Juergen Boos in conversation with Andreas Rötzer
© Frankfurter Buchmesse
Publishing is a form of sincerity, says Andreas Rötzer (head of the publisher Matthes & Seitz Berlin since 2004), and an independent publishing house will only succeed if it is able to build trust in the quality of its books. In conversation with Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurter Buchmesse, Andreas Rötzer tells us how he has managed to do this time and time again.
JB: You once said in an interview that as a publisher, you are dependent on the market. What did you mean by that?
AR: What I meant was that we’re not a subsidy publisher: we have to hold our ground in the marketplace and finance ourselves through sales. Whenever we have a success, the proceeds are invested in new books. I’ve always given myself the freedom to publish books that aren’t profitable, too, though – books that are very important in terms of our programme. But if you adjust your expectations a little, it’s perfectly possible to operate in a commercial way.
JB: Can you shape the market yourself – or create your own market?
AR: That’s what we managed to do with our ‘Naturkunden’ (‘Natural Histories’). If you’re lucky, you can capture the zeitgeist without becoming a slave to it. Ideally you want to come up with an innovation that’s capable of succeeding on the market. We also managed to do this with our ‘Fröhliche Wissenschaft’ (‘Joyful Wisdom’) series; once again, we created a market for ourselves.
JB: You do see some publishers that are financed partially by donations from patrons – but that’s precisely what you don’t want, is that right?
AR: For our ‘Natural Histories’, which have huge production costs, we were kindly awarded generous start-up funding to mitigate some of the risk, and to make the series possible at all. But I think the quality of a book is actually improved when it has to prove itself on the market. Of course, there’s a high level of risk involved, and tremendous effort required – on an ongoing basis. But the danger or the temptation of allowing publishing to become ‘art for art’s sake’ would otherwise be too great. I always see publishing as a political act as well, because it’s an act of public expression. We want and need our texts to reach an audience, and we want to publish books with genuine social relevance.
JB: Your degree was in philosophy, and yet you started out at Matthes & Seitz as an accountant…
AR: The fact that I also trained as a psychiatric nurse is actually the thing that’s helped me most in my career… [laughs]. My philosophy degree didn’t help me land a job in publishing, but accounting certainly did. When Axel Matthes was looking for an accountant in 1999, I applied for the post because I really wanted to work at the company. Incredibly, I managed to persuade the head of the accounts department of my (non-existent) accounting skills, and she took me on. Then she retired and I took over from her.
JB: What made you want to go into publishing?
AR: It all started with my passion for literature and philosophy as a student. After that I worked in the antiquarian book trade for many years, which really helped me develop an understanding of what makes a quality text, and what makes a book valuable. When only five or ten out of 100 books in an estate pass the antiquarian’s test, it makes you realise how much rubbish gets produced. Informed by this experience, my goal is to publish books that will still have a value, an antiquarian value, in 30, 40 years’ time. That’s my guiding principle. I’m probably more of an antiquarian in disguise than a publisher.
JB: So the important thing is that the book should last?
AR: Yes – the idea is not to produce a consumer good, i.e. an item that people consume and then replace, but something lasting. That sounds very grand, but to me a book isn’t something that gets ‘used up’: it can be fed back into the market again and again because it’s very durable, both in physical terms and in terms of its content. And that’s what I want Matthes & Seitz books to be.
JB: We’ve already talked about two of the thematic areas where you’ve been very successful – is there another major theme in the pipeline?
AR: Over the next few years we’re going to be publishing books relating to China. That’s a new theme we’re engaging very closely with at the moment.
JB: Social policy with regard to China, or…?
AR: Literature from China and also titles about China and about the whole of the Asian region, which of course is a vast area that I myself have yet to explore.
JB: Isn’t it hard to find people with expertise in that field?
AR: In 2012 I went to Taiwan for the first time, and that’s when it really hit me what an important continent Asia is – not only economically but also culturally and socially – and how inadequately represented it is in this part of the world. But it also interests me a great deal personally, and that’s reflected in our list. The expertise is extremely difficult to come by, because you have to have an international network of people who know their stuff and can give you advice.
JB: How do you choose your themes and your authors?
