Berlin native Eva Schweitzer learned a lot about the publishing industry from her years of work as a writer and New York correspondent for German newspapers. In 2011, she decided to open her own publishing house, focusing on books related to the city of Berlin. Eva runs Berlinica between New York City and Berlin. I spoke to her via Skype after one of her frequent trans-Atlantic flights.
Frances Riddle: How was Berlinica born?
Eva Schweitzer: I’m an author and nowadays it’s becoming easier to break into the market, even if you’re small. You don’t need so much overhead anymore. You can do print-on-demand and e-books, you can distribute them internationally with Amazon; and I thought why not try and publish books myself? I know how to write a book. How hard can it be to publish a book?
FR: So was it as easy as you thought it would be to open your own publishing house?
ES: No, it turns out it’s a great deal more time-consuming and complicated than you can imagine. You need software; you need to hire editors, cover artists, and proofreaders. There are a lot of expenses. And not just for print books, also for e-books; a lot of people think e-books are kind of free, but they’re not. You need to get into all the industry catalogues well in advance. I’m trying to put out four books a year which may not seem like much but it’s a whole lot of work.
FR: As basically a one-woman publishing house you’re in charge of editing, marketing, rights, finances, distribution… which of these roles do you find most challenging?
ES: Well I’m not doing it all on my own. I have great copyeditors and translators, but I am overseeing all the books myself. I think marketing is the most difficult. It’s difficult to get to the readers, to get the book out in the news media, to get it known. It takes a lot of luck because there are so many books out there and so many small publishers and they’re all competing for very little space in the newspapers. However, one of the authors we are publishing, Kurt Tucholsky, was in the New York Times, so that felt very rewarding.
FR: Why did you decide to focus on German literature and specifically books related to Berlin?
ES: The history of the world converges in Berlin, east and west. It’s a very modern city with a great scene and there are a lot of small publishing houses to work with. It’s also a multicultural city. In the United States there’s very little literature from Germany and very little foreign literature at all. The Goethe Institute did a study and found that only like five or six fiction titles are translated to English from German per year. And Germany is a country of 80 million people — including Austria and Switzerland, it’s 100 million German speakers — so five novels a year is nothing. And so my hope was to help change that. I still have a long way to go.
FR: Do you think the tides will one day turn and we’ll be seeing more literature in translation?
ES: Even with great titles you still have a hard time selling translations. It’s just not easy. It’s mostly small publishing houses that are doing translations and the translator has to be paid up front; it’s an extra expense for a book that will probably sell less than a book from an American author. It’s not just the industry to blame. First the reader has to be interested. At the end of the day the number of Americans who are interested in foreign literature is not that high so you’re talking to a smaller crowd. So I don’t know, I think translated literature is an interesting niche, it should be done. There have been some other publishing houses that specialize in translation that have sprung up recently focusing on literature from Russia, from France, from Spain and South America. All this helps; translated literature might be more popular than it was five years ago but it’s still small in comparison.
FR: Can you talk about some forthcoming titles we can expect to see soon from Berlinica?
ES: We’re doing two books in the fall. Berlin 1945 is a picture book of Berlin immediately after the war. These photos were taken by Soviet soldiers, some against orders. They are very rare pictures that show the horrible aftermath of the war. It’s the first time these pictures have been published in the U.S. and it shows not only the destruction and desperation, but also the survival and resistance of Berlin. Then in December we’re putting out a book called Burning Beethoven. This book is by Erik Kirschbaum, a native New Yorker who now lives in Berlin. It tells the true story of the persecution that German Americans endured during WWI. There was a thriving German immigrant population in the U.S., mostly in the Midwest, and there was a violent crusade to eradicate this community and culture. It’s something many Americans don’t know much about so I think it’s important to be able to shine a light on this dark moment in U.S. history. Next year, we’ll be doing a book on 1000 years of Leipzig, a fairy tale book that takes place around Berlin, and another book by Tucholsky, poems from World War I.