If you ask non-German-speaking fans of speculative fiction which authors or novels originally written in German they’ve read, most will give you one of these three names: Michael Ende (The Neverending Story), Cornelia Funke (Inkheart) and the Perry Rhodan sci-fi pulp series. Those big names aside, few German authors have risen to international fame.
The literary scene in Germany itself, however, is much more vibrant. Germany hosts a couple of well-established genre conventions and fan communities. The German market, which used to feature predominantly English-speaking authors, has seen an increasing number of German-speaking novelists rise during the last decade. A growing number of small publishing houses, and the changing attitude of major publishers toward speculative fiction, are encouraging signs for German writers of speculative fiction.
How does the situation currently present itself to German-speaking authors? What remains of the pioneering spirit of the mid 2000s? These are some of the questions Alessandra Ress is going to discuss with three insiders: Diana Menschig, author and founder of the Phantastik-Autoren-Netzwerk PAN association, Oliver Plaschka, author, translator and researcher, and Kai Meyer, whose novels are among the most famous German fantasy books internationally.
Translations, especially from English-speaking countries, dominate the German market of speculative fiction, as they do in most non-English-speaking countries in Europe. Yet, in recent years, German writers have become more popular, at least within the country. How do you assess the current situation of German writers of speculative fiction?
Kai: I began selling novels in the early 90s, at a time when there was no market for German fantasy, sci-fi or horror – at least that’s what the publishers thought. As there was a huge demand for historical novels in the market, I sold several of those, injected with a certain kind of fantasy elements into all of them. Because there were so many books set in the US, the UK or wherever, I made a very conscious decision to use German backgrounds, especially local myths and legends connected to certain regions.
For example, I wrote a novel set in the Middle Ages about what might really have happened in Hamelin to originate the Pied Piper legend. Another novel was about the Loreley myth; a few others about Doctor Faust and the Nibelungs. All of those had fantasy elements, but were sold by my publishers as straightforward historical fiction. None of them were huge bestsellers, but most sold in solid numbers, which allowed me to become a full-time writer two years after my first book was published. That was in 1995, when fantasy was officially still a no-go area for publishers. Even translations didn’t do very well at the time. Fantasy had boomed during the early 80s, science fiction even earlier back in the 70s, but the 90s were a low stretch for the genre.
Around 2000, Harry Potter happened and some publishers for children and young adults decided to take a chance with German fantasy for young readers. I had already published a series of scary books for children – which, again, was only possible because R. L. Stine had become a bestseller in Germany a few years earlier – and now my publisher asked me if I would like to write a fantasy trilogy for ages 12 and up. I said I would love to, but I wouldn’t try to copy J.K. Rowling and instead would try to come up with something very different. Which I did. Die Fließende Königin (US: The Water Mirror, UK: The Flowing Queen) became something of an overnight success, sold in more than 30 countries. It changed everything for me, and probably for some other authors as well, because more and more young adult writers began to publish German fantasy for kids.
At the same time the Lord of the Rings movies brought new interest in high fantasy, and suddenly publishers realized that so many of the American trilogies and series consisted of books with enormous page counts. It became a matter of mathematics, really: Would they buy the license to an expensive fantasy novel and have it translated for even more money, or would they pay less to a German writer to come up with his or her own high fantasy concept? Heyne, one of our biggest publishers, had a huge success with The Orcs, a re-packaged omnibus edition of three older novels from England, so they decided they wanted The Elves and The Dwarves next.
They found talented local authors who delivered exactly that kind of book, and managed to build very successful careers out of those novels. That became the template for many other, mostly young, writers to write books like The Dragons,The Wizards, whatever – you get the picture. It became a bit ridiculous after a while with titles like The Soldiers and The Ogres, and the whole trend has withered away by now with the exception of The Dwarves and The Elves. Both titles established themselves as expansive series with many sequels and spin-offs.
Right now, a handful of German fantasy writers are still doing well, while others have turned to historical novels and thrillers to sustain their careers.
Oliver: I belong to the post-millennium wave of German writers who benefited a lot from the popularity of The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter movies and the subsequent rise in demand for fantasy fiction. Thirty, forty years ago the situation for German writers was much worse. Still, there prevails a notion among publishers that English language fiction just sells better. Germany doesn’t offer the same kind of creative writing schools and programs as they do in the US. It’s a vicious circle that in my opinion only reinforces the insularity of the German language market.
As for me, I was very happy to get in touch with an international online writers’ community and a longstanding, peer-taught class at the English Department of Heidelberg University at an early stage of my career. This meant English became my “writing language” for some time until I managed to sell Fairwater, my first novel – written in German, but nevertheless toying with an English-sounding title. I think the detour was worth the effort. I’m not saying writing has to be taught, but you need some kind of feedback to grow, and the most valuable feedback I got was from writers of English.
