The art of publishing

About book publishers with a sense for quality.

picture-alliance/dpa - Publishers
picture-alliance/dpa - Publishers picture-alliance/dpa - Publishers

Book publishers with a sense for quality

Reports of the death of the book are definitely exaggerated. Although the Kindle, Tolino, tablet reader and smartphone might already like to sing the requiem for the longest-lasting medium in the western world and Internet gurus like Sascha Lobo regard the book as only “a me­dium for selling words”, Germany remains a paradise for lovers of beautiful and valuable books. Despite frequent declarations of their death, if you take a closer look at the collections of words held together by cardboard, glue, linen or leather that are available on the German book market, you will discover an incredible vitality. Indeed it is even possible that currently, as a consequence of the growing economic significance of electronic reading media, an awareness is growing of how closely linked the physical appearance of a text is with its perception by the reader. Whether you read Shades of Grey on a Kindle or an iPad may well be irrelevant, but in the case of a very large number of texts the aggregate state in which they meet the eye (and hand!) of the reader is certainly not unimportant. After all, it is not preferable to drink a good wine out of a plastic cup.

Seen in this light, the book series Die Andere Bibliothek initiated by Hans Magnus Enzensberger is a grand cru in the German publishing world. Its turbulent history says a lot about German book art over the past decades. In 1984, when Franz Greno and Enzensberger began to issue, every month, an individually designed book printed using lead typesetting, this was mainly a protest against uniformity and careless design. Cheap computer typesetting, which replaced traditional printing technology in the 1970s, initially offered little scope for creating a conceptual unity between the book and its contents, in terms of typography, composition and design. The products of the Nördlinger Werkstatt were prime examples of the superiority of traditional technology, and numerous masterpieces were produced, such as Enzensberger’s much-lauded Wasserzeichen der Poesie or Christoph Ransmayr’s epic novel Die letzte Welt, the first editions of which are highly sought after by collectors.

Towards the turn of the millennium, Greno then demonstrated how reader-friendly, typographically exciting and haptically persuasive books could be designed using digital technology. Abandoning lead typesetting, however, did little to alter the fact that only a few titles in the Andere Bibliothek were economically viable; very few of the books sold more than 5,000 copies. Eichborn Verlag then went bankrupt, and for two years now the “most beautiful books in the world” (Die Zeit) have been published by Aufbau Verlag in Berlin. Each publication is by a different book designer, and the new editor, Christian Döring, remains true to Enzensberger’s credo: “We only print books we ourselves would like to read.”

The aspiration to combine intellectual and visual pleasure is what distinguishes true book art whose design serves to communicate the content from artwork that only serves itself. For Alexandra Sender, chief executive of Stiftung Buchkunst in Frankfurt, judging this balancing act is part of her daily routine. This book art foundation, set up in 1965, sees its task as casting a critical eye on German book production, first and foremost, the book for 
everyday use. In the annual competition entitled “Die schönsten deutschen Bücher – Vorbildlich in Gestaltung, Konzeption und Verarbeitung”, an independent jury consisting of producers, designers and book experts, awards prizes for the many and varied aesthetic and functional aspirations of books, and for the successful combination of form and content.

Needless to say, that jury only assesses a tiny section of the German book market. Of the approximately 86,000 new publications every year, just over 700 books were entered by their publishers in 2013. These ranged from expensive experimentally designed art volumes to novels and scientific publications to an exemplary children’s book. The jury’s evaluation sheet indicates that a book is in fact a small Gesamtkunstwerk: starting with the paper quality and going on from the glue, edges, folding and cutting to the legibility of the print. Type areas and page make-up are scrutinized for irritating “widows and orphans”, while contrasts, line spacing and the appropriateness of the chosen typeface are evalu­ated, and not least, the delight which the book awakens in the viewer who touches and reads it.

It goes without saying that, as a rule, these books are not the ones on the Spiegel bestseller list. However, as “top-class products bordering on art” they are in no way just overbred orchids for madcap book fetishists. They act as “encouragement for that branch of industry” (Alexandra Sender), and are a highly respected 
measure of quality. The competition is of great importance for the quality of books in Germany above and beyond the major wholesalers, where this kind of book only plays a minor role. The prize-winning works are a kind of hidden engine whose absence might possibly only be noticed if the quality of the mass products were also to noticeably decline.

When you realize the huge value attached to the collected works of Hofmannsthal, for example, or the Thomas Mann edition published by S. Fischer, or when you leaf excitedly through Prestel’s luxury volume on The Rolling Stones, you realize that of course the large publishing groups also claim to be skilled artisans in the world of the intellect, albeit combined with the hope of achieving high circulation figures and lowering the unit cost through strong marketing. It is the print runs that make this business a risky one. Yet it is possible to minimize print-run risk through international coproductions, as pursued by Prestel or Taschen, the latter repeatedly causing surprises with lush large-formats.

Often, however, it is courageous small publishers who fight for the survival of the beautiful book and do so with a considerable amount of idealism. Thedel von Wallmoden in Göttingen, for 
example, and the new series called Ästhetik des Buches, designed by the authors themselves, prove that modernity, digital pre-press and top craftsmanship are not necessarily opposites. Many of the works published by Wallstein Verlag may be e-books, but the publisher is convinced that “the form of the book derives from functional connections. In the humanities, in particular, the book is an integral part of the subject itself.”

Bertram Schmidt-Friderichs, a publisher in Mainz, demonstrates that a top-class book manufactory can be run profitably even five hundred years after the Gutenberg revolution. This publisher’s list is a creative-exuberant lucky bag that causes astonishment and sets standards. Schmidt-Friderichs and his wife Karin, who is currently also chair of the board of Stiftung Buchkunst, are outstanding protagonists in the struggle for beautiful and functional book design.

In an industrial zone removed somewhat from the picturesque old city of Mainz, this publisher, like numerous others between the North Sea and the Alps, continues the work of someone whose invention in the early modern period made Mainz the epicentre of the book-printing revolution. Johannes Gensfleisch, called Gutenberg, certainly has every reason to be satisfied with his heirs: the book is very much alive and well.