© Silv Malkmus
Books with resonance: children’s and young adult publisher Beltz & Gelberg celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2021, and paperback imprint Gulliver has reached a proud milestone of 35 years. Both belong to the long-established, family-run Beltz publishing group, one of the most important publishers of educational and psychology books in Germany. We asked: how do you celebrate an anniversary in the middle of a pandemic? How do you strike a balance between tradition and innovation? And what plans does the 7th generation of publishers have for the future?
Marianne Rübelmann has been Managing Director of the Beltz publishing group since 2005. Petra Albers assumed responsibility for the Beltz & Gelberg and Gulliver publishing programmes the same year. Franziska Schiebe, who has been with the company since 2013, is head of marketing and sales for Beltz
J.B. Beltz & Gelberg’s 50th anniversary and Gulliver’s 35th anniversary both fell during the second summer of the pandemic. How did that make you feel? To what extent were you able to put your plans into action?
M.R. Of course, we still tend to look at the 180 years we’ve been publishing as a whole. But it’s great to see Beltz & Gelberg at 50 – this imprint was the big innovation in those 180 years. It also brings us the highest revenue in the publishing group today.
P.A. It was clear right away that we couldn’t throw a big publishing party with all our authors, and that we needed to think of something that would create a bit of profile while allowing people to maintain a safe distance. So we came up with the idea of the ‘Anniversary Bus’, which toured the country, stopping in to see our authors and readers.
J.B. Looking back at Beltz & Gelberg’s early years – weren’t children’s books something of an anomaly within the publishing house at first?
P.A. I wouldn’t say they were an anomaly. After all, this wasn’t just the founding of a publisher – it was the founding of a publisher in the context of an existing printing house, and was a logical extension given its rapidly expanding educational programme.
M.R. Ultimately, it all turned on a happy encounter between my father, Dr Manfred Beltz-Rübelmann, and Hans-Joachim Gelberg at a book fair, where Mr Gelberg approached my father and said that he had a few ideas. My father liked starting new projects, which is how our psychology programme came about later as well. He met Frank Schwoerer (long-time publisher at Campus Verlag) at a book fair, too – and they got going after that. The agreement was: one brings in the capital, the other the ideas, and they were a great team for many years.
J.B. A chance encounter at a book fair with farreaching consequences …
M.R. Yes, combined with my father’s overall interest in developing the company – moving forward and growing Beltz both financially and in terms of its scope.
J.B. How did Beltz & Gelberg’s strong identity come about – its orange branding?
M.R. It was a time when books had very clear colour schemes. Above all, Hans-Joachim Gelberg wanted to make a statement – with certain subjects as well. My father was supportive of that. Very early on, in the 1970s, we published educational books for children and young adults. A few weeks ago I found a book about sustainability in the archives, again from the 1970s, which could easily be republished today.
P.A. Hans-Joachim had a background in the book trade. He knew the business and had vision. And that means you know how to stand out in the marketplace.
J.B. When you think of the subjects covered – like ecology and sex education – there was obviously a strong sense of mission …
P.A. Hans-Joachim had a literary background. He always said that if you can write for adults, you can write for children too. He talked to all the authors. And society was ready for these kinds of subjects. Non-fiction was less his cup of tea, but he took up their themes in literature, with authors like Christine Nöstlinger, Leonie Ossowski and others.
J.B. Biographies were an important building block within the publishing programme for young adults.
P.A. Yes, the idea of a series featuring people’s life stories was prompted by the memory of the Nazi book burnings, and the idea that those authors and texts needed to be revived. Hans-Joachim did this quite pragmatically: he only published the biographies of figures who were no longer alive, so that he could avoid copyright issues. And that resulted in an extensive series of short texts in brochure form – because the books needed to be affordable to reach a large audience. That was the concept.
J.B. Were these all original works or were there already some translations among them?
P.A. No, Hans-Joachim was entirely steeped in German literature. Rights for foreign texts only came in later via the editors he worked with. He hugely expanded the narrative children’s books segment – and picture books – in Beltz & Gelberg’s programme. And he was the one who discovered Nikolaus Heidelbach and gave him the chance to develop – somebody who also walks a fine line between adult and children’s books.