Diana: For me it seems to be a general rule in German art and culture, and not limited to literature or fantasy fiction in particular. Pop and rock music, movies and TV series and even computer games are dominated by the Anglo-American market. One of the most common questions to German singers is: “Why do you sing in your mother tongue?” They have to explain themselves, and this is also true for writers who, for example, prefer Berlin or Hamburg to New York or London for their urban fantasy novel. Even high-fantasy settings usually have a certain appearance (some kind of Middle Ages with swords and bows), which you could see quite clearly during the “Völker-Fantasy period” (The Elves, The Dwarves etc.) Kai just mentioned. That was really a German thing, I think.
This doesn’t mean other settings are not successful, but German publishers tend to refuse fancy settings, exceptional ideas or settings with German characteristics. I doubt that big publishers in the USA and the UK are more adventurous, but due to the sheer size of the English-speaking market there seem to be fewer limitations.
So, yes, the situation might be better than a few years ago, but I think there is still a long way to go. I would just be happy to write stories located in Münster or Hamburg without having to justify myself. My second novel So finster, so kalt (So dark, so cold) is based on the German fairy tale Hansel and Gretel but yet I had to explain why I wanted it to take place in a boring (!) German area like the Black Forest.
As you’ve said fantasy blockbusters such as Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings have positively affected the German market, transforming earlier preconceptions, thus paving the way for many German authors to enter the SF market. On the other hand, the high fantasy boom around tales of other “races” (Die Elfen / The Elves, Die Zwerge / The Dwarves, etc.) is more or less over; according to Diana, the willingness for experimentation is unfortunately fading. Yet, can you think of anything characteristic about the contemporary German fantasy market, such as common topics that keep coming up? Or, on the contrary, topics that conspicuously fail to do so?
Oliver: I’m not sure we’re really witnessing a process of fading. There have always been works more formulaic than others, and publishers more willing to take risks than their colleagues. Like almost every author, I garnered rejections for quite some time; then I was lucky enough not once, but twice to be the first German author at a publishing house previously only dealing in translations (and fortunately not the last one, too): first with Feder&Schwert, who published my debut novel, then with Klett-Cotta, who published Die Magier von Montparnasse(Magicians of Montparnasse) – a story once again not situated in Germany, but in France, to be followed by a steampunk novel set in Victorian London.
Speaking of which, steampunk is something that never really caught on here like it did in the US or UK. Which is a shame. There are lots of German steampunk authors, and many of them, like Ju Honisch or Judith and Christian Vogt, make use of decidedly German settings like 19th-century Bavaria or Frisia. But the genre never became that “next big thing” publishers are always looking for. Which might also have a lot to do with marketing (or lack thereof), of course.
Kai: Actually I think there still is a lot of experimentation going on, which is not so much about finding new ways of telling a story but about finding new settings or dusting off older ones we haven’t heard about in a while. There have always been some authors referencing the classic German Romantics like E.T.A. Hoffmann or the Brothers Grimm (well, the Grimms might not have been Romantics themselves, but they surely mixed with them and, with their fairy tale collections, dabbled in similar themes).
So this is still going on, plot-wise and also stylistically. But there is also a new movement towards space opera, which for many decades seemed to happen only in our popular pulp series Perry Rhodan. I have published Die Krone der Sterne (The Crown of the Stars) in January, and there are other authors trying similar themes and settings in their new novels. At first glance that doesn’t seem much of an experiment, but it actually comes with quite a risk as space opera was a no-go area of the German mainstream book market for so many years. We’ll see how that will work out. At least I just got the OK from my publisher to write two sequels, so there seems to be a certain amount of interest. It will never be a blockbuster genre over here, but it might be getting a bit more solid reception than before.
Steampunk and space opera have been so far mostly featured in small publishing houses particularly focused on these genres, such as Feder&Schwert, Atlantis or Wurdack. The number of small publishers has increased significantly over the last few years, not to mention the explosion of self-publishers flooding the market. How do you assess this development? What kind of opportunities or challenges do you see for both the market and the authors?
Diana: There are two sides to the story. On the one hand, there are good opportunities to publish nearly everything and the readers can decide for themselves what they want to read. I think that’s a new kind of freedom in publishing. Big publishers are limited by resources (marketing budgets, number of publications per year etc.), time (only two publishing programs in spring and fall), the mainstream (what they think most people want to read) and even some “marketing prophecies” (what they think will be successful). Small publishers and/or self-publishers are more flexible and can react with great agility if needed.
On the other hand, you risk “flooding the market.” I’m also a reader, and I really feel lost. It’s getting harder to find what I like to read. I’m not a reader who likes mainstream literature and I have had bad experiences with reading recommendations from Amazon, for example (readers who liked … also liked …) And surely I’m not the only one.
