He bridges the gap between the literary and the bestseller market, he maintains the traditions of one of the most important German publishing houses without losing sight of contemporary trends: Jonathan Landgrebe has been a publisher with Suhrkamp since 2015. In conversation with Book Fair Director Juergen Boos he explains what Suhrkamp stands for today.
JB: Many years ago, when I started out in publishing, there were two publishing houses that everyone wanted to work for: Hanser and Suhrkamp. Was it part of your career plan to work for Suhrkamp?
JL: I had the idea from quite early on that I wanted to work with books, to work in publishing. And then of course it was Suhrkamp, with the literature they published and still publish today, with its publishing traditions, that was, and is, the deciding factor for me.
JB: There were two people who really made their mark on Suhrkamp: Peter Suhrkamp and Siegfried Unseld. Do you see yourself following on in their tradition?
JL: Yes, of course, in the sense that I’m leading and developing the company that they founded and built up, from the foundations created by them. But for me personally, these publishers aren’t my only reference points. The world has changed too much for that. At the same time there are so many aspects of their work that we can only admire and model our practice on. Just to mention a few: their passion for literature, the seriousness and the sense of responsibility they showed towards books and their writers, their keen eye for developments in society, their ability to combine a literary with a business approach.
We publish authors not books.
JB: Suhrkamp was always seen as a publishing house for authors.
JL: It still is. It’s very important to us that authors publish with us and that they stay with us. We think in the long term, we like to help our authors develop, to increase their readership, to extend their voice, as far as possible, with each new book they publish. That’s been one of the core values of our house right up to today: we publish authors, not books. We do everything we can to further that aim. And we also represent our authors globally in the matter of all subsidiary rights to their work, that is to say, comprehensively. Going from one publisher to the next does nothing for the publishing houses or the authors.
JB: Do you still take care of the big name authors yourself, as Suhrkamp and Unseld did?
JL: I have contact with all our authors, but the kind of correspondence there was between Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseldis no longer possible today. What we do have is close working relationships, constant discussion, the exchange of ideas, often in conversation, mostly by email, sometimes by letter.
JB: What makes Suhrkamp stand out today?
JL: We’re one of the few remaining independent publishing houses with a clearly intellectual profile and a leader in publishing literature in German. There’s hardly any other house in the German speaking world which inspires and reflects literaryand social developments as extensively as we do. And we combine a well developed understanding of tradition with an equally developed sense for the contemporary moment. And then we have of course many priorities in our list which are individual to us. To give you just one example: when we moved from Frankfurt to Berlin ten years ago, the fact that literature from Eastern Europe was a very important area for us played into our decision to relocate to Berlin with its proximity to Eastern Europe. Whether we’re talking about Sasha Marianna Salzmann, Katja Petrowskaja or Maria Stepanova, just a few of the big literary successes we’ve had in recent years, they’ve all got a connection with Eastern Europe. We’re unique in this- and, by the way, also for the fact that we represent our non German speaking authors on rights issues world- wide.
JB: In the 70s and 80s Suhrkamp brought Latin American writers to Germany when it discovered Isabel Allende, Octavio Paz, Julio Cortázar and Clarice Lispector. Which language areas are important for you today?
JL: We’re still publishing many translations from the Spanish speaking world and from Latin America, but are also still very strong on publishing from French, and publish significantly more Anglo- American literature than before. Asia is more complicated, because there is a smaller potential readership and the language barrier makes it significantly more challenging to discover books. But we are working right now, for example, on a complete new translation of one of the most important Chinese classics, Die Räuber vom Liang-Schan-Moor ( The Robbers of Liang-Schan-Moor ).
JB: What are the current trends in Germany? Are we seeing more poetry again for example?
JL: Poetry is always of the moment, it’s always exciting, and always important, and so we keep it on our list and continue to publish it. There’s still a lot going on in non-fiction. Suhrkamp was rather late to come to general non-fiction. We come originally from the theory side, from philosophy, from social sciences, but have today an excellent non-fiction list, covering a range of quite different subjects, from biographies to contemporary issues to climate change- and I see there even more possibilities. We’re now on about one third non-fiction in total, it’s an area which is very much alive and expanding.
JB: And philosophy?
JL: The publication and dissemination of German philosophy plays a huge role in our work, originally, for the most part, based on the Frankfurt School tradition. For example Theodor W. Adorno, or Walter Benjamin, or today Jürgen Habermas or Peter Sloterdijk, authors who are translated into many languages, world famous public intellectuals. But we publish a lot from the French, from the English, too, so it goes in both directions.
