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Retreating into a Simpler World

Despite all the predictions of their demise, dime novels and puzzle magazines remain popular today. Bastei Lübbe is Germany’s market leader in this segment. “Panorama” spoke to Oliver Leimann, head of the dime novels and puzzles division at the well-established publishing company in Cologne, about what makes its print products successful.
 
“Panorama”: Your publishing company brings out dime novels in the genres of medical fiction, aristocratic romances, rural novels and Westerns. What makes them so popular with your readers?




Oliver Leimann (head of the dime novels and puzzles division at Bastei Lübbe AG): There are various aspects. First, the plots of the dime novels and the issues they address need to appeal to as many people as possible. People need to be able to identify with the topics. Second, reading our dime novels is undoubtedly an escape from every-day life for many readers. They want to retreat into a simpler world. Although there are certainly conflicts at the start of the stories, they end happily.
 
This form of literature has been around for decades. What makes your publishing company’s products successful?

 «The dime novel stories are easy to read thanks to their short length.»

The novels are written in simple language and are easy to read, thanks not least to their short length – each dime novel has 64 pages. The price of EUR 1.80 is also attractive. In many cases, readers have been familiar with the main characters, such as Jerry Cotton and John Sinclair, since their youth. One of our advertising slogans conveys the idea that we offer fiction for everyone. We want all our readers to enjoy and become engrossed in the chosen genre.
 
How many dime novels do you publish in total, and how frequently?
 
Currently, we have 17 titles in the segment targeted at male readers and 22 titles in the one targeted at female readers. Together with the omnibus volumes, that makes over 60 titles. The individual titles are published weekly or fortnightly, while the omnibus volumes are published monthly.
 
You mentioned segments targeting male and female readers. How do the titles in those segments differ?
 
Those are generalizations of course that don’t always apply. For historical and internal reasons, we’ve categorized our dime novels into thrillers, including detective novels, Westerns, and mystery and horror stories. Then there are also romance novels and romantic series, which tend to appeal more to women. Of course there are also male readers who are keen on rural novels, just as there are female fans of John Sinclair.
 
How high is the total annual circulation?
 
We print around 24 million dime novels each year.
 
How high were the circulation figures in the heyday of dime novels in the '60s and '70s?
 
To tell the truth, I don’t know the detailed figures, not least for the simple reason that we moved to Cologne in 2010 after 50 years in Bergisch Gladbach and some of the archive materials were disposed of. However, there’s no question that our current circulation figures don’t match those that were recorded in the past.
 
How have circulation figures changed in the past ten years?
 
The figures differ depending on the genre and title. Overall, the circulations of dime novels, like other print products, have declined, but the pulp fiction and puzzles segment is still relatively stable in relation to the press market as a whole. We haven’t recorded any dramatic decreases in circulation figures.
 
You said “still relatively stable”. What do you think the next ten years will bring?
 
«I’m confident that dime novels have a future.»

It’s pretty difficult to make predictions for the ten years ahead about consumer behavior in this market segment. Of course, there has been a major shift in recent years, especially in terms of digitization. However, right now I wouldn’t predict that there won’t be any more dime novels in 20 years’ time, since I’m confident that dime novels have a future.
 
What are your strategies for ensuring the future success of this traditional division of your company?
 
We’re reinforcing the strategies that have proven to be successful, but we’re also innovating and are willing to tread less conventional paths too. In financial terms of course we always look to see how we can reduce our costs and optimize our profits. That’s the strategic and business management component. However, it’s also a question of how we present our products in the retail setting. We’ve found that the shelf space assigned to dime novels and puzzles is being reduced. Under pressure from powerful market players, i.e. large magazine and newspaper publishing houses, there’s the idea that a puzzle magazine is displayed for two months and costs EUR 1.50. During that same period you can sell a TV program guide eight times because it’s published weekly. That’s why we need to optimize how our products are displayed in retail outlets.

How are you doing that?

