For 48 years, Unionsverlag has seemed like a permanent fixture in the Swiss publishing scene. Why couldn't it just go on like that?
Even fixtures have to think about the future. I had to set the course for a transition to a time after me. I will stay on board for a good while, this interview is not my swan song. The environment for the country’s few exporting publishers has changed dramatically over the past decade. The collapse of the currency by more than a third is tearing holes in the balance sheet, and even good sales growth isn't helping. All publishers of our size have to adapt. Co-operation, mergers and the distribution of services across countries are necessary to keep the centre of operations in Switzerland. Simply carrying on as before is not a good plan.
Why couldn’t a local publisher be found to continue Unionsverlag as a Swiss publishing house?
Watch out - this is a misunderstanding. Unionsverlag was, is and will remain a Swiss publisher. This is where we are based, even if the home of our editorial list is the whole wide world. The team, the contacts and the domicile on the beautiful Neptunstrasse in Zurich will remain the same. Of course, we also had good, open discussions with colleagues in Switzerland and laid our cards on the table for each other. It was a fine experience to see that the same questions are on our minds.
How and why did you decide on C.H.Beck?
Several things soon fell into place in the best possible way. Their literary programme is very similar to ours. We had already shared the Nobel Prize for Nagib Machfus in 1988. Secondly, the Beck Group has an extensive infrastructure that can support our back office in terms of distribution, accounting, etc. In addition, C.H.Beck has been present in Switzerland for many years with Helbing & Lichtenhahn, Dike and Versus in the jurisprudential sector. The expansion by a literary publishing house now also reflects the constellation of the parent company in Munich.
Is the independence that has always been so dear to you now a thing of the past?
Well, no company is independent of balance sheets and budgets. And we never wanted to be dependent on patrons. What's very important to me is that C.H.Beck is not one of those corporate publishing houses manoeuvred by changing managers, but a rock-solid, personally run, independent family business. In a sense, a century-old independent. Although Unionsverlag will remain an independent unit within the group structures, it will no longer be an ›independent publisher‹ in the traditional sense of the word. But the spirit remains. In the end, it was the Beck team’s caution, prudence and thoughtfulness in the discussion process that convinced our team and our board that this was the right way to go.
You founded Unionsverlag 48 years ago at a kitchen table and have been running it ever since. When did you start thinking about selling?
Over the decades, in addition to happy moments and years of success, there have always been low points, crises and bottlenecks when you have to reinvent yourself. In every decade there were offers to take over the publishing house, which were thankfully rejected. The bed of nails was too much fun. It was only the exchange rate disaster that tipped the scales. At an exchange rate of 1.20, the house would have been in good health in the old constellation; at 1.50 it would have been a gold mine. Now the exchange rate is below 1 and there is no improvement in sight. By the way, the Swiss publishing scene, and also the publishing support by the Swiss state would do well not to forget those who work beyond Switzerland’s borders in all three of the country’s language areas. They are needed in this enchantingly diverse, highly sensitive cultural sector.