During a recent visit to Cologne, I avoided the city’s most magnetic tourist attraction – you’ve seen one Gothic cathedral, you’ve seen them all – and instead I explored the city’s bookshops. Large and small, general and specialized, spacious and cramped, there seemed to be no end to the variety. But they all had one thing in common: they were thriving.
How do the Germans do it? When a huge, once-mighty book-selling chain like Borders is going down in flames across the Atlantic, how do the Germans manage to keep their book publishing industry so diverse, so robust, so stable? How do booksellers consistently turn a profit on everything from Goethe to Grass to Grisham? Is it because of careful planning? Dumb luck? Some mystical Teutonic gene? Or could it be a Kultur thing?
Buchladen, a small shop on the north side of Cologne, is as good a place as any to begin searching for answers. It doesn’t look like much from the street – green awning, small display window – but as soon as you enter the shop you’re stunned by the quality and quantity, the variety and beauty of what’s on the shelves. At the front of the shop are new fiction and history books, in hardcover and paperback, by well-known German authors and numerous Americans in translation, including Philip Roth, Richard Price, Nicole Krauss, Paul Auster, and Richard Powers. In the paperback fiction section, 30 feet of floor-to-ceiling shelves, I found books by David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer, Karin Slaughter, Don Winslow, and Elmore Leonard mixed in with German, French, Scottish, Irish, English, and Japanese authors. German readers have catholic tastes. They consume crime novels as hungrily as literary fiction, history, philosophy, erotica, and just about everything else.
One thing you will not find on the shelves at German bookshops, large or small, is that mainstay of big American bookstores – signs announcing steep discounts on current bestsellers. That’s because the cost of all new books in Germany is strictly regulated by something called the Buchpreisbindung, a uniform pricing policy that was adopted voluntarily by booksellers in 1888 and became national law in 2002. By forcing all stores and on-line vendors to sell new titles at the same price, the law is, obviously, a boon to small stores that can’t compete with the volume purchasing of the big chains and online giants like Amazon.de and Buch.de.
“The idea [of the Buchpreisbindung] was to eliminate price competition in order to promote the sale of little-known books,” says Simone Thelen, spokeswoman for the Mayersche chain, which was founded in the 19th century and now has 49 stores, mostly in the state of North Rhine Westphalia. “It makes it possible for publishers to publish a variety of books and authors, and it gives us the chance to promote young, unknown authors and books that are not blockbusters.”
This seemingly counter-intuitive strategy – protecting books by keeping them expensive – is actually in line with much of what goes on in Germany today. The country enjoys the healthiest economy in Europe, rising employment, a balanced budget, and an enviable trade surplus not in spite of, but because of, its well-paid workers and their vast network of social services, including universal (that is, mandatory) health care, plus at least four weeks of paid vacation and in some cases more than seven. It makes perfect sense to prosperous, book-loving Germans to pay a fair, strictly regulated price for new books because they believe that the health of the book industry – that is, of publishers, booksellers, and writers, from famous to unknown – is vital to the health of the whole society.
The idea of the government regulating the price of consumer goods is anathema to most Americans, who have bought into free-market gospel and the Walmart mantra that price is everything, and lower is always better than higher. It comes as no surprise, then, that many Americans are wailing about the coming cost of universal health care, our onerous tax rate (among the lowest in the industrialized world), and the need to trim the federal deficit by slashing government spending while preserving tax breaks for the rich. And yet, as the Borders debacle illustrates, allowing booksellers in America to set prices anywhere they choose is no guarantee that even the biggest fish will survive. Pity the vanishing small fry.
Marion Krefting, a sales clerk at Buchladen for the past 13 years, is, like most Germans, widely read, fluent in English, and addicted to foreign travel. Krefting happens to be in love with Australia, which she first visited in the late 1970s and has revisited many times since, most recently two years ago. In Australia she saw first-hand what happens when the government stops regulating the price of books and lets market forces do the job. “The first time I visited Australia, about 35 years ago, they had regulated pricing like we do,” she told me. “When I went back a few years later they had stopped it. What happened was that the bestsellers became cheaper, everything else became more expensive, and there was less variety.” And now the predictable kicker: “The little bookshops don’t exist anymore.”
Australia’s experience is not unique. After price regulation ended in England, the price of books rose by 8 percent; and when it ended in Sweden, one out of four bookstores went out of business. Always willing to go against the grain, the Swiss, who do not now have a book pricing law, are talking about instituting one.
Krefting, the daughter of a bookseller, is a fan of such writers as Tad Williams, Elizabeth George, and William Boyd. But her great love is children’s books, and she points with pride to her personal fief, the large, colorful section devoted to children’s books at the back of Buchladen. When a customer comes in and asks for an appropriate book for a 6-year-old girl, Krefting steers her to a book called Rita das Raubschaf. She gives the customer a concise synopsis of the plot – it’s about a sheep named Rita who gets bored chewing grass and runs off to become a pirate – along with her enthusiastic personal endorsement. The customer buys the book without hesitation. Such crisp professionalism is the norm in German bookstores because clerks are required to study for several years – literature, accounting, and the mechanics of the book business – then pass a standardized exam before they can become certified booksellers. In DIY, blue-sky, go-for-it America, such rigid standards are almost unthinkable. Which is not to say there are no knowledgeable booksellers in the U.S. There are many, of course. It’s just that Americans hope to find knowledgeable employees when they go to a bookstore, while Germans insist on it. To Krefting, the German way makes perfect sense. “This is not a job, it’s a profession I love,” she says. “The pay is not good, the hours are terrible, but I just love books.”
