“Are you competing?” – Publishers in competition around 1900

Philip Ajouri
What role did legal and economic conditions play in the publication of classical literature around 1900? A telegram, stored in the archive at the Insel Verlag, provides a fascinating clue. It indicates how far publishers were willing to go to secure the first publication rights of a Goethe text. (Telegram from Adolf Kaegi to Anton Kippenberg, 17 March 1910, Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach, A:Insel).

Goethe’s novel fragment Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung (`Wilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Mission’, written between 1777 and 1785) was believed to be lost for many years. It was discovered in Zurich in December 1909 when a student brought the manuscript into class and asked his teacher whether it was something significant. The teacher was initially misled by the title page which referred to Werther. It was only weeks later, at the end of January 1910, when it dawned on him that it was the long-lost copy of Goethe’s first draft of Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre (`Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship’). From this point forward, the story of its publication begins a long and winding path – a thrilling tale of money, copyrights and reputation, which not only involved the man in Zurich who possessed the manuscript, but also the most prominent publishers of the time, the heirs of the Goethe family, the Goethe and Schiller Archive in Weimar and various attorneys.


Heinrich Denzler, the Zurich owner of the manuscript and great-grandson of the scribe Barbara Schulthess, commissioned his brother-in-law Adolf Kaegi to offer the manuscript to several publishers in Germany. As soon as the young managing director of the Insel Verlag, Anton Kippenberg, received the letter, he immediately boarded a night train to Zurich. As a passionate admirer of Goethe, Kippenberg succeeded in drawing up a preliminary contract with Denzler.


The final contract, however, was never signed – the reason being that the preliminary contract only guaranteed the Insel Verlag the right to publish the work on the condition that it was allowed to bid against the offers of the other contacted publishers. And this where the telegram, dated 17 March 1910 (shown above), comes into play. Kaegi informed Kippenberg that another publisher had bid the enormous sum of 30,000 marks for the first edition with a print run of 33,000 copies. This is where the legal context becomes significant, because the tendered bid would still be valid even if the text were not copyrighted against future reprints. In fact, there was no clarity whatsoever among the participants regarding the legal issues involved.


The telegram concluded with the laconic question “Are you competing?” Naturally, the terseness was due to the nature of telegrams, for which the sender had to pay for every word. In this respect, economics play a role in both the style and content of the sentence.


Neither Kippenberg nor the publisher Paul Cassirer, who had tendered the 30,000-mark bid, succeeded in closing the deal. It became clear around that time that the Zurich family was not entitled to the copyrights to the manuscript; they actually belonged to the heirs of Goethe’s family in Weimar. The Cotta-Verlag was able to negotiate a deal with these distant relatives. It emphasised its reputation as Goethe’s original publisher and offered to produce 11 printed volumes and a significant amount of money to secure the publication rights. With success. In 1911, Cotta released the first luxury edition, followed by an edition “for the masses” of Wilhelm Meister’s theatralische Sendung.