Tobias Voss: “Everyone in the Germany market has already understood that digitalisation is an irreversible process”

Tobias Voss: “Everyone in the Germany market has already understood that digitalisation is an irreversible process” Photo: Rinat Nazmetdinov

Has the e-book won the p-book? Why have books become so expensive? How much do pirates ruin publishers’ life? Are foreign publishing houses interested in translating contemporary Russian literature or do they prefer to reprint only Russian classical literature? How do the authorities of Germany support the book industry? Vice President and Director of the International Affairs Department of the Frankfurt Book Fair Tobias Voss answered these and many other questions of Realnoe Vremya.

“There is almost no national literature per se in the contemporary globalised world

Mr Voss, first of all, we’d like to ask you to characterise the current situation in the book markets of Russia and Germany. What key tendencies would you point out?

Well, I would start with what I’ve seen during my current trip to Russia: what has caught my eye is that Russian publishers have begun to pay more attention to a book’s cover. It’s not just a way of giving knowledge for them but an object that requires some design and approach. If I didn’t notice it previously, now it’s obvious.

Unfortunately, I can’t say much about books’ content, as I don’t read in Russian. However, I’ve noticed another tendency: the Russian market has always been quite close to me – it was a market "in the shell". But now I see that your publishers are trying to engage and deliver Russian literature to other markets. In fact, international book fairs were created for this purpose – to exchange stories.

Unfortunately, I can’t say much about books’ content, as I don’t read in Russian. However, I’ve noticed another tendency: the Russian market has always been quite close to me – it was a market "in the shell". But now I see that your publishers are trying to make contact

What situation do you see in Germany?

Undoubtedly, I am better at this topic, but at the same time this question is more complicated for me. There are several tendencies, which are now actively discussed in the German market.

On the one hand, it’s new European legislation about copyright, which suggests that any texts, images, films and books on the Internet must be placed in a way that protects the rights holder. In particular, it’s certain download restrictions that big portals impose (for instance, YouTube). Now it is being actively discussed now if these filters are kind of Internet censorship, a restriction on access to some content.

The second theme that’s now topical for our market is the bankruptcy process that affected one of the intermediaries who cooperated with a number of small independent publishing houses.

As for literature itself, that’s to say, books’ content, it’s hard for me to point out a tendency that would be dominating now in the German market. I can note that all-age literature starts to play a very big role. This market has developed in the last 15 years – we can say the trend began with Harry Potter. I would also emphasise the importance of crime fiction: detective fiction stopped being niche, genre compositions and began to enter a wider market. Moreover, family stories are especially popular.

What about national literature?

First of all, I would like to say that I don’t like the definition “national literature”. In my opinion, there is almost no national literature per se in the contemporary globalised world. Such themes as love, death, human relations are raised in Germany and India and in any other point of the world. They are just laid out in different ways.

The German market is the world’s third biggest market, it’s open for translations from other languages, for stories from other countries. About 12% of new names a year are translations from different languages. German, or rather German-speaking literature, accounts for the other 88%, as there are German-speaking authors from Switzerland and Austria.

In my opinion, there is almost no national literature per se in the contemporary globalised world. Such themes as love, death, human relations are raised in Germany and India and in any other point of the world. They are just laid out in different ways

Is it true that contemporary Russian literature is of little interest to foreign publishers, and they mainly prefer to reprint Russian classical literature?

I think you aren’t far out at all here. But I suppose that this partly happens because of the way Russian publishers present themselves at international fairs. When I look at Russian stands at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I understand they work to draw the attention only of those who are in the “Russian party”. If you don’t know what books are laid out on the stand, you will never do. You can purchase the rights to a book only if you had been told in advance what it is about. Russian publishers come to the fair to purchase, not to sell rights. It goes without saying that there is some progress in this area, but it seems to me they still have room for improvement.

“Book hasn’t become digital yet”

Could you talk about the digitalisation in the sector? Have there appeared many publishing houses whose focus seriously shifted towards e-technologies with a fewer share of printed products?

