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Getting that Berlin novel published…

When Isherwood published his "Goodbye to Berlin", he was 35. These modern-day writers are all under 40 and, whether e-published, self-published or contracted by a German publisher, they have also put out their own Berlin memoirs.

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Photo by Michal Andrysiak

When Isherwood published his Goodbye to Berlin, he was 35. These modern-day writers are all under 40 and, whether e-published, self-published or contracted by a German publisher, they have also put out their own Berlin memoirs.

Savannah Page always knew she had a book, or several, inside her. It was during a study abroad programme that the young Californian first visited Berlin. “I immediately fell in love with the city and had this feeling of ‘I want to live here someday’.” She finally made the move in 2011, and it wasn’t long before a book was in the making.

“I’d been collecting tons of journal entries, short stories and blog posts about living here and the funny cultural mishaps that happen to everyone. So I thought I could write about being an expat in Berlin, and this could be my stepping off point to the writing career I’d always dreamed of.” In Bumped to Berlin, Savannah, who’s now in her late twenties, exposes her dealings with such tried-and-true topics as supermarket shopping, Kindergeld and FKK.

It can take months to get a response from a publishing house. In that amount of time, I could have posted my stuff on Facebook and seen it go viral.

To get her book to market, she took the true ‘indie author’ route. “I’d heard about vampire book author Amanda Hocking making it big through self-publishing. And the controlling side of me wanted to go through each distribution channel separately, rather than go through a publishing platform. I learnt how to wear all the different hats myself, helped largely by the KBoards Kindle author forum. So the first edition of the book was published with zero investment other than time.”

She doesn’t downplay the importance of shelling out for some kind of filter between your laptop and someone else’s e-reader: for the second edition of Bumped, she paid an editor. “It’s an absolute necessity and if you can spend that few hundred euros, you’ll hopefully see a return on your investment.” Otherwise, she sings the praises of self-publishing.

As a result of not going through a platform or publishing house, she enjoys greater freedom over her sales strategy, sometimes reducing her prices in order to encourage more readers and referrals. “I’m a nobody, and I’m not going to ask someone for their hard-earned money for a book they don’t know. There are indie authors out there have work that’s just as perfectly packaged as that of traditional authors, but readers don’t know that.”

The DIY way

One such author is native born-and-raised Berliner Polly Trope, 28, who penned a harrowing but fascinating book, Cured Meat, about her spiral into insanity, followed by her incarceration in and escape from a mental asylum. While only part of the book is set in Berlin, with the rest taking the reader to England and America, she does paint a detailed picture of 1990s East Berlin as “dank and crumbling” with “dark and abandoned” buildings.

To put her words in front of readers’ eyes, she used Lulu, a free online self-publishing platform that takes a cut of the book’s earnings, if and when sold, in return for an ISBN, printing or e-book formatting and distribution costs. To pay for her cover design and editor, Polly launched a crowdfunding campaign.

“Getting in touch with someone in publishing seems like a lot of heartache for slim rewards,” Polly says. “I don’t like to cultivate dead-end correspondence with agents and publishers. My network of friends, readers and critics is slow-growing but as long as there’s interest and reactions, I know I’ve reached the right readers.”

Another, Berlin-based self-publishing platform, epubli, charges authors an upfront fee of €14.95 for publishing and distributing a title via brick-and-mortar stores, Amazon and their own online book shop. They also provide an ISBN and take care of printing and formatting, as well as running a blog about book marketing for novices.

This made it easy for two separate Berlin blogs to recently make the transition from webpage to printed page: Slow Travel Berlin, with Paul Sullivan’s alternative guidebook and photo-book 100 Favourite Places; and Überlin by James Glazebrook and Zoë Noble, who have decided to turn Liv Hambrett’s popular guest post “What I know about Germans” into a full-blown illustrated book.

Perhaps Noel Maurice from Indieberlin is going to be the next blogger to author a book about Berlin; he is currently in the process of posting weekly chapters of his forthcoming memoir Berlin Diaries Vol. 1 – 1991. When finished, his plan is to publish this as an e-book and a print-on-demand paperback… unless his new literary agent manages to secure him a book deal.

Through self-publishing platforms such as these, authors can make margins of between 60 and 80 percent of the sales price, which is head and shoulders above big publishing houses, which typically pay between just five and 15 percent. The benefit of the latter being, however, that their high-profile position and marketing savvy will lead to enough sales that this royalty gap ceases to matter. With a little luck and a willingness to hand over your book-baby to someone else, you just might win big.

