A German Perspective on Serials and Novellas

One effect of the e-book revolution in the English speaking world has been a resurgence in the popularity of short stories, novellas and serialized fiction. I already wrote a couple of posts about this topic, which you can find here, here and here.

Now the renewed popularity of novellas and serials in e-book form is something new for the English speaking world, where both novellas and serialized fiction largely died out with the demise of the pulp magazines in the 1950s.

However, in Germany the pulp novella never really died out. Indeed, it just happily chugged along through the postwar area in the form of the so-called “Romanhefte”, novella-length stories published as digest-sized 65-page magazines and sold at newsstands and in supermarkets.

Spinner Rack

A Romanheft spinner rack at my local supermarket. Note the Bastei Banner on top. Bastei is of course one of Germany’s biggest Romanheft publishers.

“Romanhefte” come in a wide variety of genres. Romance is the most popular with the subgenres medical romance, aristocratic romance (stories about fictional princes, counts and other aristocrats), “Heimatroman” (stories set in the Alps), family romance and gothic romance, but there are also westerns, crime fiction, horror/dark fantasy, historicals, war fiction, adventure stories, and science fiction. Some “Romanhefte” are complete standalones (romances mostly, but also westerns and war fiction), some are series featuring the same character in more or less self-contained adventures (many crime, fantasy and horror series, but also medical romances), others are continuing serials that have been running for decades on end in some cases. I’ve written about “Romanhefte” on my blog several times and also have also published a number of articles on specific genres and series.

Romanhefte

Random “Romanhefte” from my personal collection. Lots of romance and westerns for some reason.

The parallels between the “Romanheft” model (novella and novelette length stories, low price, wide variety of genres, high publication frequency, bundling*) and the indie e-book publishing model are obvious. As a result, one would also assume that “Romanhefte” would be ideally positioned to take advantage of the e-book revolution. And indeed, the three big “Romanheft” publishers, Bastei Lübbe, Kelter and Pabel-Moewig all offer their “Romanheft” lines past and present as e-books. Particularly, Bastei Lübbe and Pabel-Moewig also have detailed digital strategies.

Here is an article from Deutsche Welle about Bastei Lübbe‘s digital strategy. It’s a lengthy read (and only in German), but quite interesting, especially since Bastei is using similar strategies to many indie authors and is also expanding internationally by offering e-books in English and Chinese, written as “work for hire” by local authors, because this is supposedly cheaper than hiring translators, which I for one find a little disturbing.

Meanwhile, the German e-book news site Lesen.net offers up the longrunning SF series Perry Rhodan, published by Bastei‘s rival Pabel-Moewig**, as a model for a successful digital serial publishing. The article also discusses German indie SF serials modelled on Perry Rhodan.

Perry Rhodan has been running since 1961, which makes it one of the longest running “Romanheft” series. However, the longest running “Romanheft” series focussed on a single main character and one of the most successful is G-Man Jerry Cotton, which chronicles the adventures of the New York based FBI agent Jerry Cotton***. Jerry Cotton solved his first case back in 1954, which means that the series turned sixty this year. This article on Deutsche Welle marks the anniversary, though it sadly can’t resist snarking about the series and using derogatory terms like “Trivialliteratur”.

Also from Deutsche Welle, here is another article about the “Romanheft” phenomenon, which attempts to explain why these novellas are so popular in Germany. Once again – well, it is Deutsche Welle – the author can’t really lay off the snark and has to use terms like “Trivialliteratur” and “Heftchenromane”. He also comes to the conclusion that the reason “Romanhefte” are so popular in Germany is because Germans love happy endings and escapism. I guess the author has never seen a Harlequin/Mills & Boon romance.

*Unsold “Romanhefte” are returned to the publisher, stripped of their covers and then bundled as collected editions based on genre or series.

**Perry Rhodan and its spin-offs are now the only “Romanheft” franchise still published by Pabel-Moewig, since they stopped publishing their other “Romanheft” franchise, the WWII series Der Landser, in 2013 after protests that the series glorified Nazi war crimes. Of course, Der Landser has been published since 1957 and has always been its icky war-glorifying self (When buying one for research purposes, I always felt dirty), though for some reason the periodic complaints about this never bothered anybody until 2013. What is more, Der Landser survived its demise and reappeared under the title Weltkrieg, now published by a Swiss company that seems to be affiliated with Neo-Nazis.

