Detlef Bluhm, German Publishers and Booksellers Association in Berlin-Brandenburg
The internet is killing the stationary book trade? Think again. Detlef Bluhm, among other things Managing Director of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association in Berlin-Brandenburg, explains why small and medium-sized book stores in particular are experiencing a revival and why we read more than ever.
Mr Bluhm, you have been working in the book industry since the late 70s. How has our reading behaviour changed in the past 25 years?
Without a doubt I can say that more books are being read than ever in history. An ever increasing number of people communicate via email, WhatsApp or social networks, they do research online, make travel arrangements, and order products or services. Today, more than ever, the ability to read is an absolute prerequisite to social participation. If you talk to people about reading books nowadays you often hear that increasingly less people are able or willing to get immersed in long linear texts. Considering the international success of the Harry Potter series and Cornelia Funke's Inkheart trilogy, but also the rather bulky novels by authors such as Uwe Tellkamp, David Foster Wallace and most recently Frank Witzel, to name but a few examples, this seems to be a peculiar opinion which does not reflect reality. It seems to me that it is exactly the much-maligned culture of online skim reading that has fostered the desire for long stories. Incidentally, the same is true for films. The global success that many series have enjoyed shows that people are more than happy to immerse themselves in epic narratives and long stories, regardless of the actual medium.
Your aim as Managing Director of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association in Berlin-Brandenburg is to promote the interests of publishers, distributors and book stores. How have the distribution structures in these three areas changed?
The distribution structures in our industry have changed significantly due to the internet and the fact that is has become common practice to publish new texts in both printed and digital format. Essentially, they have multiplied. In recent years, the requirements of end-customers have gradually become more important which has influenced the development of these structures. Today, the wide range of providers makes it possible for customers to decide whether they want to purchase a book in printed or digital output format, and whether they want to purchase this book in a stationary book store, from the book store's website or from an online supplier.
In the early stages of the internet books were among the first products to be traded online. Nevertheless, according to your association the number of book stores in Berlin has increased by 56 to a total of 360 since 2011. Is it a misconception that the internet is posing a serious threat to stationary book stores?
In fact, we have been experiencing a revival of smaller and medium-sized owner-run book stores for a few years now which seems surprising at first glance, but actually isn't. This is due to three main reasons. First of all, many of these book stores increasingly see themselves as a service provider, consciously curating their range of books in order to make a selection from the unmanageable variety of the book market that is tailored to their customers' demand and location, thereby generating a distinctive identity for their store. Instead of catering to the mainstream individual customer preferences become more and more important. Secondly, an ever growing number of customers are looking for a hands-on browsing experience, a distinct advantage that stores have over online booksellers, offering a much more diverse shopping experience with the added bonus of making unexpected discoveries. And thirdly, more and more book stores consider themselves cultural hubs in the region, organising readings, public viewings, book clubs, inviting artists (not just authors) from the local area, offering courses or hosting exhibitions depending on the size of the store. Incidentally, many customers will directly or indirectly inspire these activities.
Can you give us a brief outlook on the coming months: What are your most important goals?
2016 will be centred around three important goals. Firstly, we intend to highlight more clearly than we did in the past the importance of publishers to cultural diversity and social discourse in our country. Secondly, we will intensify the connections we have with other industries in the so-called creative industry segment in order to share ideas and learn from one another. And thirdly, this November we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of our "STADT LAND BUCH" series of events and we very much hope that our anniversary programme with some 150 events will be the talk of the city.
Mr Bluhm, to pick up on another point: In what circumstances would we be allowed to address you as "Kater Paul" (Tomcat Paul)?
You're hinting at my alter ego "Kater Paul", that is to say my digital existence as "Kater Paul" on Facebook and a blog by the same name that has seen nearly 330,000 visitors up to now. I use these channels to communicate numerous articles about the cultural history of cats. As yet, I have published eleven books on this topic with two more to follow this year. If you would like to know something about cats in literature or painting, music or film, from ancient times to the present, you're welcome to ask Kater Paul.
Finally, one last request - could you please complete following the sentence: Berlin is ...
the German central laboratory of the future.
Detlef Bluhm is a writer and has worked as a bookseller, publishing representative and publisher and knows the book industry inside out. As Managing Director of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association in Berlin-Brandenburg his aim is to promote the interests of publishers, distributors and book stores. Detlef Bluhm has authored and published 16 books along with numerous stories, audiobooks as well as a radio play. He has a particular interest in historico-cultural topics with a special focus on the art history and cultural history of cats.