The traditional way

Ida Hattemer-Higgins, who was born in Ohio and grew up in Boston, spent 10 years in Berlin from 2003 until earlier this year, working as a walking tour guide and a translator. During that time, she wrote The History of History: A Novel Of Berlin, an autobiographical novel about a young amnesiac girl losing her mind (and her way) in the city.

For Hattemer-Higgins, self-publishing was never given so much a second thought: “If no publisher of any type had ever shown any interest – in New York, London, or even a little hole-in-the-wall zine publisher – I would have taken it as a sign that the book was either poorly written or a self-gratification.” Instead she sent her manuscript, cold, to agents and publishers – one of whom, Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House in New York, liked it enough to agree on a deal with her. A deal with Faber & Faber followed shortly after, and the book was released in January 2011.

Does she think she lost some amount of freedom by getting into an agreement with Knopf and Faber? “Having a big publishing house is freedom. The system works in the debut author’s favour. Your advance is likely paid to you from the profits made on a JK Rowling or an Ian McEwan, not from your own minimal royalties. They re-invest in new blood in the hopes that one will emerge over time and become big enough to pay for the next generation of debut writers. It’s a system I believe in.”

Understandably: her book received immediate critical acclaim and coverage from the press, earning her “One to Watch” status from The Guardian and a translation from major French publisher Flammarion.

Israeli writer Ilan Goren also took the traditional publishing house road and, as he puts it, “won the publishing lottery”. After coming to Berlin from Tel Aviv in 2009, he told a friend at a dinner party about the unusual-but-not-unfathomable experiences he’d been having, and that friend told him to write a book.

“I realised the city just wasn’t as sexy and dangerous as friends had led me to believe… it inspired me.” It’s true, you shouldn’t keep tales of nude anarchists and ice-skating rabbis under wraps. “PR and marketing are important, but while you can and should reach out to people, there are two things you can’t control: talent and luck. And I’m not sure if I have much of the former.”

Originally a 30-page draft in English and Hebrew, Goren’s manuscript was picked up by literary agent Petra Eggers, who pitched it to 20 publishing houses on his behalf. A few months later, three of them said yes, including Graf Verlag, a subsidiary of Ullstein, one of Germany’s largest publishing houses. Goren accepted Graf’s offer (including a hefty down-payment) and in November 2013, the 250-page, German-translated Wo bist du Motek?: An Israeli in Berlin was released and duly promoted in the German press. All proving that while self-publishing is a sure-fire, can’t-go-wrong way to get your book out there, a traditional book deal – with the professional editing and translation process it lends, not to mention the press and promotion – is still a very relevant method, even in today’s internet age.

The e-way

What if you want the help and support of a publishing house, but don’t like to suck up to people? You could always submit your work to a magazine, and hope to be discovered there. Chloe Zeegen, a 33-year-old half-German, half-British Oxford graduate, authored a trio of short stories affectionately titled I love myself, OK? A Berlin trilogy. Originally scribbled down on receipts and pieces of paper when Zeegen was locked out of her flat on the same day as losing her job, the prose flits between text-message-style (complete with smileys, LOLs and WTFs) and poetic language as she dips into familiar territory such as Görli Park and arguments about whether tourists are destroying Berlin.

Having posted snippets on her Facebook page and garnering positive responses from her friends there, she proactively contacted literature and photography publication Still magazine ahead of their debut issue and made it in. It was there that her work caught the eye of Nikola Richter from Mikrotext. Richter later approached her at an open stage event, and her e-book was born.

“I had a fairly easy ride. It can take months to get a response from a publishing house. In that amount of time, I could have posted my stuff on Facebook and seen it go viral.”

The e-book can now be purchased, in English only, for the very Berlin-friendly price of €2.99. German, French and Spanish versions are potentially on the horizon. Having read at their events before, Zeegen will soon tour Germany with Katersalon, a literary collective run by the KaterHolzig crew.

There are various ways to get your Berlin book published, from the all-out DIY self-publishing method to worming your way into a book deal with a publishing giant, and everything else in between. The process of getting your art to market is no exact science, but rather a matter of personal preference. Whatever turns your page.

Originally published in issue #122, December 2013.