Switching back to my author’s point of view: again and again I meet fantasy readers who – not surprisingly, since I’m a backlist author with only two books – have never heard of me, but after explaining what my books are about, enjoyed them. So as an author you need luck and/or a huge marketing budget, and that, to be honest, is frustrating. You can read blogs, magazines, listen to podcasts, but again that needs time, and in the end, you will only scratch the surface. To me, fewer publications would be better to increase my “visibility.”
Oliver: Germany, as far as I can tell, is a rather conservative market. The major share of sales still happens in bookstores, and small publishers aren’t represented there. Self-publishers face a similar problem. As Diana already said, you need a very devoted fan base if your books are only available online and/or in digital formats. And hoping for big success is similar to hoping for a lottery win. Our bigger publishing houses are still in a very powerful position, and although some of them seem to be afraid of all kinds of developments, I honestly don’t think they have a lot to fear.
Kai: Regarding steampunk, I’m not sure that should ever have been its own sub-genre. Its most important features are purely visual – costumes, hardware, a certain historical background – while the authors are telling all kinds of stories that could also be categorized as espionage, mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, whatever. Steampunk is essentially a setting, not a genre, and should have been handled as such. I think steampunk authors who actually tell solid, interesting stories would have been much better advised to publish those books in one of the established genre categories instead of inventing another one that is probably excluding readers instead of bringing new ones to those books.
Space opera, however, is a well-defined sub-genre, more or less one hundred years old. So that’s probably the reason why the big German publishers have a certain (limited) success with calling their books space opera, but produced mostly flops as soon as they called anything steampunk. It’s just not an accepted category for mainstream audiences and will therefore always be a genre for the small press and a very specialized readership.
So if an author absolutely wants to call her or his book steampunk, self-publishing or the small-press are the only ways to get it out to a limited number of readers. Opportunities like this will always be a good thing for the market, not a threat.
Germany is well known for its big book fairs. In addition, there are many traditional conventions, and a lot of US events have lately found their way over the big pond to Germany, such as the US comic cons. How important are those events for you as authors?
Oliver: Even the largest German conventions are still rather small compared to Worldcon or San Diego Comic-Con. While each of them has a slightly different appeal, and many let authors do readings, panels and such, none of them, at least in my opinion, is a must for authors. At the beginning of my career, I was very thankful for any opportunity to present my work to a wider audience. Today, I mostly visit conventions that appeal to me as a fan, not in the hope of increasing my sales. Similarly, visiting book fairs only makes sense if you delight in that kind of mass event. It’s the wrong place for a young author hoping to attract a publisher.
Diana: As Oliver already said, it depends on your personal goal. Conventions, just as readings, have only a small impact on a writer’s popularity. You read to five (at worst) to 50 (at best) people and sell a few books. There are other ways to do some marketing that are cheaper and less frustrating.
In addition, German conventions are mostly still seen as “funny meetings for strange people with social ineptitude who play strange games and sit in front of the computer all day.” Those dorky guys are there, for sure. But they are not the majority.
Even the word “nerd” is negatively biased. That – luckily so, because I see myself as being nerdy! – has been changing for the last couple of years. (Maybe since Barack Obama admitted to being a nerd? I don’t know.) Within the next few years some conventions will change their look and feel towards an accepted pop culture ideal while others will perish. That will change their audience and the impact that such events have on authors. But this evolution has just begun.
Kai: There are two kinds of conventions in Germany: the traditional ones that were established many decades ago by readers coming out of the sci-fi and horror fandoms formed during the 50s and 60s– and the newer ones, based on American conventions like the comic cons, which are essentially opportunities to get signatures and photos from popular actors. There is not much overlap between those two.
The TV and movie conventions have become huge mainstream events, especially if they are attended by cosplayers, and most of the audience is not interested in readings or book-signings. They want spectacle. Likewise, the smaller, traditional, book-centric conventions are a nice opportunity to meet readers and other authors. Do you sell loads of books there? Not at all. Established authors go there for fun, not for business. It’s probably a different matter for the small-press and self-publishers, who have their own tables and are happy to sell a dozen copies per day. If I were a self-publisher I would attend as many of those traditional cons as possible.
As a small press writer I’d like to add, those traditional cons as well as some of the book fairs are quite important for us. They are often our sole opportunity to get in touch with readers “offline” and to present our works. Closing question: In your opinion, which work of speculative fiction by a German-speaking author deserves more international attention?
Diana: I think Die Unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story) by Michael Ende is still a must-read for readers all over the world. The book is a milestone in German fantasy literature and like all of this author’s books, it is full of wisdom and spirit. It was a kind of initiation to fantasy for many people of my generation. And Ende struggled hard, as some of us still do today, to be recognized not only as a writer of children’s books but also of books for adults.
Oliver: Now that you mention it, Die Unendliche Geschichte was set in two different colors: red type for the chapters in our world and green type for the chapters set in Fantastica. That was an amazing thing to do for a German publishing house in 1979, and I wonder how hard it was for Ende or his agent to convince them to undertake this experiment. This is exactly the kind of spirit I wish more of our publishers had.