, the current head of the Cologne-based DuMont publishing house.

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