***Together with the horror/urban fantasy series Geisterjäger John Sinclair, Jerry Cotton and Perry Rhodan make up the big three of the German “Romanheft” world.

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3 Responses to A German Perspective on Serials and Novellas

  1. Pingback: Two posts on the German publishing world | Cora Buhlert

  2. Sherwood Smith says:

    Thanks. Those links were interesting, especially the Deutsche Welle one.

    The writer needs a smack upside the head for contempt. Of course those novellas sold the best 1950-70. I met a few of the women buying them, or trading them, when they couldn’t afford to buy them. Their lives were so grim, romance novellas were about the only joy they had, after so many shitty years. Most of those women are now dying off; I have a stack of well-worn novellas cherished for forty years from a couple of them, who managed to make their ways over here.

    • Cora says:

      Literary criticism in the 1960s and 1970s really had it in for Romanhefte as well as any other sort of popular literature such as novels serialized in magazines, book club editions and any kind of entertainment in general. Most studies about Romanhefte date from this period and are dripping with condescension, which filtered into the way popular literature in general and Romanhefte in particular are viewed. The Deutsche Welle article is a very typical example and full of the sort of condescending attitude and language that would’ve been found in a Romanheft study from the 1970s. In fact, I strongly suspect that the author studied either German or pedagogics (Romanheft criticism was big in pedagogics, because OMG, what are our children reading?) sometime in the 1970s or 1980s and pretty much copies his opinion from those studies.

      Entertainment media from the 1950s and early 1960s in general still has an undeserved bad reputation in Germany as silly and escapist. The main charge apart from the fact that it doesn’t challenge the status quo (because obviously a romance novella is the right place to have characters lecture on Socialism and workers’ rights) is that it ignores and suppresses the past, particularly the Third Reich and World War II. Now I can absolutely understand why people in the 1950s and early 1960s preferred escapist media to works that tackled the Third Reich and WWII, because – duh – the target audience had lived through all that and neither needed nor wanted to be reminded. Never mind that there are plenty of 1950s movies and also novels and Romanhefte that address Third Reich and WWII experiences, often even in a critical way. And sometimes, you simply get heroic adventures of heroic German soldiers in WWII, whether in Der Landser or in something like Heinz G. Konsalik’s Arzt von Stalingrad. Hard to stomach today, but totally understandable that people would want to read that at the time and maybe not see themselves as villains for once.

      In the second half of the 1960s, the generation who had been children during WWII, came of age and naturally wanted to know about the Third Reich and what their parents had done during that time. Again perfectly understandable, but unfortunately in their quest for the truth they broke German pop culture by demanding that everything must always be critical and deal with the Nazi era as they saw it. They also managed to drive the next generation, those who were born in the 1960s and 1970s, away from German pop culture altogether, because it was always just about Nazis and WWII and no one wants to hear about that all the time.

      Never mind that the claim that Romanhefte are completely escapist and never ever address real world issues is bogus, because they absolutely do. Ditto for movies from the postwar era. For example, the remarkable Gerty Schiede who turned to writing Romanhefte after her husband died in the 1960s and left her a widow with five children has addressed issues such as AIDS, teen pregnancy, abortion, etc… in her Dr. Norden medical romances. She also said that the publisher never tried to stop her.

      Coincidentally, it’s very common that Romanhefte were passed on to other readers and swapped. For something that was made so cheaply, they lasted surprisingly long as well. And they certainly weren’t considered disposable by their target audience. According to a study from the 1970s, every single Romanheft was read by 8 people. Most cities and towns had Romanheft exchanges, where people could take old Romanhefte and swap them for new titles. Many of them were connected to comic shops, which meant that you regularly saw little old ladies venturing into the normally masculine domain of comic shops to get their weekly or monthly Romanheft haul. Amazingly, the geeks and the little old ladies happily coexisted.

      BTW, I like the idea that some Romanhefte made it to the US and were similarly passed around and cherished over there.

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