Dim lights, a small stage, a microphone, and a soft voice reading from an old notebook. The audience, surrounded by bookshelves and sofas, is spellbound by the well-crafted words of the author. The small room has a special atmosphere, an enjoyable ambience for literature lovers. Two musicians play on their guitars, literature, poetry and music come together and form a Gesamtkunstwerk – a synthesis of art.
The event is held in the small literary café called Periplaneta in the district of Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin. It is marketed as Vision und Wahn, which translates to vision and madness, and it is part of a series of literary lectures known as Lesebühne (reading stage).
What makes it so unique is the fact that Periplaneta is not just the name of the café – it is also the name of the publishing house behind the event. They are both part of the same company. In this location, authors are regularly invited on stage to read short stories, anecdotes and passages from their novels. Sometimes there are musical events, sometimes there will be poetry session or even a poetry slam. The concept works. And it seems to be flourishing.
This unique and promising business model is gaining continuously more popularity amongst smaller publishing houses in Berlin. Some even see it as a throwback to the salon- and Kaffeehaus-culture of the old romantic era: people come together, drink coffee, recite their work, discuss their ideas, set new trends. But for Thomas Manegold, co-founder of Periplaneta, this is not just nice gathering for intellectuals, it is also necessary to ensure the promotion and survival of his company.
Founded in 2007, the publishing house has always managed to find an audience for innovative and interesting projects. Their catalogue includes all sorts of works: novels, audiobooks, poetry, spoken word and music. ‘A lot of our published material is rather alternative, some would say ‘special’,’ says Manegold. The marketplace is very demanding and the business too. And in addition, Berlin is different on many levels.
‘Of course, there is a lot of competition in a city like Berlin,’ says Manegold. ‘You cannot predict if a book is going to become a bestseller, nor can you create a bestseller. However, the fact that Berlin has such a high population density and diverse culture helps – we’ll always find someone interested in our products.’ For independent publishers like Manegold the most important thing remains content. It is the synthesis with other art forms such as the spoken word and music which attracts new audiences and potential readers. Moreover, a good marketing campaign, a strong social media presence and a well-organized staff are crucial for guaranteed income. When it comes to financial matters, Periplaneta has to stand more or less on its own feet.
Namely, Berlin does not provide any support for small publishing companies like Periplaneta. Surely, there are certain public grants and cultural funds for independent publishers, but according to Manegold, the process for application is too bureaucratic – and in most cases, not worth the effort. There are no sponsors or private patrons. Only the books sales and donations collected at the events ensure the survival of the company. And further, the publishers are confronted with increased expenses related to print and transport. Books have to be delivered much faster. They are being produced in smaller numbers. Everything has to function in an instant. Amazon and online shopping have pretty much changed the game.
Nevertheless, the company has always managed to stay in the black. The sales of a book ensure the realization of the next project. ‘The booklovers in Berlin and elsewhere like our crazy novels, our original stuff,’ Thomas Manegold smiles. The revenues have been enough up until now, and Thomas does no
t seem to be interested in skyrocketing profits. The most important thing remains the literary product, original material by talented people. It is why hordes of aspiring writers from all over Germany and Austria keep choosing Berlin as the place to be: because here they can fulfill their dream without having to adjust to the demands of the industry. Here they can find glory and honor, but sadly, only little money.
The result of book sales can be quite sobering for the creator of a novel. Usually, the author receives a small share, a total of ten percent of net sales. In most cases the money earned through book sales is just enough to cover expenses, so it is almost impossible for an author to live entirely from his writing.
‘Gentrification surely has contributed a lot to the current situation’, says Manegold. He recalls the time when Berlin still used to be cheaper, more affordable for a poor artist seeking glory. ‘On the other hand, when the people have more money, they’ll spend more money on literature and culture!’ he explains. For better or for worse, the creative industry in Berlin has changed drastically during the last few years. The city and its literary culture is experiencing a development of which the outcome cannot be predicted yet.