First of all, everyone in the Germany market has already understood that digitalisation is an irreversible process. In 1988, when I participated at the Frankfurt fair as an employee for the first time, one of the stands had the first e-readers that entered the market. Then all newspapers began to have the following headlines: “Paper Book Dies”, “Era of Paper Book Is Over”, “We Enter Era of Digitalisation”. Do you know what is really over? The history of RocketBook that made those e-readers.

Today the situation has dramatically changed: the publishing houses setting the pace in the market think it’s necessary to print new names not only on paper but also as an e-book. If the publishing houses do the same to their backlist depends on their politics. The most interesting thing begins when we measure the market in percentages: it turns out that even now in Germany, as well as in other European countries, the total volume of e-books is about 6%. Paper and other types of production account for the remaining 94%.

My hypothesis might seem provocative, but it seems to me that book hasn’t become digital yet. Now we just see the digitalisation of sales. What we understand today as an e-book is an e-version of the same paper book. The full potential hidden in the e-product hasn’t been realised. Yes, experiments already begin in this sphere. However, I think the major changes are to happen.

My hypothesis might seem provocative, but it seems to me that the book hasn’t become digital yet. Now we just see the digitalisation of sales. What we understand today as an e-book is an e-version of the same paper book

I am not familiar with the situation in Germany but I can say about Russia: books have become frankly expensive. What do you think of the fact that, roughly speaking, the same alcohol turns out more available than knowledge for the population?

It’s a good question. To tell the truth, book has always been expensive: an author needs something to live on, a publisher needs something to live on, the bookshop and its owner need something to live on, and somebody has to pay for it anyway. I think another question is hidden behind this question – how the state can guarantee as available access to knowledge as possible.

This problem can be solved in different ways. For instance, in China, a writer is a real profession. Writers are state workers and monthly get a salary. It turns out that the state produces all books. I am not sure it’s the path we want to choose. Just a small number of editions are available in markets of the countries with an authoritarian regime, however, each of them has many copies. The situation in democratic countries is the opposite: a big number of names are printed, but each has few copies.

Of course, the state can also say: “We like these publishing houses and we will provide them with financing”. But there is a problem here: who should choose these publishing houses. Won’t it be just those publishing houses printing literature about issues that are topical for the government? In Germany, there are two state tools that, on the one hand, allow providing the greatest variety and, on the other hand, are linked with copyright, guarantee the protection of the rights holder. Firstly, it’s lower VAT. VAT in Germany is usually 19%, but it’s just 7% for the book industry (as well as foodstuffs and medicine). So the government supports all books, not specific publishing houses.

A fixed price is the next tool. A publishing house fixes a price for a book, and its price is the same everywhere. This supports the existence of not only publishing houses, which complement our wide range of books but also small bookshops. I am a great supporter of this tool, though it can be considered differently from a perspective of the producer. The wider the range, the cheaper the production of a book. It’s true, but if we compare the situation in our market with the markets that used to have a fixed price but then refused it, we will see that bestsellers printed in many copes are really sold cheaper. But as there is no fixed price, all other books start to cost money.

If we want to have good quality books, films or music, people must be ready to have to pay to those writers, directors and musicians who will create a product

Piracy comes in handy to many in the situation when a book is expensive. Is it a serious problem for the book industry? Is free content loved in Germany as much as it’s loved by Russian users?

Without doubts, Germany also has a problem with piracy. I think the main difficulty is that the younger generation got used to having everything on the Internet for free. We need to change this attitude. As I already said, a product’s price includes the money given to the rights holder, intermediaries and so on. If people got used to having everything free, the culture will go down, it’s where we wouldn’t like to be. If we want to have good quality books, films or music, people must be ready to have to pay to those writers, directors and musicians who will create a product.

Mr Voss, thank you for the interesting talk! In the end, I’d like to ask you to advise our readers a top book from your point of view printed in 2018-2019.

I would like to pay attention to the work of American author Nathaniel Rich Losing Earth. It says that all data about climate changes we’re using now were made public in the 1970-1980s. But as no measures were taken then, we have lost 40 years. All that’s done now doesn't guarantee that we will really be able to fight what’s happening. In my opinion, it’s a worthy book, and I would like the whole world to pay attention to it.

By Lina Sarimova. Photo: Rinat Nazmetdinov
Reference

The editorial thanks translator Tatiana Zborovskaya for her assistance in preparing the interview.