We work together with a distributor that has acted for years as a go-between between us and retail outlets, press wholesalers and book stores at train stations. The press wholesalers sell to some 105,000 press outlets across Germany. In a pilot experiment, instead of displaying our products overlapping one another, which doesn’t allow the full cover to be seen, we’ve made piles, with the titles positioned behind one another. That has resulted in significant additional sales. We also run marketing campaigns, such as a recent crossover between Professor Zamorra and the ghost hunter John Sinclair, with both products being enhanced by the main character of each horror series making an appearance in the other series.
 
What are your best-selling titles?
 
The Western novels written by the author Gert Fritz Unger. Unfortunately, he is no longer among us, but while he was alive he wrote over 800 novels, which remain highly popular today.

How can it be that the novels of a deceased author are still the best-selling titles on the market?

In this segment, it’s not unusual at all for new editions of novels to be published.
 
Are the dime novels mainly sold at newsstands or on a subscription basis?
 
Ten to 15 percent of our dime novels are sold by subscription, especially in segments like mystery and horror, which have a high collector value. However, the vast majority are sold at newsstands, press outlets and book stores at train stations.
 
Are your dime novels available as e-books in addition to the print version?
 
Yes, the majority of our dime novels have also been published as e-books for several years now. We were one of the first publishing companies in Germany to embark on digitization and the publication of e-books. In some cases, we’ve republished older issues, which are no longer available in paperback format, as e-books. That goes down well with fans and collectors. We also offer a range of digital subscriptions, such as 100 Jerry Cotton novels as an attractively-priced package.

 

How do readers access the e-books?
 
Like the music industry, we have various sales platforms for downloads, such as beam-shop and the websites of well-known retail partners.
 
What percentage of sales do e-books account for?
 
It’s around 10 percent for Westerns and thrillers, and significantly less for the other genres, especially the rural novels.
 
Is the relatively low proportion of e-books due to the typical age range of your readers?
 
That’s certainly true of rural novels and romances because in those segments we have many readers who are aged between 70 and 80 or older. Unlike the fans of Professor Zamorra, they are less inclined to use digital media and e-books.
 
What is the age range of your readers?
 
Our core target group is aged between 50 and 69. Our medical fiction has a significant proportion of readers under 50. Medical fiction seems to appeal to a somewhat younger target group, while classic rural novels tend to be aimed at an older readership.
 
Are you still launching new titles, or is your focus on existing titles?
 
We do both. In recent years, we’ve found that it’s difficult with new titles (our competitors have the same problem). That's not only true of dime novels. It’s also the case for TV program guides, sports magazines and the yellow press. The best-known brands on the market are stable, but it’s very tough with new titles. That doesn’t mean that we don’t try, but experience has shown that it make more sense to reissue earlier stories as classic reprints (which is what we’ve done with the John Sinclair titles, for example, of which over 2,500 have been published). In addition, we’ve relaunched the “Lore” novels, which were highly popular decades ago and stopped being published in the mid-'80s. In addition, three years ago, we launched a new crime series called Cherringham. It first came out in e-book format only, but is now also published in print and, as part of a 360-degree marketing strategy, is also available as an audio book.

The younger generation often reads short texts online. That means your compact 64-page dime novels should be well suited to them.

Netflix and Amazon Prime, for example, are highly successful with their many series, whose episodes typically last between 30 and 60 minutes. They can be easily consumed as self-contained units. Of course the 1,200-page novels of Ken Follett will continue to have fans in the future. However, as old as the dime novel genre is, it has the major advantage that the novels can be read quickly and easily as compact, self-contained units.



 
Are all your printed dime novels stitched in the C5 size?
 
Yes, the individual novels are all stitched in the 155 x 225 mm size and are printed on newsprint. On the other hand, the omnibus volumes, which are slightly smaller in size, are perfect-bound.
 
I’m sure you conduct market research. What image do dime novels have?
 
