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Publisher Be Damned
July/August 2013

What's in a book? Everything, it would seem in Germany. The "country of poets and thinkers", as Madame de Staël called it in the early 1800s, is traditionally bibliophile; even today literary feuds can become front page news. The idea that Kultur is an asset deriving from written words still forms the national narrative. 

Imagine, then, the upheaval of sensitivities when Suhrkamp, the country's most respected publishing house, filed for bankruptcy, torn apart by a row over money and management. 

"That's just the working of the market," an English friend of mine said and shrugged his shoulders when I anxiously told him that the publisher of Bertolt Brecht, Hermann Hesse and Jürgen Habermas might go bust. "I really don't see what you're on about. If a business is failing, it's not worth getting worked up about." 

What's worrying the enlightened bourgeoisie in this case? It's a story that reads like a passage from Vanity Fair written by Thomas Mann. Two rival shareholders who are trying to oust the other ask a court to dissolve their partnership; illustrious authors grapple for exotic metaphors to attack one of the shareholders; a respected critic accuses the other one of going mad — the abyss of evil on all sides, engulfing the German Geist!

The tale behind this peculiar row is straightforward enough: Hans Barlach, a wealthy investor who is a minority shareholder in the company, accuses Suhrkamp's majority shareholder, Ulla Unseld-Berkéwicz, of mismanagement. She in turn claims that Barlach, who tried to buy her out, is only after a quick profit. The unlikely pair have been locked in a bitter power struggle for years, which has entailed numerous legal battles, drained the company of money and damaged its image. The particular process employed in this case (Schutzschirmverfahren — it had to be a long compound noun) is a new legal tool (similar to administration in the UK) which has never been applied to a similar situation in publishing. It is impossible to know what its effects will be.

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