The head of Otava Publishing, one of Finland’s largest books beasts as well as an owner of its biggest bookshop chain, says the domestic market has been ‘bipolar’—but reckons new formats present a massive opportunity for brave publishers.
I catch up with Minna Castrén at a pretty eventful time: publication day for Margaret Atwood’s Testimentit (The Testaments), which has been as feverishly anticipated in Finland as it has been in the rest of the world. Castrén’s Otava Publishing—part of the largest Finnish books group Otava, which also owns the biggest retail chain, Suomalainen Kirjakauppa—has published Atwood since the 1970s, and the excitement and hype for The Handmaid’s Tale sequel has been building. She says: “It is a big book for us, but in a way not just for us, as it is one of those titles that comes out at the right time: in this case because of world politics, the TV adaptation, because of the long gap between the novels. It hit the zeitgeist, and it makes you remember how exciting a publishing event like this can be. It is a celebration for the whole industry.”
We are chatting in order to take a look back at the biggest-ever pan-industry Finnish books celebration, the country’s Guest of Honour stint at the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair. There are a number of fifth anniversary events at FBF 2019 under the Finnish Literature Exchange’s (FILI) “Finnland. Cool. And Happy” campaign (an update on the 2014 “Finnland. Cool” slogan, reflecting that the country has been named the happiest place in the world for the past two years in the World Happiness Report).
Castrén has no doubt that the 2014 Guest of Honour slot was an unqualified success, with many positive tangible and intangible effects, which continue to this day. She explains: “It was a fantastic experience, and not just for the book industry but the whole country, and it was an example of how [many sectors] could work together. It was great to be the centre of attention, as a small country with a language relatively few people speak. It helped in practical terms with rights sales, of course, and it was a boost of self-confidence. It created this feeling that Finland is strong and internationally appealing, with books that can work in other markets. Ultimately, it changed [Finnish publishers’ and authors’] perspectives on how we thought about what was possible.”
Yet while the Guest of Honour was a fillip, the Finnish market still has had stresses and strains in the intervening years. Castrén says: “Overall, I would say the state of the home market is not so great. Or, maybe a bit bipolar: publishers are very excited as their sales are going up because of digital growth, particularly audio. But booksellers are worried about what a lot of bookshop owners are the world over: the changing ways people read and where they get their books from. Book clubs—which until recently have been very popular in Finland—are dying, and the number of traditional bookshops is going down. And the sales of printed books have been declining for a long time now.”
The statistics bear this out, with a top line that looks fairly rosy, at least over the past few years. Finnish Book Publishers Assocation data shows three consecutive years of full-market growth, hitting €257.9m of net sales (excluding VAT) in 2018, the market’s best result since 2013. Yet even with these three years of growth, sales still do not match where the market was in the mid Noughties, with revenue dropping almost 36% (down €71m) from 2008 to 2018.
Printed books slipped 2.4% in 2018 to €216.6m, while digital products have enjoyed three consecutive years of double-digit percentage growth, rising 19.1% to €41.4m in 2018. With print slipping, the major physical retailers are struggling. From 2014 to 2018, sales through bricks and mortar shops slumped 16% (to €47m), and sales through book clubs collapsed by 32% (to €30m).
Another issue roiling the industry is proposed sweeping changes in the education system by the new government under prime minister Antti Rinne, which will effectively mean that bookshops will no longer be able to sell textbooks and materials to upper secondary students (ages 17–19), a significant part of many shops’ incomes. Castrén believes, with bookshops already struggling, that this will lead to a reduction in around a third of the number of stores in Finland, particuarly in smaller cities.
A fine Finnish
Otava was founded in 1890 by Hannes Gebhard and Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä in order to publish books in Finnish. As Finland was still then part of the Russian empire this was, if not an overly subversive act, politically dicey. Its m.d. Alvar Reenpää took over the business from its founders shortly after, and Otava remains in the Reenpää family hands to this day. Otava, incidentally, means “salmon net”, but is also what the Finns call the Ursa Major constellation.
Challenges to the Finnish market aside, Castrén is bullish on the present and future. A big hit of the summer has been Bolla, the new novel from Pajtim Statovci, whose début, My Cat Yugoslavia, was an international smash hit. Otava has a significant chunk of the fiction in translation market in Finland, recently releasing bestsellers from Robert Galbraith, Ruth Ware and Nicci French. The children’s division is strong, with picture book powerhouse Mauri Kunnas the star of the list. In non-fiction, the big hit of the past 12 months has been Michelle Obama’s Becoming, still selling well 10 months after publication.
Then there is audio, which is undergoing a huge surge in Finland, as it has done across the Nordic region. Otava is launching a new streaming services app this month, for e-books and audio, to tap into the growth. The root of the strategy, Castrén says, is that Otava has to be flexible in the way it attracts new customers. “A big positive of audio’s growth is that we are not losing readers [to the new format], we’re gaining new ones. The audiobook listener tends to be young [around 60% are under 34] and those who are not heavy readers. We have to be able to find new ways to target this audience.”