J.B. And conversely – was there international interest in the books?
P.A. There was early interest in Janosch and Mirjam Pressler’s works. We started selling rights on a grand scale in the 1980s. And we’ve been able to expand that area again considerably now. We sell a great deal to France, Italy and Spain, a great deal to the Netherlands and Scandinavia, extremely well to China, a reasonable amount to Russia, and of course to Korea as well. We really felt the effect of the lockdown in China, but sales have picked up again now. We also sell a lot in Turkey, especially classic authors like Janosch. This clearly has something to do with countries opening up, but they also need to have money to spend in the first place.
J.B. You’ve managed to turn a number of authors’ works into real classics. That’s an extraordinary strength.
M.R. Perhaps in part because schools really liked our authors and their books are still read in schools today.
P.A. Yes, that’s also an exceptional feature of our publishing house: we hold on to rights for a long time. It’s become more difficult today because you have to sell a certain number of books annually, so that the book somehow supports itself. We can’t hold on to every title by Peter Härtling or Klaus Kordon anymore, but a lot has to happen before we relinquish the rights.
J.B. Earlier, you mentioned a book on sustainability from the 1970s. Now you have the ‘100% Naturbuch’ (Nature Book) series. Is that paying off for you?
M.R. What I don’t want at our printing works or here at the press is greenwashing – ‘buying our way out’ through certification, while we publishers end up throwing away thousands of books still in their plastic wrappers. We have certification for our printing operations in Bad Langensalza and we pay a great deal for that, but this needs to be just a starting point rather than our goal. Our goal must be to work in such a way that we use as little electricity and as few chemicals as possible. What helps – and we do this too – is using green electricity. But publishers are still using chemistry to make books more appealing to consumers – through lamination, for example – and that’s where we have to make changes. But we do think about how to produce each and every product in the most eco-friendly way.
P.A. The problem is that we produce more than we sell, because we have to maintain a certain level of stock for bookshops, traders and so on, which ultimately may not be sold. That means we’re always working with a certain rate of returns. A print-on-demand system isn’t feasible. We can afford the nature books because we’ve now sold so many rights that we can do large print runs.
J.B. A sign that it’s the right way to go.
P.A. Our nature series is truly pioneering. But the crucial point is that customers have to be willing to pay more. What people want and what they’re willing to pay are sometimes miles apart. We have relatively affluent customers, but they still check the price.
J.B. I think customers are willing to spend more for quality.
F.S. There are certain price limits for children’s books, such as a typical birthday present, which shouldn’t cost more than 10 € – and that’s also the absolute upper limit for school books. But yes, the whole sector finally has to start raising its prices.
J.B. Publishers are on the front line of expectations about identity and diversity policies. I’d be interested to hear your experiences in that respect.
P.A. It’s a big area. We look carefully at every title, but we don’t ‘modernise’ our classics. There was a case involving a Christine Nöstlinger book. I discussed it with her daughters and we came to the conclusion that Nöstlinger wouldn’t have changed the passage herself, so we left it as it was. And it subsequently wasn’t a problem. With Janosch, there was an instance a while back where the protagonist’s paw was at the same height as a woman’s chest, and we left that as it was too. We don’t just pay attention to the text, but to the images as well. Because illustrators have to learn to show diversity, too. You can’t just give a face a different colour.
J.B. ‘Sensitivity readers’ – is that an issue for you?
P.A. We had a book due out next year read by someone of the relevant sexuality. They alerted us to something very important that we hadn’t been able to spot ourselves. But ultimately the publisher has to decide – even if opinions sometimes differ.
J.B. Many thanks to you all for the interview.
This interview is an abridged version of an interview conducted by Juergen Boos, the director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, at the publishing headquarters of the Beltz Publishing Group in Weinheim in February 2022. You can read the interview in full length in English in the current issue of GERMAN STORIES - NEWS FROM FRANKFURT. (2022_FBM_Magazin.pdf (german-stories.de))