The German SF-market is the second largest in Europe, just behind the traditionally strong British one. Nevertheless, outside the borders of Germany, German SF is mostly identified with the never-ending SF-series, Perry Rhodan, if recognized at all. If not, then it is because of the fact that many international readers of Perry don't even know about its German origins. Beside the Rhodan-phenomenon, there is much more to say about German SF in terms of publishing and writing. Strongly connected to this, the perception and publication of Anglo-American SF has to be another important topic. This article will try to summarize both the history as well as the present condition of SF in Germany. Therefore, the author will concentrate on general trends and issues without delving into too much detail.
History: Parallel developments
While the origins of the genre are mostly attributed to Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, SF in Germany has its own traditions and they evolved roughly around the same time. The end of the last German Empire and the rise of the First Republic saw a variety of publications, many in series, which clearly contributed to the development of SF in Germany. Authors like Hans Dominik—with plenty of novels about German rocket-scientists accomplishing everything from space travel to peaceful use of atomic energy, or the prolific series-writer Freder van Holk and his fictional hero Sun Koh—were highly popular between the two world wars and helped to kick-start the genre after the foundation of the Second Republic after the war. It was then when the so-called "Heftroman"—translated by John Clute as "dime novel," but maybe better described as "pulp booklet"—was the major publishing form of SF in Germany. Millions of copies of these small booklets with 64 pages were printed and they established both a platform for a new generation of German authors as well as a rising number of translations from overseas. Because of their appeal to a wide audience, they established modern SF as a serious genre in Germany.
Unfortunately, this form of publication—not as a "real" book—was also responsible for the fact that SF was and partly still is regarded as "ghetto-literature." Reading the colorful booklets under the blanket to avoid stern measures from parents was a common experience of early fans as well as the obvious disgust of teachers who found the material outrageous among school books. Beside the fact that the pulp-booklets provided translations of nowadays internationally-renowned authors like Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem or Brian Aldiss, among others, the rise of SF in high circulation was strongly connected to the rise of its criticism and, for a long time, its total negligence by mainstream-writers, not to speak of the reflection by university research which also widely ignored the genre.
While Perry Rhodan, which started circulating in 1961 and is still published weekly today (reaching more than 2200 episodes in booklet-form, many hundreds of paperbacks and additional material), is the most famous, it was not the first and only series. During the 50's, many of them—including a number based mainly on translations from Anglo-American authors, albeit mostly shortened to fit into the format—provided the basis for Perry's success. During the 60's, mass-market paperbacks evolved, slowly but surely, competing with the booklets. The Golden Age of SF in Germany seemed to be in the making, as an increasing number of German authors were able to be published, even if most of these were in the pulp-booklet-series, rather than in paperback, where translations remained dominant.
The Fall of the Empire and the Heyday of German SF
The 80's saw two very important developments. First; the demise of the pulp-booklet which had reached its peak during the 70's, mostly driven by new series exploiting a new and different genre: Horror. Second; a number of mergers and acquisitions in the early 80's and the death of key figures in certain publishing houses led to a surprisingly fast downturn.
Many German authors who had been writing professionally since the 60's and 70's, making a living through producing at least two novels a month (if not more), were suddenly out of business. Only a few were able to move over into the paperback market, which experienced the opposite effect. Despite the ever rising numbers of books in paperback—partly attributed to the success of Star Wars—the increasing publishing schedules had not been able to provide a relatively stable economic basis for the new German authors who had mostly despised writing for pulps.
In the early 80's, the German publishing house, Heyne, stepped forward as the largest SF-publisher in Europe for many years, even topping the British competitors. In its best days, Heyne published more than 10 paperbacks a month, strongly competed against by a number of smaller publishing houses, pushing SF-publication in Germany to up to 200 new books—translations and German authors—a year, not including small press publications. Prolific editor, Wolfgang Jeschke, who headed the program of Heyne-SF for decades, was able to make an economically-sensible mix of high-profile, literary SF (which did not sell very well) and mass-oriented space operas and series (like the Star Trek novelizations), which sustained the dominance of his publishing house for a considerable time. His monthly anthologies containing short-stories—not a genre very popular in Germany—provided the basis for many emerging German authors to get published for the first time. These years of plenty did not last for very long; already at the end of the decade numbers went down and some publishers scrapped their SF-programs altogether.
Additionally, hardcover-SF has never had a major market in Germany. Some smaller publishers have tried it. Most of them could barely sustain themselves during the boom-times, nearly all of them went out of business as soon as numbers went down. The paperback—in terms of paper quality and printing something in between the US mass-market and trade-paperbacks—was the dominant and for a long time the only form of publication. The slow degeneration of the paperback-market, which accelerated significantly during the 90's and seems to culminate at present, kicked the second generation of German SF authors out of business, as publishers tended to prefer translations from overseas productions to boost their sales.
