What are the Germans reading?
–Annemarie Blumenhagen, Rights Director Ullstein Verlag, Berlin
What do the Germans read? Search for reliable statistics on the German book market and you will find varying facts and figures, which makes it complex to put a finger on exactly how the German book market is faring in reality. Let’s have a look at some of these recent figures and trends to understand the market for ourselves.
The 2017 book market report published by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association states that the overall sale of books in 2017 (€9.13 billion) was down by 2 percent as compared to the previous year. Reading also seems to have fallen out of the top ten leisure preferences of the Germans. However, at the same time, 30 million people still read more than 10 books a year, 40 per cent of all women read more than one book a week, and 70,000 new titles are published each year. Interestingly, though the number of people buying books has decreased, these select book buyers are now, on an average, purchasing more books than before. It seems that the German book market is facing the same challenges as are most Western markets. People read a lot of the same books, that is, a few books attain the status of bestsellers while the rest remain background noise. But what do Germans read?
Literary fiction, women’s fiction, suspense and crime are front runners in terms of genre. Family and relationships, set in a distinct time or geography, ideally with a political connection, seem to have become key ingredients for German fiction bestsellers. For instance, Robert Seethaler, Daniel Kehlmann, Juli Zeh, Marianna Leky and Dörte Hansen are the most popular names amongst the German readership in this genre. They offer readers escapism peppered with experiences unfamiliar to them. Crime fiction and psychological thrillers, are amongst the most widely written and read genres in Germany. These are often serialised procedurals with strong investigators set in a distinctive region, like the books by Nele Neuhaus, Andreas Franz, Jean-Luc Bannalec or writer duo Kluepfl & Kobr. The psychological thrillers by Sebastian Fitzek always hit the bestseller lists. As for literary novels, Germans appreciate introspective writing with a clear focus on the language.
When it comes to non-fiction, the international trend of ‘big idea’ books like Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens or Homo Deus can also be seen in Germany. They give the reader a thorough historical, political or sociological analysis that sheds new light on existential questions. Key is that the author is an expert in his field. Philosopher Richard David Precht is a fine example of a German writing in the same genre as Harari. Where crime fiction seems like a big hit in German fiction reading, nature writing seems to have made a large impact in the German books market. Forest ranger Peter Wohlleben started a ‘return to nature’ trend that took the world by a storm. Ever since this genre has gained popularity, a never-ending wave of books on trees, birds, animals, etc. has begun. Much the same way, a new way of talking about health and science came in with Giulia Enders’s Gut which gained global popularity for delivering biological facts in a style far from mundane. From Yael Adler to Nina Brochmann and Ellen Støkken Dahl ‘science-and-medical-topics-made-easy’ is still a strong category. Narrative non-fiction still occupies a large section of the book market and the bestseller lists.
A literary exchange with India
Inspirational and unusual life stories or transformative travels to exotic places are still popular themes in both Germany and India. Of course big family and society saga have crossed the ocean from India to Germany before like the books of Neel Mukherjee, Arundhati Roy or Amitav Ghosh. However, in my experience, I find that it is non-fiction that travels more easily internationally. Especially in the present, the readership of non-fiction genres is on the rise in India as well. Inspirational stories, the ‘big picture’ books, health and science are genres where the potential of exchange primarily seems to be residing, from Germany to India and vice-versa.