Week 181: The Literatur Digital Conference

Johannes looks back at the Literatur Digital conference at the HKW in Berlin.

As Igor mentioned last week, we spent the weekend at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt1 in Berlin attending the Literatur Digital conference. It was organized by Fiktion, a collective of authors and publishers that sees more opportunities in digitalization for authors and serious fiction than dangers. The program was a good mix of theoretical and practical aspects with national and international speakers. It was a pity that the audience seemed to mostly consist of like-minded writers and publishers. There was little debate that would have pushed the conversation forward. So I enjoyed the back channel bantering with the few other Twitterers present.

Elisabeth, Igor and I used our panel to talk about publishing for the new context of reading and writing. Each of us introduced one example of an entity, doing something different while not waiting for the industry to decide on the right way forward.
Elisabeth showed how Maria Popova has taken Brainpickings from a newsletter with some inspirational links to a media brand with 7 million readers per month. It’s fascinating how she is using new media patterns (like listicles and book trailers) to re-introduce and promote a lot of classics of world literature.
Igor talked about Readmill as an example of a social ebook app that helps readers to engage deeper with digital text and have more conversations about it. He also demonstrated how the immense costs for a license for the Adobe DRM that companies like Readmill have to pay, hurt publishers. When they demand DRM, only the big platforms can afford it. If publishers want to see more competition for Amazon’s ebook business, dropping DRM demands would be a good start2.
I presented Wattpad, a Canadian startup that has created a platform for reading and, more importantly, writing. It has over 20 million active users, most of them teenagers. It’s a fascinating example of a new generation of writers who are learning to build reader communities and receive massive feedback from the get-go. The details about Wattpad are best summed up in this NY Times piece from last Sunday.

What all these examples have in common is their enormous passion for the written word. They are all struggling to find their business model. But that hasn’t kept them from pushing forward and bringing better texts to more readers. It’s an enthusiasm that they share with most attendants of Literatur Digital. I hope that these types of events get more attention in the future. The German publishing industry is in dire need of some well-balanced passion for the art form. Neither cynicism and conservatism nor blind faith in technology and the digital will create a prosperous future for writers. What is needed is some critical optimism. For Elisabeth, Igor and I, this panel was also a good example of the future collaboration we aim for. Her expertise as a former publisher and our insights into the digital landscape made for a good mix of observations and predictions in our talk.

I’m writing this at Il Baretto, an Italian cafe in the wartehalle of Zurich’s main train station3. We’re on our way to a big workshop with our client 3A Composites. They have just released the iPad version of their digital magazine Forms & Elements, developed by our friends at MoreSleep.
After this major milestone from the 4-year roadmap we created for them almost two years ago, it’s time to reflect on the general vision of the strategy and plan the next milestones in more detail. We’re looking forward to two exciting days.


  1. All of a sudden, it feels like I’m spending a lot of weekends at the HKW. The reason is that they’ve put together a pretty decent conference program. It started this year with Transmediale and continued with Narrating War and others. If you’re looking to widen your horizon on the weekend, the HKW is an excellent place to visit. It’s a nice building, too, including a restaurant with a lot of tables outside along the Spree. Now that spring is coming back, it’s a beautiful place to spend a Saturday afternoon in the shadow of the Kanzleramt. 

  2. And due to the late publishing date of this week note, I have to add that Readmill is rumored to be bought by Dropbox. It’s an “acqui-hire,“ which means that Dropbox wants the talent and will presumably kill the app. There you go, publishing industry, another good effort bites the dust, because you were neither interest interested in making it work nor made it at least easier by not demanding a lot of money for DRM licenses that could have gone into development or new ideas. 

  3. The coffee is a typical over-burned robusta hell, but the chocolate croissants might be the best I’ve ever had. 

Author: Johannes

Johannes is a strategist and consultant for digital communications. His work is informed by his experience of working with brands like Deutsche Telekom, MTV, Postbank, Maggi and Nike and by his insatiable appetite for finding the bigger patterns behind current developments in technology and science. Holding a diploma in Media System Design, Johannes is a regular speaker at web and marketing conferences like Republica and the Social Media Summit.