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EBooks In Iceland: The Last Frontier

EBooks In Iceland: The Last Frontier

D3’s eBækur manages the unsteady terrain of the Icelandic eBook market

Arit John
Words by
Photos by
Simon Steele

Published January 14, 2013

EBækur can thank one book in particular for most of its business. “I think it’s the same all over the world,” says Engilbert Hafsteinsson, the CEO of eBækur’s mother company D3. He is of course referring to the familiar title, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’

Since opening on October 5, the fledgling eBooks realtor of Sena-owned D3, has amassed a catalogue of approximately 300,000 titles. Of those titles, Engilbert estimates that 150 to 200 are in Icelandic. Excluding sales of E.L. James’ work, eighty to ninety percent of the company’s profit comes from these Icelandic works. 

Still, Engilbert describes the eBooks industry as a “jungle,” a growing and developing field that is making a lot of the same mistakes made in the music industry. 

Limitations of the field

EBækur hopes to move away from the current sales model for eBooks, in which books can’t be lent and the actual ownership of the book is unclear. “We don’t want to lock the customer in, Engilbert says. “It’s just like when you buy a physical book—you can lend it and so on.”

Making this possible requires removing the DRM, the digital rights management protections that prevent eBooks from being shared. Baldur Bjarnason—an Icelandic writer who has written several articles and a PhD thesis on eBooks and publishing—says that while some publishers have announced their willingness to get rid of DRM on books, nothing concrete has been announced. 

Regardless, eBækur is optimistic given the success this strategy had in the music industry. “We actually did it before iTunes,” Engilbert says, referring to eBækur’s sister company Tónlist, which has amassed the largest catalogue of Icelandic music in the country over the last eight years. “We took all the DRM off the songs and our sales tripled in the first month.”

Baldur mentions several other longstanding obstacles preventing the eBook industry in Iceland from growing, including the absence of back catalogues and a lack of local talent with the ability to create eBooks. “They’re a welcome entrance into the Icelandic eBook market,” he says of eBækur, “but a new eBook realtor doesn’t solve some of the fundamental problems holding ebooks back in Iceland.”

Baldur says most Icelandic publishers only retain the rights to a novel for seven years. “Iceland has never had a decent offering of backlist titles in publishing,” Baldur says. This makes it difficult to attain copies of older, out of print novels and the lack of titles hurts Icelandic eBook distributors who depend on Icelandic titles to stay competitive against international giants like Amazon. 

“Amazon is a big monster to compete with. They’re ruthless in prices; they’re ruthless in offers,” Baldur says. “If eBækur only has a few Icelandic titles to compete with, they’re going to be vulnerable.”

One stop entertainment shop

To combat this vulnerability, D3 and eBækur have a series of expansion projects in the works. EBækur, for instance, has been working with Icelandic publishers to convert some of their back catalogue into digital copies for them.  

“Publishers are starting to notice they have to go into the back catalogue,” Engilbert says. “It’s just something we know after our experience with music.”

Additionally, eBækur claims to have the country’s largest catalogue of audiobooks in the country and offers titles read by local celebrities. For example, their edition of Arnaldur Indriðason’s ‘Detective Erlender’ is read by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, who played Erlender in Baltasar Kormákur’s adaptation of Arnaldur’s ‘Tainted Blood.’

As for D3, in the next few months it plans to launch an online store for purchasing games, a monthly fee based eBook site and a video streaming service equivalent to America’s Netflix. 

The idea is that D3 sites, both those in the planning stages and established sites such as eBækur and Tónlist, will become a one-stop shop for music, games, movies, TV shows, magazines and books. One username and password would allow subscribers access to all of these services. 

“We want to be the iTunes of Iceland,” Engilbert concludes.



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