That doesn’t require extensive market research because the image of dime novels is well-known. People look down on them. I’ve experienced that myself outside of work. When I tell acquaintances what I do professionally, the response is always: “Oh, are Jerry Cotton and Dr. Frank really still around? My granny used to read those ...” Dime novels have the image of being outmoded, trivial and cheap. There’s a cliché that the readers are simple, poor, uneducated workers who want something cheap to read. Of course our products appeal to many elderly readers who weren’t particularly academic in their younger years. However, our publishing company takes such readers just as seriously as more learned readers. We have a wide-ranging readership. The well-known actor and entertainer Harald Schmidt has always said that he’s a reader of Jerry Cotton novels. And there are doctors who read our medical fiction.
 
Has the image changed in recent years? The church and schools were earlier fiercely opposed to dime novels.
 
Of course our publishing company, which not only publishes dime novels, but also books for a wide audience, often faces criticism. For example, a senior Vatican official called for a boycott when we published Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”. But ultimately such reactions are always the best advertising ...
 
Who are your dime novel authors? Are they always the same in each genre?
 
We have numerous authors, including many who have worked for our publishing company for years. It isn’t the case that they only write in one genre. For example, a writer of detective novels can also have a talent for writing Western novels. It’s no secret that many successful authors started out writing dime novels and in some cases still do so today, often under a pseudonym, because they no longer wish to be publicly associated with the dime novel image.
 
What makes a dime novel sell? Is there a secret to success?
 
Of course each product needs to meet the expectations of our readers in every respect. From a marketing perspective, the cover page needs to appeal. Many pictures illustrating mystery and horror novels are drawn by renowned artists and become coveted works. In addition, the price needs to be right, so price sensitivity is a major topic. The content has to be good, with a happy end or cliffhanger, and readers need to be able to identify with the characters. We take all our readers and products seriously. Our dime novels need to be edited just as carefully and professionally as all the other works that we publish.
 
How have the stories in your dime novels changed over time?
 
The “Lore” novels are intended to be classic romances. The setting of the novels lets readers immerse themselves in the past and experience things of that era. However, Jerry Cotton or other characters can have a cellphone. In the case of the medical fiction in particular, it’s important for the medicines, treatments and operating methods to be up to date. That’s why it’s difficult to reissue older novels in that genre. They need to be thoroughly edited. In short, our heroes have moved with the times and Jerry Cotton doesn’t drive that aged Jaguar any more. However, other novels, such as Western novels and vampire novels are timeless, and we don’t need to make any changes.
 
In addition to dime novels, Bastei Lübbe publishes a wide range of puzzle magazines. It brings out no fewer than 32 different magazines with around 225 editions in total. How do you retain your readers on a market that is oversaturated with new players?
 
Our puzzle magazines represent high quality and excellent entertainment, and offer a varied mixture of the most popular puzzle types and exciting puzzle innovations. It’s important for the puzzle magazines to have a uniform and distinctive appearance with high recognition value. And they should offer good value for money. Although there have been lots of digital puzzles and apps for years now, most readers still like to do puzzles in a magazine with a pencil and eraser.


 
You mentioned puzzle innovations. What do you mean by that?
 
Ideally something that doesn’t exist in that form yet. The last major innovation was sudoku, which became a huge craze. We haven’t had any other innovations on that scale in the past five years. However, we present numerous new combinations of puzzles. For example, my colleague and I had the idea of combining a criss-cross puzzle, with words arranged by length and involving number sequences, with a sudoku. You have to solve the sudoku to get the first word for a criss-cross puzzle, which needs to be solved next. We also came up with “onion puzzles”, which combine four of the most popular puzzle types into one and you have to work inwards in four steps as though you were peeling an onion. First you need to enter words from a word search into a criss-cross puzzle. Various words from the criss-cross puzzle are then entered into a quick crossword, within which there’s a cipher crossword. It’s also popular to integrate certain topics into the puzzles, such as recipes. Once you’ve solved the puzzle, you get the full recipe.
 
