What brings a practicing architect to start publishing books as a second business enterprise? Ūla Ambrasaitė, publisher of Vilnius-based LAPAS talks to Philipp Meuser, architect and head of DOM publishers, Berlin. During their conversation it turns out that they do not only share their passion for beautiful books but also follow the idea allowing young authors to start their career in the book industry. Meuser shares invaluable insights in his publishing activities. The interview was conducted in in late July 2022, five months after Russian President Vladimir Putin had started his military invasion to Ukraine. The war requires both publishers to position themselves more politically.
Illustration: Natascha Meuser, © DOM publishers
Ūla Ambrasaitė: DOM publishers are already counting their 17 years in business and successfully growing in depth as well as in size. Not only your books receive awards but also DOM publishers as an enterprise were awarded twice with the German Publishing Prize as an outstanding publisher in 2020 and 2022. What is even a more important step in a life of an independent publishing house – lately you have decided to share the editorial responsibilities and invited an editor-in-chief to join the team. Since 2019, Björn Rosen has been appointed as the publishing director. Therefore, I would like to ask you to share your insights on the publishing industry today, and if your perspective has changed during the years. But let me ask you about the very beginning – what was your way into publishing? How came DOM publishers into life, and what was the reason that you had started the publishing?
Philipp Meuser: My way into publishing started from the first day of studying architecture in the university. I had entered a fellowship program to also be trained as a journalist during my studies in architecture. When all my student fellows in the university did their internships in all these famous architects offices in Berlin in the early 1990s, I was gaining work experiences at local newspapers and radio stations. I always felt in-between these two worlds of practicing architecture and theorizing on architecture – until today. In 1996, my wife Natascha and I founded Meuser Architekten, and almost ten years later we extended our activities in the publishing world. As an architect, you are trained to manage your projects in a very holistic way. You always need to have all planning steps in your mind. The same applies to publishing: you write about architecture, you think about the graphic design, and how to do the printing process, the production, and the distribution. Allow me to add that content management is my main priority. Moreover, I believe that a book needs to be found and that you do not need to promote it, if the message is clear and contemporary. For me, the publishing business is more about the contribution to a discussion, let's say adding a small piece of mosaic to a whole picture of architectural history. It's even more important to publishing a book which is listed in a bibliography five or 10 years later, as if you would sell 2,000 or 3,000 copies within the first three months of the publication. Of course, sales and earnings are important for independent enterprise cannot survive without profit.
Ūla Ambrasaitė: You mentioned the importance of the book being quoted in other books. I think this is one of the fundamental drivers of a publisher: contributing to a global web of ideas and creating the context for authors within the bigger context.
Philipp Meuser: Indeed. Whenever I'm going to brief an author, I always ask him where he would like to see his book in the bookshelf, if it is an architect's monograph, or is it something about urban design, about a style of architecture, about a material, about a construction method. It’s a fundamental question to make the author clear what he is writing about. For me, briefing the author is never reduced to the issue “tell me something about your target group”. It's always about the question: What is the context you are writing in?
Ūla Ambrasaitė: The author plays a crucial role in publishing, and I am noticing authors becoming stronger voices in the industry. How do you see the role of an author at DOM publishers, has it changed since 2005?
Philipp Meuser: I don't know if the role of the author has changed dramatically. I would say the ambition of me as a publisher might have changed. Allow me to simplify: In the beginning it was important for us to publish any kind of book, which was related to architecture, design, or urban planning. Today the selection of an author has become more important to us. Our strategy is to ask whether this author fits into our publishing program. I've never counted, but I would estimate we have published more than 700 titles with more than 1,000 authors since the beginning. And it has always been important for me, that each author contributes to the profile of the publishing house.
»As an architect, you are trained to manage your projects in a very holistic way. You always need to have all planning steps in your mind. The same applies to publishing.« – Philipp Meuser
Ūla Ambrasaitė: Would you recall a moment when it has changed from wanting to publish books on architecture in general to aiming to create a network of conversations, that each author would contribute to the profile?
