Carlijn Potma chats to Eva Schweitzer, a native Berliner who has set up a publishing company dedicated solely to publishing books about Berlin…
What inspired you to start a publishing company focused on books from and about Berlin?
I covered Berlin as a journalist for a long time, even before the Wall fell; when I came to New York, I noticed quickly that Berlin was a major topic. Also, I was always delivering information from America to Germany, and I felt it was about time to do it the other way round.
How’s the demand for books about Berlin in the US?
The demand is definitely there. The hardest part is to stick out—if you check ‘Berlin travel guides’ on Amazon, you will find 265 books. So, my job is to convince people that my books are the best. I am selling Berlin as a myth, but I am still figuring out what the narrative of Berlin means to Americans. I only know that it’s quite different from actual history. For instance, many Americans are not aware that West Berliners could leave the city despite of the Wall. Or they don’t know that Berlin was conquered not by the U.S., but by the Soviets in May 1945; and that the U.S. Army traded parts of Saxony for West Berlin only later, mainly to have a spy post. Also, they have no idea that people persecuted by the Nazis early on – like the authors whose books were burned in 1933 – were mostly communists. Or, another example, they don’t know that the population of West Berlin has been more or less exchanged since the 1950s. They think every Berliner who is old enough remembers the Kennedy speech.
What sets Berlinica apart from other publishing companies?
It’s the only American company that sells books from Berlin in English. Actually, that seems to be quite unusual; every time I tell somebody what I’m doing, not matter how thoroughly, the first question is always: ‘So, are your books in English or in German?’
Are there any other people (like translators, graphic designers and proofreaders) involved with the company?
Yes, but not on staff (yet), these are freelance assignments.
How do you select the books that will be published by Berlinica?
While I do check on Amazon about what sells, it’s still more of a gut feeling about what Americans might be interested in. That includes, of course, everything related to the Third Reich and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the Wall and the Cold War. Right now, I am trying out different topics, and whatever sells best I will stick with. The most difficult part is fiction, that is very unpredictable. My guess is that fiction will need to have an American hero to sell in the U.S. And, generally, Americans need an American hook. They have more trust in a guide book written by an American who has spent four weeks someplace without speaking the language than in a local book. I recently checked the ten best selling (fiction) books about Berlin in the USA, and only one was written by a German.
What are your most successful publications so far?
The Berlin Cookbook. And judging from what sells on Amazon, a sure bestseller would be: Eva Braun’s secret cookbook—what got Hitler healthy and fit through World War Two. With an introduction by Sarah Palin.
Do you design/shoot all the book covers and artwork yourself?
Not all of them, but a lot. I do buy pictures from outside sources, though. The cover of Wallflower was designed by Eberhard Delius and the picture is from Heike Barndt, for instance.
You’re originally from Berlin—why did you move to New York?
To do a PhD. on Times Square. Then I wanted to explore more.
How do you divide your time between New York and Berlin?
I‘d say about half-half. I usually spend the winter holidays and the summer in Berlin, and fall and spring in New York. I really don’t like the New York winter. Not that it’s that much better in Berlin but here at least I have a decent apartment. Nowadays with the internet, Skype, and Slingbox it doesn’t even matter that much where you are.
What are – in your opinion – the main differences between Berlin and New York?
Oh my—where to start? For me, being in Berlin is like a vacation in the countryside. New York is very dense, fast-paced, huge, expensive, and controlled—you can’t cross a street during a parade due to police all over the place, and you can’t hang out in a café with friends dropping by because the waiter will bother you about the size of your table. Berlin is much more relaxed and laid-back. You can have a picnic in the Tiergarten, bare-breasted and with champagne, both of which will get you arrested in New York. Then again, New York is cleaner, safer, richer, and it feels like you are in the middle of the universe.
What are your plans for the future?
I am thinking of founding an imprint for all things Native American. I would then also get distribution in Germany.
Check out the Berlinica website here.