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In depth: Iceland's book market
11.11.11 | Baldur Bjarnason
With the international popularity of writers such as Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, the Icelandic publishing industry is a success by any measure, even more so when you consider the size of its population. So, how does a nation of just 300,000 manage to maintain a vibrant and active book culture, producing books and writers that are sought after all over the globe?
1: Expert retail
The first secret is that Iceland's bookshops are staffed by experts. Buyers will have at least a BA in Comparative Literature or Icelandic, or be a retail veteran with an encyclopedic knowledge of publishing. Even part-time staff brought in during peak seasons tend to be second or third-year students in a degree relevant to publishing or literature. This isn't unique to bookstores in Iceland, but an unavoidable consequence of a-highly educated population in general. Icelandic booksellers have, generally, more knowledge, more experience and are better educated than your average big chain employee in the UK or the US.
Why this won't last: Unfortunately, Penninn-Eymundsson, Iceland's only chain of bookstores, has gone into bankruptcy owing to the company's ill-advised investments outside of the book and office supplies sector. The administrators have raised prices and laid off a large proportion of the staff that made these bookstores so unique. Add to this the wave of experienced employees who will be retiring over the next few years and the retail industry could become completely deskilled in fewer than five years.
2: No back catalogue
The Icelandic publishing industry's back catalogue is all but non-existent. Most books are not kept in print and become unavailable after the initial print run is sold out. Unless the book demonstrates a constant and steady demand, it will go out of print and be unavailable, even if a bestseller. The only books that sometimes get kept in print are those considered to be literary classics. Many Icelandic publishers leave the back catalogue market to public libraries.
Why this is changing: There is an increasing amount of profit to be made in maintaining a back catalogue, especially when, as is the case in Iceland, you have a large number of experienced authors who have been writing books for decades.
The problem is that maintaining one is expensive and resource-intensive and there just isn't enough money in the Icelandic market to support both new and old publishing.
It is a difficult balancing act. Even though some publishers have done work to increase backlist over the past few years, and in bringing some older titles back into print, there is only so much money Icelandic consumers can spend and only so much money publishers can invest.
3: A population of book lovers
Icelanders love books. No two ways about it, the population's passion for books is the closest thing to a universal religion in Iceland. Icelanders from all backgrounds love to read books, talk about books and buy books; the annual Christmas book frenzy has to be seen to be believed. In every crisis, economic collapse or volcanic eruption, the Icelander's first instinct is to hash the matter out in book form, trusting long form text over television or film. Icelanders aren't generally intimidated by books: the Report of the Special Investigation Commission, a 2,000-plus page official document outlining the causes of the 2008 economic crisis was one of 2010's bestselling books, despite being available for free online.
Why this will last: Though publishing faces fierce competition from other forms of entertainment, the love of books is still there, even in younger generations.
4: No paperbacks
Historically, owing to a lack of resources and income, most books are published in hardcover and never in paperback. The knock-on effect of having a market almost exclusively in hardback is book prices have remained high, but have not been raised (see point nine).
Why this won't last: Icelandic publishers have been experimenting more with paperbacks, especially after the 2008 crash. The market seems to be transforming quickly, with paperbacks set to become a regular part of the publishing schedule within a few years.
5: Intellectualism isn't a dirty word
British society is profoundly and deeply anti-intellectual. One of the things that shocked me when I taught at a university here in the UK a few years ago was the pervasive anti-intellectualism. Being erudite and letting that show in your language and behaviour is all but condemned in British society. Icelandic society doesn't suffer from this particular defect (although it has plenty of others). Erudition isn't considered to be a sign of elitism and snobbery but of education and intelligence.
One sign of this attitude is the space given to literary discussions. Iceland is probably the only country where books get a primetime TV show, “Kiljan”, while movies and cinema get relegated to a radio show aired at odd hours. One good review on “Kiljan” can result in a book selling out of its entire initial print run, even during the off-season.
6: No competing with Amazon
Icelandic bookstores carry fewer and fewer English language books and the number has been steadily decreasing over the past decade. They realised early on that they can't compete with Amazon and so their focus is on books in Icelandic.
7: Cheap and fast production and design
The first books on the economic collapse were published only weeks later. The first books on the Eyjafjallajökull volcano appeared shortly after the eruption ceased. Icelandic publishers have put a lot of effort into speed and responsiveness as a way of grasping the few opportunities available to them. This is a story they like to tell whatever chance they get.
What usually doesn't follow is the reason why they can respond so quickly: Icelandic publishers run very lean by international standards. They do more with fewer people than any of the major English language publishers would ever dream of. But, the clearest evidence of this is that most Icelandic books have awful covers. There are some exceptions to this, such as the publisher Bjartur-Veröld, but Icelandic jackets are usually an uninspired affair at best.
8: Massive government support
Another big reason why the Icelandic publishing industry is so healthy is government grants. The government runs the Icelandic Literary Fund, which funnels money into the publishing industry and supports literary efforts, translations and writing. It's not a lot of money to larger publishing markets, but for a small country it is one of the things keeping the industry alive.
Why this won't last: The insane austerity fad has spread to Iceland as well and both Culture and Education departments are facing massive cutbacks.
Despite being part of an economy with a collapsed currency and-double-digit inflation, where prices of many other goods have doubled or even tripled, most Icelandic publishers have not raised their prices since 2008. This does mean book sales have remained robust, although publishers have had to run leaner, with even narrower margins.
10: Easier distribution and promotion
Iceland's small size, low and concentrated population (over half the nation lives in the Reykjavík area) makes it easy to reach a large proportion of the society. Even a single-book independent publisher can, with relatively little effort, get a wide distribution. The annual catalogue Bókatíðindi lists all books published over the year, regardless of whether they are published by large or small companies, and is read religiously by most Icelanders.
11: Underpaid authors
Finally, one of the biggest reasons why the Icelandic publishing industry is so vibrant is almost counter-intuitively that Icelandic authors are underpaid . . . and accept it. Before the translation boom, the only way even bestselling Icelandic authors could expect to make a (slim) living off of their books was through government grants and a day job.
Why this might change: The current translation boom is changing authors' pay. Some top selling Icelandic authors can reasonably expect some revenue from translations to supplement their income. Yet, the popularity of Nordic writers is a fad. The question is: when the boom collapses, where does that leave the authors and the market?