How do new magazines come about? What do you look for in an initial idea for a magazine?
 
Especially on an oversaturated market, it’s important to come up with interesting product versions and/or new puzzle forms and puzzle combinations that aren’t too widespread yet. On the other hand, we’ve repeatedly found that readers want to do conventional quick crosswords. Above all, we look to see whether the new ideas appeal to us and are fun.
 
Are there any trends that can be identified on the puzzle market?
 
A wide range of sudoku and logic puzzle variations are still contributing to the market. However, the target group for such products is very small in most cases. In our experience, traditional puzzle solvers aren’t looking for something new. They don’t want to be taught, they just want to be entertained.
 
Who are your puzzle magazines typically purchased by? Do a lot of young people solve puzzles today, or does your target group mainly consist of older brainteaser fans?
 
The core target group is in the 55+ age range, but we also know of many younger readers. Our sudoku range, which is produced in collaboration with Germany’s best-known puzzle creator, Stefan Heine, appeals to many young puzzle solvers.
 
How have the circulation figures of your publishing company’s puzzle magazines changed in recent years?

«Doing puzzles is the third most popular hobby in Germany after gardening and shopping.»
 
They have declined in recent years in many cases. That is due in part to the purchasing behavior of wholesalers and in part due to the increasing scarcity of display space, combined with growing competition. However, it’s also related to the phenomenon of associated purchases. Studies have shown that puzzle magazines and dime novels are often purchased at newsstands together with another magazine. Since the circulations of many of those magazines are down, there are also fewer associated purchases.
 
What are your circulation figures like in comparison with those of the German market as a whole?
 
We’re significantly more successful than the market as a whole in some puzzle categories.
 
How many puzzle magazines do you sell yearly?
 
Around three million.
 
Do you also offer puzzle magazines as e-books?
 
No, not at all. We’ve been following developments in this segment closely for several years and we’ve found that there are no puzzle apps or business ideas that are really profitable or have great potential. Our readers want to have the haptic experience of holding the magazine in their hands and solving the puzzles in the familiar way.
 
What do you think will be the future of the printed magazines and books that are published by your publishing company?
 
If we look first at puzzles, a study has found that doing puzzles is the third most popular hobby in Germany after gardening and shopping. Some 42 million Germans do puzzles in their free time on a more or less regular basis. If you look at popular TV programs, especially the wide range of quiz shows, then I would venture to predict that people will continue to do puzzles. The key unanswered questions are whether such puzzles will be in print form, and if so whether they will be published in magazines or thick puzzle books. Or will people do the puzzles on their tablets? However, based on our experiences in the digital puzzle segment, I believe printed puzzles have a healthy future ahead of them. In terms of dime novels, we still have good ideas and many stories that haven’t been told yet. We aren’t making the mistake of resting on our laurels and thinking that everything will continue like in the past 50 years. It’s also up to us to shape the future and make it profitable, including with print products. We need to offer our readers products that they enjoy at attractive prices. People will always read. The challenge is to make the content attractive and present it in the form that consumers want. Our publishing company is well positioned in that respect. I’m highly optimistic that books will be around for a long time to come. And it goes without saying that they’re far more practical at the beach than a laptop full of sand.

Bastei Lübbe

Bastei Lübbe AG is an international media group with its headquarters in Cologne. It chiefly develops and licenses content that is sold worldwide in printed and digital form. In the book segment, the company specializes in classic publishing and puzzle books and dime novels, which are published periodically.
 
With its twelve publishing companies and imprints in total, the company group currently has some 3,600 titles in the fiction, non-fiction, children’s and young adult book segments. The company has been the market leader in Germany in the hardcover fiction segment for many years. Bastei Lübbe is also an innovator in the field of digital media.

Oliver Leimann

Oliver Leimann has been head of the dime novels and puzzles division at Bastei Lübbe AG since early 2017. He has been at the well-established publishing company in Cologne for 24 years – following his training, he worked there in paperback sales, marketing and most recently as head of puzzles.