Conference report: Mainzer Kolloquium 2014: West German Book Market History (1949-1989)

Corinna Norrick-Rühl, JGU Mainz

Bild1The conference series “Mainzer Kolloquium” is held annually at Mainz Institute for Book Studies on the last Friday in January. This year’s “Mainzer Kolloquium” – the 19th consecutive conference in the series – focused on West German book market history from 1949 to 1989. The one-day interdisciplinary conference was designed as the kick-off event for the new volume of de Gruyter’s series “Geschichte des deutschen Buchhandels im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert“. The handbook “Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1949-1989″ will be edited by Stephan Füssel and Ute Schneider for the historical committee of the German booksellers and publishers association (Historische Kommission des Börsenvereins des deutschen Buchhandels). All aspects of the book market, from production to distribution and reception, will be analyzed in the volume. Füssel and Schneider planned the conference accordingly to help establish a interdisciplinary framework for the handbook. The conference brought together scholars from a variety of disciplines as well as book industry experts (full program here).

The day started with Stephan Füssel’s introduction. He gave the audience a 20-minute overview of book market highlights between 1949 and 1989, ranging from the emergence of the modern paperback (introduced to the German market by the publisher Rowohlt, cf. also David Oels’ book, recently reviewed on our blog) in 1950 to the various bestseller marketing strategies developed in the 1970s, for instance with Hildegard Knef’s book Der geschenkte Gaul. Füssel was followed by the renowned historian Eckart Conze (Marburg), who is famous for his project on the role of the German Federal Foreign Office during the Third Reich. Conze gave an excellent overview of German political history from 1949 to 1989, warning the audience that the typical “success story” narrative perpetuated by historians such as Axel Schildt is too simplistic. Volker Hentschel (Prof. em., JGU Mainz) also offered a revised look at German history, in particular German economic history. He explained that the “Wirtschaftswunder” and Ludwig Erhard’s concept of “soziale Marktwirtschaft” should not be overrated. According to the variety of data Hentschel presented, the economic development from 1890 to 1990 was quite stable, despite two World Wars. Edgar Lersch (Halle) embedded the book and book market history within the context of the German media, especially the public broadcasting stations for radio and television. Lersch was able to share precise numbers of radio audiences as well as TV viewers, programming, etc. on the basis of contemporary market research. For example, Lersch showed that by the end of the 40-year time period, there were 12 continuous hours of TV programming on a daily basis, which competed with reading as a leisure activity. Olaf Blaschke (Heidelberg), who is well-known for his fascinating study on publishers of historical research, followed Lersch with a contribution about scholarly communication and the book market. Blaschke challenged the editors of the new volume to re-think the structure of the publication. He criticized the earlier volumes, saying they were too descriptive. Blaschke suggested that it might be fruitful to relate book market history more closely to general (political and social) history, and to include more international perspectives. Developments such as the democratization of reading or the commercialization of the book market could offer a basis for a more stringent historical narrative.

After the lunch break, Elisabeth Kampmann (Bochum) explained how the format of the paperback series influences the canonization of literary texts, which was also the topic of her dissertation Kanon und Verlag. Her two main examples were the well-known dtv series (founded in 1961) and the famous edition suhrkamp (founded in 1963). She specifically emphasized the central role of paperback publishers and the paratexts of individual titles. The final paper of the day was held by Heinrich Riethmüller, who runs the German bookstore chain Osiander and has recently (June 2013) been elected as the new representative head of the German booksellers and publishers association (Börsenverein des deutschen Buchhandels). In his talk, Riethmüller gave an overview of his company’s history, which goes back to the 16th century. He underlined the role of the bookseller within book market history and gave a positive outlook for bookselling in Germany, despite the disturbing numbers (the amount of closures of brick-and-mortar bookstores in 2013 added up to 50,000 square meters sales area).

The day finished off with a roundtable discussion. The merits of oral history were discussed briefly, as well as other challenges which lie in store for Füssel and Schneider as they plan this volume. This conference was a good way to kick off the planning phase, and it will be interesting to see how the project progresses.

See also Björn Biester’s (German) conference report in the Börsenblatt.

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