International Insight: Independent publishing professionals in Germany

By   Jantien Abma 4 min read

Felix Wolf, based in Hamburg, Germany, is a freelance editor and deputy chairperson of the Verband der Freien Lektorinnen und Lektoren e. V., VFLL (Association of Freelance Editors). Here he shares his perspective on Germany’s evolving publishing scene. 

Independent professionals in Germany: Publishing houses may soon find themselves in competition against self-publishers for the best freelance editors

Years ago, when someone asked me what I wanted to do for a living, I answered: “I want to be a ‘midwife’ for beautiful stories. I want to help bring good books into the world.” The job I had in mind was development and copy editor. And indeed, today I work as a freelance editor and I am happy to have helped one or the other beautiful story come to life. But I also have to say: Editing fiction and non-fiction books for publishing houses is the smaller part of my daily business. What I do a lot of the time is writing and editing texts for advertising, websites, and corporate communication. This diversity has become something that I deeply appreciate about my job, but the reason I started looking for clients outside of traditional publishing in the first place is much more mundane: It was about the money.

In Germany it has become difficult to make a living only from editing books because the royalties have continuously decreased over the last years. If you want to afford being a “midwife” for good German books today, you have to complement these pet projects by a lot of well-paid jobs in other sectors. Some of my colleagues do not work for publishing companies at all. They make their (good) living in advertising and corporate or institutional publishing.

This development has also led to a loss in quality in some parts of the book industry. Independent professionals have partly been replaced by people who offer work on words as a hobby or side job. They accept small royalties but they cannot substitute the expertise of an experienced editor. What is more, even professional editors cannot deliver top quality for small money. As the price per page gets smaller and smaller we have to edit more text in the same time in order to achieve a reasonable hourly rate at all. This simply means that we cannot give every manuscript all the attention we would like.

There are first signs that publishers recognise the problem and are again more willing to invest in the quality of their content, i. e. value the work of independent professionals and begin paying higher royalties. Actually, there is a parallel development that might turn out to be another incentive for them. For some years now, there has been a new player on the market: the vibrant German-speaking self-publishing community. Not long ago self-publishers were stigmatised as second-rate, unprofessional authors, and still the prejudice is not uncommon in the industry. The opposite is true: Many independent authors today are highly professional – self-publishing is a full-time job for them. Visit hall 3.0 K9 at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year for obvious proof of this professionalisation: The Self-Publishing Area was established in 2013. It recognises the importance of the new branch by offering discussion panels, talks and workshops on the subject. Exhibitors present various publishing services for independent authors, among them the Verband der Freien Lektorinnen und Lektoren e. V., VFLL (Association of Freelance Editors) the German equivalent to Britain’s SfEP.

Being professional in self-publishing also means that you have proper quality control, i. e. professional development and copy-editing. I get more and more requests from self-publishers myself, and to be honest: In the beginning I was surprised to learn that many have quite a realistic idea about the cost of editorial services. They are ready to pay considerably more than many publishing houses do. The latter might soon find themselves in a competition for the best independent publishing professionals. And it is not only about the money: Publishing houses are not the exclusive home for good writing anymore, and for a freelance editor it can be just as exciting and challenging to work with an ambitious self-publisher.

Independent editors have opened the field for discussion. Three colleagues from the VFLL recently published an article on on the subject that is worth reading. I hope we will soon see that German publishers have received the message. At the end of the day, it is all about quality – and that is in the interest of both publishers and independent publishing professionals. We both want to help bring beautiful stories into the world.

About Felix – He promotes the idea of a publishing services platform for the German market and recently gave a talk on the subject at the future!publish conference in Berlin (summary on the VFLL blog). Felix has studied History, English Language, and Modern German Literature in Hamburg and Dublin, additionally working part-time as an editor and translator. He then became editorial assistant at a small editorial company in Hamburg. In 2011, he went freelance as an editor and writer. He specialises in non-fiction and travel books, advertising and corporate communication and has an interest in how digital technology is changing how we read, write and publish.