Reading doesn’t begin with Max Frisch or Peter Handke
JB: Your list has changed a lot in the last 10 years, it’s expanded: you’ve added a series of crime fiction, the Sandmann publishing house, the occasional cookery book and now children’s books with Insel. What are the challenges for a publisher of combining quite different lists under the umbrella of one traditional publishing house?
JL: On the one hand Suhrkamp has an indisputable literarytradition. We stand by that and it’s the core of our work. On the other hand, with its books and the 350 or so new titles a year, it’s reflecting what’s going on in society. The basic idea is to build on what Suhrkamp has always done, but to refocus it in a way that’s necessary for today’s world. In the 70s and 80s children’s books were an important branch of Insel. We’re not about to publish a long list of children’s books, just the occasional one or two, because it suits the house and at the same time serves an important market. We know that reading doesn’t begin with books by Max Frisch or Peter Handke, but much earlier with children’s books. And of course we have authors who also write children’s books and till now haven’t found a publisher for them. So from that point of view too it makes sense.
JB: In the face of dwindling book sales and the disappearance of the avid reader: what do publishers have to do today to bring books to readers?
JL: We don’t have the same receptive readership that we once had, the traditional media is no longer as influential when it comes to promoting books, and bookshops are also unfortunately losing ground. And so it’s becoming more and more important that publishers themselves get involved. We began early to develop direct contact between publishers and readers and also between authors and readers. We’ll be doing more of that over the coming years. Today you have to see every single book as a new challenge, regardless of whether you think you’ll sell 2,000, 20,000 or 100,000 copies. For every book you have to rethink what you are doing and it will vary from book to book and from author to author.
JB: Netflix, Audible or Hulu are experimenting with storytelling in a new format and the producers have a large appetite for stories.
JL: We deal with film rights of course. We see that as an integral part of our work and we also have the sense that the demand for material is increasing. We had a great success with Uwe Tellkamp’s Der Turm ( The Tower) and Lutz Seiler’s Kruso was also filmed. There are big new film versions of the work of Bertolt Brecht and Hermann Hesse. But for us the books remain central and the translations of the books in other countries. Film is important but, in comparison, it is relevant only for a rather smaller number of titles.
The printed book will continue to play a dominant role.
JB: You publish on the one hand the best seller novels of an author like Elena Ferrante, while at the same time discovering unusual literary debuts like Philipp Weiss’ Am Weltenrand sitzen die Menschen und lachen.........
JL: We work with both sorts of books and often there’s a mutual enrichment which you may not have expected at all. The success of Annie Ernaux is one such Suhrkamp success story. We’d already had a great success with Didier Eribon, then with Elena Ferrante, a real best seller author, we’d published Rachel Cusk, all of these authors engaged in autobiographical fiction writing, and then we were able to sign Annie Ernaux, who practically invented the genre, but who’d been overlooked by the German book market up to that point. And that worked fantastically well, a success which came out of the interactions of quite different authors and their books. At the moment that’s working very well for us. 2017 was the best year in Suhrkamp’s history and 2018 was a good year for us as well.
JB: Rainald Goetz has made a book out of his blog texts and Philipp Weiss’ debut, mentioned earlier, pushes at the boundaries of the novel- formally as well as creatively. Is that symptomatic? People try something out but at the end of the day, it’s the book, whether in print or electronic, that’s the right form.
JL: I’ve got no doubt that the book is the right form. Of course we offer everything we publish in digital form as well, but the print book will continue to play a dominant role. What the sector has forgotten in the discussions we’ve had over years, ‘ E-Book or print’, is how society has changed as a result of digitalisation: the way people get information, how they communicate, the question of how much time they have for books and how we draw people’s attention to books. That’s where the challenges are.
JB: After ten years in Berlin you will be moving in a few weeks into your own building. Is that an important turning point for the publishing house?
JL: The important turning point was the move from Frankfurt to Berlin. It was the right decision and a good decision, because it opened up the possibility for us to reposition ourselves in the publishing world. Now we’re able to move into our own building which will give us economic security in the long term. Which is not trivial, if you know the property prices in Berlin. It’s both a house for the publishing company and a home for authors, long term. That’s really good and we’re looking forward to it.
JB: Mr. Landgrebe, thank you for the conversation.
The interview was first published in our frankfurt magazine. Download the magazine for free here on our website.