Philipp Meuser: This was quite early – forced by economic circumstances and not voluntarily. The strategical turn was: mainly focusing on series, saying farewell to the anything-goes mixture. I remember that the first architectural guide we published on Berlin was shortly after the 2008 financial crisis. We were forced to think about our publishing strategy very much. In the beginning years, we licenced nearly all our titles to foreign publishers. We closely worked with publishers in China and Singapore – we released the titles in German, and Chinese publisher in Mandarin, and the Singaporean publisher in English. The copies were printed in one production process using the method of black-film change. We had quite a good cooperation which was suspended immediately during this financial crisis when Asia suffered a lot. We also suffered in the architect's office. I remember that within one week we lost five projects, what we were doing in Russia and Kazakhstan. The clients called us and terminated the contracts overnight. We had to think about how to survive and then we came up with the idea to reduce our whole publishing program and to develop three series: guides for travelling architects, construction and design manuals for practicing planners, and the Basics series for our academic audience. We try to meet the requirements of all architects, scholars, and people who are generally interested in architecture. It's clear for us that the architect is not the only stakeholder in the building and planning process. But the architect remains the only stakeholder in the process who is responsible for design and beauty.
Ūla Ambrasaitė: As much as I know you personally, and as much as I am following DOM publishers’ programme, I notice a strategy to support and to empower the younger generation as well as first-time authors in general.
Philipp Meuser: Indeed. We have been working many times with so-called first-time authors – youngsters who publish a book first time in their life. In general, it is quite time- and energy-consuming. You always need to start from scratch and to explain each step. During the years we have helped mainly young authors from Eastern Europe to publish their first book ever. We are very proud of supporting young talents. I strongly believe that a young author can also write about a subject of which generations of other authors have been publishing before. Young authors can add new thoughts to a topic what experts have written about. The new view is so important, especially when it comes to the architectural guides. Whenever we have authors with Arab or Asian background, they are often very shy and too respectful, and they tell us: “Oh, we are nor old neither experienced enough to write about our city, to select buildings for an architectural guide.” In this case we try to encourage them to start writing, because all these experts and more experienced authors also have started some day in the past. We feel that we can really persuade young author to write.
Ūla Ambrasaitė: Which title do you have in mind?
Philipp Meuser: I remember the initial meeting for our Alexandria title, which was edited together with a local architecture school and the Goethe Institute. In 2017, I went to Egypt for a first workshop to introduce the architectural guidebook as a book genre, which is not so common in certain cultural context. I explained what an architectural guide is, what is the purpose of it. 25 out of the 30 students were female. They were very open-minded, but at a certain point, they all told me, they didn’t feel qualified to become authors. The told me: “We feel too young and it should be the older men who should write about architecture.” I told them not to believe in a single history of architecture! Finally, I am very happy that the guidebook was recently published. And most of the authors who contributed were those young female students. I count this as a success in our publishing activities. It's not the quantity of books, what we sell, or the quantity of titles, what we publish during the year. It’s about inspiration and motivation. Whenever young authors are as proud as to have tears in their eyes – this reminds us why we do books.
»It is important to give a voice to different perspectives. And it takes effort to encourage people to start writing and believing how to contribute to the dominant narrative, how much their voice also matters.« – Ūla Ambrasaitė
Ūla Ambrasaitė: It resonates a lot to my personal vision as a publisher that it is important to give a voice to different perspectives. And it takes effort to encourage people to start writing and believing how to contribute to the dominant narrative, how much their voice also matters. However, we come to a very important question to a publisher: How do you define the bestseller at DOM publishers? How do you measure the success of the book besides its contribution to the broader profile of the publishing house?
Philipp Meuser: Let me give you two answers. Of course, from the financial point of view, a bestseller is a book what you sell many copies of within a very short time. And another bestseller is, of course, if you have a second or even your third print run. So I think these are bestsellers on the economic side. However, the successful book could also be a title with a very small print run, but which gets reviews from high-qualified reviewers or from experts within a certain field of research. I think this is something, what is important for me and for DOM publishers in general. Sometimes young people contact us because they read something what we had published, and they want to contribute to our publishing program. In general, we are very open to support them. Whereas I have to say that we are not as generous as we can allow everyone to publish in our publishing house. Of course, we have some levels of quality control – but also of financial responsibility. We need to calculate how the return of investment is guaranteed. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. And this brings us to the question, how can we give a forecast if a book is successful or not? Frankly speaking: I cannot! The book market is unpredictable. You never know, how fast a book will sell. But I can tell you that you will sell all copies in the end.
Ūla Ambrasaitė: You say this after 17 years in publishing – that you never know what will sell. What was the most unexpectedly successfull book?
Philipp Meuser: The more nerdy the subject is – the better you can sell it. We have published a book on the north Ukrainian city of Slavutych – most people in Western Europe never have heard about it. It's a city which has been replaced after Chernobyl disaster and it's like a big open-air museum of Soviet panel housing. Very nerdy. We published this book in English, Ukrainian, and Russian language, and it was sold out very soon. It was really a surprise for us. Our motivation to publish was not to sell it as soon as possible and to make a big profit. Our motivation was to allow the author Ievgeniia Gubkina to write a book on this subject, on the city, and to make this city more well known in the academic world.