At a nearby shop called Agnes Buchhandlung, the display window contains copies, in German translation, of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, and Salman Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life. The owner, Uli Ormanns, leaves no doubt about the importance of the Buchpreisbindung for small shops like his. “It’s absolutely critical to our survival,” he says. Another thing that helps, he adds, is the national network of book warehouses and its shipping system. “Of the one million books available in Germany, we can order 400,000 of them overnight, just like the big chain stores,” Ormanns says. “Other books, like textbooks, technical books, university presses – which are not a big part of our business – we can get in a week.” He then leads me to the corner of the shop devoted to books – in English – by American and British authors. Particularly popular with Agnes Buchhandlung’s customers are Stephenie Meyer, Philip Roth, Paul Auster, and Jonathan Franzen. “It’s a small part of our business,” Ormanns says, “but more and more customers are asking for American and English authors in English, usually after they’ve read the book in German.”
Catherine Brull, a native of Belgium who has worked in the shop for seven years, is getting ready to crack open her new copy of Super Sad True Love Story, which is priced at 19.95 euros, about $28, including tax. (The sales tax on books in Germany is 7 percent, compared with 19 percent for most consumer goods.) “The German people like the American way of writing,” Brull says. “Sometimes the German authors aren’t easy to read. They have a heavy heritage – Grass, Mann, Boll – and they’re always thinking about that.”
Discounted books are not unheard-of in Germany. When I walked into the venerable Buchhandlung Walther Koenig in the heart of Cologne, I was greeted by a large table festooned with high-quality art books reduced in price by as much as 75 percent. There are four ways sellers can make such sharp price cuts: if the book is used, if it’s damaged, if it was imported from a country without a Buchpreisbindung, or if the sales are so slow after 18 months that the publisher declares it a “remainder,” thus freeing stores to set their own price. The effect of the rule is that large chain stores tend to offer remaindered books at sharp discounts, which smaller stores rarely try to match. Similarly, there are no price rules on audio books, and therefore it’s almost impossible to find them at small shops. The prices of e-books, which currently account for less than 1 percent of all book sales in Germany, are regulated by the Buchpreisbindung.
Which brings us, finally, inevitably, to the elephant in the middle of the bookshop. I’m talking of course about the differences in reading habits between Americans and Germans – or, to be a bit more broad, between Americans and most of the rest of the civilized world. Simply put, one of the major reasons Germany has a healthy book publishing industry, beyond its pricing law, is because Germans (like the English, the Irish, the Japanese, the French, and many other nationalities) tend to read more, and more seriously, than Americans. I can’t cite statistics to prove this, but after traveling much of the world I know in my bones that it’s true. I became convinced of it the day I boarded an airplane in Dusseldorf and sat next to a perfectly typical German hausfrau who spent the flight devouring Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, a novel that has defeated me every time I’ve tried to read it. I remember thinking: Germans are different.
“It’s true that the tradition of reading is very deep-rooted in German culture,” says Michael Roesler-Graichen, an editor at the magazine put out by the Borsenverein, the national society of publishers and booksellers based in Frankfurt. “It’s not the whole population. The so-called higher literature, or belles lettres, is read by a small percentage. But it’s a very vital tradition.”
In 2007 an Association of American Publishers (AAP) survey revealed that one in four Americans did not read a single book – not one book – the previous year. Things seem to have improved since hitting that nowhere-to-go-but-up nadir. In 2009 the National Endowment for the Arts reported that the number of Americans reading literature (novels, short stories, poems, and plays) had increased for the first time since 1982. And this summer a joint survey by the AAP and the Book Industry Group revealed that American publishers’ net sales rose by 5.6 percent from 2008 to 2010, thanks to surging sales of e-books as well as juvenile and adult fiction. Much is now being made of the ascendancy of e-books and the boost they’re giving to the American book industry. I say hooray. But I’m inclined to wonder if this ramping-up of e-reader and e-book sales is an indicator that Americans are suddenly reading more. I suspect they’re merely downloading more. I hope I’m wrong. Time will tell.
None of this is to suggest that the German system of selling books could or should be transplanted wholesale to the United States. Nor is it to imply that all Germans are better-read and better-educated than all Americans. Roesler-Graichen, the editor, is happy to set the record straight on that score. “Whenever I visit America, people say, ‘Oh, you Germans are so well educated, you’re so well read,'” he says. Then, with a laugh, he adds, “I have to tell them it’s not true of all Germans.”
He’s right, of course. But there can be no denying that books occupy a special place in the life of Germany, the country that gave us the printed book. Thelen, the spokeswoman for the Mayersche chain, sums that place up nicely. “Books are not just a commodity here,” she says. “They have a cultural value that has to be saved.”
So in the end, yes, it’s a culture thing.
Image credit: chascarper/Flickr