Many German authors went into hibernation—changing the genre, especially in the direction of historic novels, to meet the emerging demand for scripts from German TV-stations—or decided to confine themselves to provide translation services for their more lucky colleagues from overseas instead. The crisis of the pulp-sector intensified; for a considerable period no SF was published beside the seemingly unimpressive Perry Rhodan, which continued to be published without serious threats (albeit with cutbacks) for the whole period, providing a basis for professional German SF-writing for those chosen few who had been able to secure a place in the team of seven to eight authors who continue to write these adventures. Only the late 1990s saw a re-emergence of genre-related pulp-series, of which there are three from the major publishers and some more from small presses available at present.
Managing the crisis: the emergence of small presses
While the big publishing houses were scaling down, the thirst of the remaining customers had to be quenched. A variety of small presses emerged during the 90's. There have been others during the whole period, but their number has been small. Now, many took advantage of the growing negligence of the genre by major publishers. They were hardly able to provide large circulations, so many of them started with reminiscence: before publishing new books from new authors; they acquired the publication rights for many of the old pulp-sf-series from the 60's and 70's, hired editors to rewrite and modernize the stories, and republished them. Some even made it into hardcover. This seemed to be a big success, and many small presses that started with only one project now featured rather huge publishing schedules, printing up to 20 titles a year. While this sounds impressive, it has to be put into consideration that during this time, the formerly big paperback-publishers—notably Heyne—faced diminishing circulations even among former popular franchises, e.g. the translations of the Star Trek and Battletech Paperbacks. While a rather successful mass market paperback did not sell more than 5000-10,000 copies, small publishing houses opened champagne-bottles if one of their books reached four-digit-numbers. Many well-edited titles did and do sell considerably fewer than 1000 copies. Nevertheless, small presses provided the breeding ground for the next generation of German SF-authors as well as being a refuge for those who nearly forgot that writing SF can also lead to publication. As small presses can hardly afford to pay for rather expensive translations and the big publishers were cutting down their publishing schedules, fewer and fewer foreign writers were published in Germany during the last 10 years. Many German fans—latest since the advent of the German subsidiary of Amazon.com—decided to remind themselves of the fact that English is the first foreign language they were taught in German schools. They started to order directly.
The current state of SF in Germany: a summary
SF is not unpopular in Germany right now, but for most publishers it's bad business and if they do not act with apprehension, they do at least act with caution. Heyne, formerly the undisputed number one, is barely able to publish more than two books a month. The remaining competitor—Bastei—manages three. All other Science Fiction is published in small presses, of which there are around 40 currently. The situation is slightly brighter in the Fantasy area, which experienced a small boost through both the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises. Well known Horror-authors like Stephen King are still successfully published in Germany.
There are nearly no German SF-authors who can make a living through writing. Few exceptions exist—like Andreas Eschbach, one of the rare examples whose books are now translated into the opposite direction—to be published in the US. The limited number of steadily writing Perry Rhodan authors can live from their earnings as well. Everyone else is doing another "real" job or tries to diversify as much as possible. Many are waiting for better times. Quite a number of very prolific writers have found greener pastures in other areas. The remaining hopeful writers mostly bear with the small presses (who pay only a small honorarium, if at all), hoping that eventually, when things are not as bad anymore, they might be given a chance.
The forgotten realm: print-magazines
Many readers of this article might have asked the question already: where are the magazines? In fact, the question is valid, as print magazines have been and are still very important, especially in the US, for a quite vibrant oeuvre of short stories and novellas. Not in Germany, though. There have been magazines, and some quite well-edited ones. In the boom times of German SF, there were even more than one at a time, but many of them only publishing stories occasionally, clearly more interested in providing articles and news. At any given time, magazines never played an important role in Germany. Currently, there are two periodicals, which any US-fan would classify as semi-professional. They are published quarterly and their circulation hardly exceeds 1000 copies. They are for the die-hard fans and never see the newsstands, sold directly through subscriptions. Here, the same rule has emerged for the German reader that has been mentioned in regard to current foreign novels: if you like to have your monthly load of fresh SF, subscribe in the UK or, since even Interzone went bimonthly recently, the US. There is no alternative.
Which way to go? Perspectives of SF in Germany
The picture seems gloomy. The downward spiral of SF in Germany has stopped on a low basis, but no real upward trend is discernible. Some successful small presses have announced their intention to enter the difficult business of translating new Anglo-American SF, facing sometimes serious problems in obtaining publication rights for an affordable sum as knowledge about the conditions of the German market does not seem to reach far outside the country (with notable exceptions like the aforementioned John Clute). The big publishers are still cautious, some are complaining that no really good new material from German writers is forthcoming. Small presses still seem to be the major choice, if they are capable of making themselves known. Many staunch readers who do not want or are not capable of reading English are turning to the second-hand-market, harvesting the fruits of better times.
In the end, the current situation can be summarized like this: The condition of the patient is stable, but progress is small and full recovery will take considerable time.