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Playing with the street urchin

August 2, 2011

What follows is a translation of an interview that appeared in the July 27th Leipziger Volkszeitung (article not online). Nina May interviewed Wolfgang Müller, the man behind the publisher VDM Dr. Müller, which I’ve criticized before (one/two).

Interestingly, Müller readily acknowledges that criticisms of his enterprise are largely valid, but notes that he doesn’t really care. What I find oddly refreshing is that he clearly has a dim view of librarians, and is not afraid to take digs at the profession. At least we know where we all stand. I suspect we agree on one critical point, too: if librarians find his products noxious, then it’s on us not to buy them, not on him to stop producing them. It’s a market, in his words.

Many thanks to Ms. May for granting permission to publish this translation:

I couldn’t care less about content”

Press founder Wolfgang Müller explains why he sells printed Wikipedia articles with a clean conscience

He thinks editing is censorship and that the medium of the book is overrated. Wolfgang Müller, founder of the eponymous scientific publishing house, admits in this interview with Nina May that he contributes to the flattening of science. As long as he can make money, it doesn’t bother him. He publishes Wikipedia articles in book form, among other items.

How did the idea for the business model of making money with others’ work come about?

Wolfgang Müller: In a personal conversation with Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder. I met Jimbo at Norman Rentrop’s in Bonn a few years back, and he was quite enthused with the idea at the time. He probably didn’t think it through or hadn’t considered that a “Kraut” would roll with it with German precision. Wales was probably thinking of the more decent approach of Bertelsmann, who has done the same thing we’ve done with the Wikipedia-Lexikon: put wiki contents in a book and sell it. Bertelsmann was praised highly for this.

In plagiarism researcher Stefan Weber’s blog you write: “if public libraries waste money on content that they could download for free, I find that embarrassing.” Whoever buys from you must therefore be pretty dim?

With regard to librarians, “dim” is still too harmless for me. That would mean that the librarian doesn’t know what he or she is doing. No, I mean that anyone who spends tax money for things that the state can get for free is committing a nearly criminal act. With a private customer, it’s a little different. There are several billion people in the world who have no Internet access and can’t consult Wikipedia at all, including many older people in Germany. Or others who have no desire to read the 600-page history of the popes online, but would rather spend 49 € and buy the book from us, even though they know that they could pull together and print everything themselves in several hours. This is called a market. Anyone buying has reasons. Also those who do not buy.

You write that you’re not in the least interested in content, but that processes do interest you. By that do you mean the process of hitting the copy and paste keys?

That’s exactly what I mean. Content is something for authors, not for publishers. I know of course that many publishers gladly play the role of head teacher and wear down authors with their pseudo-knowledge. That’s not our approach.

Do you have no publishing aspirations at all?

No. I find that all rubbish. Take a look for example at the bestseller lists for novels: intellectual garbage wherever one looks. Peripatetic whores and copulating vampires are some of the more harmless variations. My aspiration is directed squarely at the scientific author: I offer them a free and efficient publication platform with worldwide marketing. Whatever content the author might have in mind really doesn’t interest me in the least.

On the Internet you write about a revolution: the book should no longer be an untouchable medium and publishers are superfluous as guarantors of quality. Don’t you see a danger of flattening science?

Yes, of course, yet I greet this development; after all we’re working on it intensely. Guarantors of quality sounds, incidentally, like guardians. Those are in reality censors. It’s time that even publishers join the era of perestroika and initiate the fall of the Wall. Besides which we’re experiencing in the venerable book trade precisely that which ARD and ZDF [two major German public television stations] went through in the 80s, namely a massive increase in the number of private broadcasters, who to this very day spread unimaginable banalities. This is exactly what will happen in the book trade. Everyone will be able to offer anything to do with books. For my part I’m excited about this.

With your parent publisher you sell scientific works in cooperation with their authors. Aren’t you concerned that the bad reputations of Fastbook Publishing and Betascript will reflect upon VDM?

In the business arena I have no fears, otherwise I wouldn’t have become a businessperson, but rather perhaps a librarian. Every month we gain more than 3,000 new scientific authors—these are academics, lecturers, professors. They are educated and capable of nuanced thought. Beyond which our fee-free offer to scientists is something globally unique. Whoever doesn’t want to play with the street urchin can go to our traditional colleagues and for the same service get fleeced for publishing subsidies. Strangely, most academics come to us.

So you trust the discernment of authors and readers. If you publish a book where the wiki article is too short and you fill the pages with referenced articles, then you’re banking on the reader being too incompetent to send this nonsense straight back.

Our wiki editors create between 500 and 800 such books per person each month. It’s unavoidable that in some instances that senseless combinations are put out. I can only recommend to these customers to make use of their right to return the item.

If academic standards mean so little to you, why do you use your doctor title in the company name?

That’s just advertising and normal for academic publishers. I did my doctorate at the TU Munich with a socio-philosophical dissertation that took seven very stressful years. Apart from that, 14 publishers belong to the VDM Group, of which only one so shamelessly exploits “doctor” in the name.

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