Ūla Ambrasaitė: I would say it is an intrinsic success of a publisher, when the audience you have built during the years trusts in your choice and is eager to read about a nerdy subject they have not heard about before. However, the economic success is measured by different metrics. For example, the Federation of European Publishers has once published a report saying that one out of 10 published titles is a bestseller, two published titles cover the expenses and seven titles are unprofitable. What percentage of bestsellers in this regard does DOM publishers have per year?
Philipp Meuser: When I just think about those ten per cent bestsellers, I agree in terms of revenue and number of titles. Out of 50 new releases per year, five are bestsellers. Together with our strong backlist, it allows us to publish financially high-risk titles. These are those “nerdy” titles I was mentioning before. Since our books are not focused on one season, we can sell it the same price for five to seven years. The risk in publishing is mainly to understand how soon you can sell your longsellers. This caused the main troubles in the beginning of our publishing business. Today we have approximately 300 titles in the market which guarantees continuous earnings. The biggest risk for publishing business remains the cash flow. You need to calculate how long you are going to have the title on stock, that means for a calculation of a book, it's not only the author's and designer’s fees or printing, distribution, warehousing cost – the secret is to balance future investment, continuous returns, and the “frozen money” in your warehouse. Luckily, we have full control on most of the publishing steps and don’t depend on third parties. But whenever there are some certain issues like a financial crisis, the pandemic, or the war in Ukraine – we are directly hit. Since a couple of years, we had established quite good and successful sales in Russia, but it was completely suspended by the start of Russia’s invasion. The same applied to our sales in Ukraine whereas. It’s dramatic, less in terms of financial disaster but in terms of cultural exchange what is our main motivation to keep running the publishing house. The war forces us to act more actively: We must understand architecture as politics, not only as a beautification of our built environment or as an answer to social and ecological questions.
»Out of 50 new releases per year, five are bestsellers. The more nerdy the subject is – the better you can sell it.« – Philipp Meuser
Ūla Ambrasaitė: Publishing is a tought business where the content analysis is way more important to understand economics than the way around. Although the book market is unpredictable, or maybe because of it, I notice people usually gets excited about the idea to publish books, to start their own publishing house. What would be your economic advice for the ones thinking to start publishing – how many years of investments should they calculate before the break-even?
Philipp Meuser: You need to calculate 5 to 10 years. Definitely. The first five years you can hardly make any profit unless you carry Harry Potter in your program. The Bible might be another bestselling option. If young people think about establishing a publishing house, I recommend to do it with a partner: One is responsible for the content, and the other one is responsible for the financial success. This might help to have the breakeven sooner than five years.
Ūla Ambrasaitė: That is a very good advice – to have a partner and to calculate at least 5 years of negative results. What do you see as the biggest challenge for yourself today in publishing?
Philipp Meuser: Today’s challenge is to focus the publishing to a more political program. The war in Ukraine had forced us to rethink our direction. We sharpened our focus on Eastern European topics. Currently, half a dozen titles about Ukraine are in progress. They aim to increase knowledge about the country in the rest of Europe. Other titles will be translated into Ukrainian language to support decision makers in Ukraine when it comes to rebuilding the country. We understand this as our political statement against Russia. Putin and his minions dream about destroying the existence of Ukraine as a souverain nation. We as publishers try to fight back with independent reflections on Ukrainian architecture, building culture, and identity. If you would ask me what DOM publishers is going to do in 5 or 10 years, we would try to become stakeholder not only in the discussion on architectural history, but also about politics related to architecture and housing.
Ūla Ambrasaitė: I would like to finish our conversation with your perspectives on the future. What would you think the most disruptive innovations will be, what mental shifts they might cause? Would you think there will be different way how people buy and read books, how authors write or choose a publisher? Have you ever thought of how and if different the publisher’s life will be in 10 years?
Philipp Meuser: I this regard I might be the most conservative publisher. I believe in printing on paper, and I keep believing in. All these utopian thoughts about removing printed books from the market – I can hardly imagine that we as humans will completely digest knowledge from digital sources only. But the kind of books, what we are doing will change. I believe that books become more and more design objects. The more you focus on the quality of books, the better you might succeed in the market. From this, all stakeholders in the industry will benefit: the publisher, the reader, and the author.