AR: For the past eight years I’ve tried to travel to Asia myself every year to meet with authors, publishers and agents. Until 2020 I managed it every year, partly thanks (as ever) to the Frankfurt Book Fair. What you really need are translators who are passionate and can give you tips about what’s out there. You can’t always rely on the sinologists, because they have a different perspective and don’t know exactly what our needs are.
JB: I’d like to talk a little bit more about your relationship with your authors. Do you discover authors because you’re already publishing books on certain themes, or do the people come first and the themes follow? Is the publisher the initiator, or the book?
AR: There’s a reciprocal effect. Through our list and the books we publish, we’re sending out a message – sometimes not even consciously – and then the themes come in, and the authors too. I’ve often found myself wondering why I'm suddenly getting so many pitches for books I’m so keenly interested in. And our publishing programme reflects that.
JB: So the publishing house functions almost like a lighthouse, or a beacon.
AR: Yes, lots of books arise out of conversations with authors or translators, or you discover new authors through them.
JB: But you don’t only publish young authors – I’m thinking of Joshua Groß and Jakob Nolte – but also authors who've been published before, like Anne Weber, who has now gone on to win the German Book Prize. It’s clear that your publishing house has the power to get people talking about an author again, to make an author topical again. The same sort of thing happened with Joshua Groß. His work had been published before, but then he came to you and suddenly things really took off.
AR: It would be nice if that was always how it went, but it’s basically just a gamble every time. When it does work out, though, perhaps that does have something to do with the credibility we’ve acquired, and the context provided by our other authors. The diverse range of authors on our list is important. We’ve got canonical authors, new authors, established authors – one illuminates the others, so to speak, and draws attention to them. This also helps people rediscover previously lesser-known authors.
JB: Does your list feature many translations?
AR: I’d say about half our titles are translations – perhaps a little less than half now. We publish 100, 120 books a year, and around 40 to 50 of those are translations. So quite a large number, yes.
JB: In English-speaking countries, translations are often shunned – they cost a lot, and they don’t tend to sell well. It’s very different in Germany, where around 30 percent of all fiction titles are translations.
AR: Although it’s not a one-way street – we do also sell quite a lot of our titles abroad. Particularly philosophy, but also literature. And we’re doing very well in that regard these days. Partly thanks to international networking, and not least the Frankfurter Buchmesse.
JB: I’ll tell the team at the Buchmesse that – they’ll be very pleased to hear it. How did Anne Weber sell in other countries?
AR: By the end of 2020, we’d sold ten foreign rights licences.
JB: It won’t be an easy book to translate.
AR: It’s really quite difficult to capture the book’s complexity. Something could easily get lost in translation. So it will be a big challenge for the translators. But things are still going well, and we’re set to sell the rights in even more languages.
JB: Just to come back to what makes Matthes & Seitz Berlin so special: as a publishing house you’re very active in the public sphere, and you organise a summer party every year. This community spirit has become part of the company’s culture, hasn’t it?
AR: Yes. After I’d taken over at Matthes & Seitz, a talented Austrian publisher, woodcutter and pen-and-ink artist called Christian Thanhäuser came to Berlin with a loaf of home-baked bread, a huge side of bacon and a case of wine and said, now let’s invite everyone we know in Berlin. And that’s how our summer party was born.
JB: How do you, as an independent publishing house, manage to hold your own against the big publishing conglomerates, both in terms of acquiring titles and in terms of selling books? Has that changed over time?
AR: I have esteemed colleagues at the big publishing houses – Regina Kammerer, for example, and Jonathan Beck – who really are wonderful colleagues, and I often exchange ideas with them. This proves that the publishing industry is not dominated by the fierce competitiveness found in other sectors. There’s a very pleasant kind of cooperation between different publishers. We’ve also developed our business a great deal over the past ten or fifteen years. There are more and more small bookshops championing good books, and they sell our titles. We’ve never worked with chains – the big chains have never accepted us. Our bedrock is the independent booksellers with their characterful selections. We know we can rely on them.
JB: How important is the review section to you?
AR: Very important, because it attracts authors. And it helps get more people talking about our themes.
JB: And how do you reach your readers directly, what sets you apart in that regard?
AR: One guiding principle I think we as a publisher must never lose sight of is the fact that we represent a kind of sincerity. A small publishing house only stands a chance if it can build trust – trust in the quality of its titles – and that’s what we’ve managed to do in recent years.
JB: Mr Rötzer, thank you very much for this interview.
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