A Christmas Flood of Books and Noah’s Freezer Trawler

A Christmas Flood of Books and Noah’s Freezer Trawler

Published December 1, 2006

A Christmas Flood of Books and Noah’s Freezer Trawler
Haukur S. Magnússon
Photo by

So, what’s the deal with Iceland’s heavily condensed book market, where almost all of the year’s titles are published in the space of three months?
Kristján B. Jónasson:
Well, it’s a gift market, one that clocks up sales for about 5-700 million ISK each Christmas. The total market brings in around 3.5 billion every year, schoolbooks included. That isn’t a lot in light of the number of books aimed at it each year. Everybody is trying to get his slice of the pie, present company included.
So, all of you have in common the fact that you publish books, and that you’re interested in selling them?

Haukur Már Helgason: You two had this debate, didn’t you? Eiríkur doesn’t want literature to be sold, and Kristján only wants it to be sold…

Eiríkur Guðmundsson: I remember nothing of the kind. You tell us something about this, Kristján, selling the books.

Jónasson: Well, the first books were printed in Iceland in the 16th century, but they weren’t mass-produced and affordable until the mid-19th century. That’s when the Icelandic book market was created. The current tradition then takes shape following World War II, because there was a shortage of giftware in a country operating under rigid currency restrictions but with a strong purchase power due to economical upheaval during the war. You couldn’t import traditional gift items, but there were few restrictions on importing paper. Thus the book was born as Iceland’s premier Christmas present, although book sales pick up in every country around Christmas. Right now, Britain is raging with price wars and competition between those who vie for having this year’s Christmas bestseller.

Auður Jónsdóttir: But other countries certainly have more than one publishing period, and also a more constant literary discussion.

Jónasson: The Christmas season is really what keeps up the literary market here; without it, prices would drop as people would primarily buy books for their own consumption, and as a result authors couldn’t count on receiving enough payment for their works. The state would have to sponsor the profession to a much greater extent, either that or writers would have to work two extra jobs and have a fat bank account to rely on. People expect to pay a lot more for gift items, and the publishers take that into account. They even divide the market into certain categories, for instance how a book is advertised, presented in the media, the jacket design.

Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir: Are you really that devious? I thought most publishers were idealists, primarily concerned with realising their vision.

Jónasson: It’s always a combination of the two. What I’m really saying is that the so-called Christmas book flood isn’t entirely a bad thing.
You’ve been quoted as saying that books in Iceland are too cheap, and that customers are thrilled when 20,000 ISK ones are released…

Jónasson: Yes, that is correct. This year’s popular Christmas present is a juicer that costs around 10,000 ISK. We all have so much money now, it’s ridiculous.
Mínervudóttir: Then a cheap book makes for a bad present?

Jónasson: When [publishing house] Edda released their 20,000 ISK Atlas of Iceland last year, people were brimming with joy that there was finally an expensive book they could spend their money on.

Helgason: That sort of publication is cost efficient?

Jónasson: Man alive, it is! The Atlas in question has sold around 10,000 copies to this day.

Helgason: Hmmm… this might be a new direction for Nýhil?

Jónasson: I think the publishing industry isn’t paying enough attention; it keeps getting lost in pre-Christmas price wars. The catalogue prices for hardcovers are accurate as is, and the paperbacks are reasonably priced, too. They just have to focus on advancing that market, so that people will buy more books for their own consumption.

Mínervudóttir: Yeah, why hasn’t the industry used its tricks to convince Icelanders that paperbacks are the new gospel?

Helgason: Since the paperback market got its legs, books have started to sell a lot better here, and they’re now bought throughout the year.

Jónsdóttir: They’re even selling them in gas stations now. Guðrún, you were sort of a pioneer in that field when you released Albúm in paperback form during spring, weren’t you?

Jónasson: Things have changed a lot since ten years ago. I remember when Einar Már Guðmundsson’s Englar alheimsins [Angels of the Universe] was released in paperback form two years after its hardcover release. It sold tremendously well, and the industry was taken aback by it. No one expected that a paperback would be so successful. And now, the amount of units sold increases each year, as well as the amount published. This year’s release catalogue has 300 more titles than the one from 1996 – there are about 700 titles being published and aimed at the Christmas market this year.

But aren’t individual releases at a risk of getting lost when 700 hundred titles are released to such a small market?

Jónasson: You could say it’s a case of overproduction.

Helgason: If you think about it, it all makes sense. There are 700 titles released each year, and the Christmas season brings in up to 700 million ISK. Shouldn’t they just pay each author a cool million every January?

Jónsdóttir: That would be really nice. An excellent solution.

How would you describe the Icelandic literary scene to an outsider?

Jónasson: [In a forced Icelandic accent] Halldór Laxness got the Nobel Prize…

Jónsdóttir: When I was in Denmark, the only author people asked me about was Sjón. As I was trying to explain him and summarise what else was going on here, I was struck by how disparate the literary landscape is in Iceland.

Helgason: I’ve given Italian friends some of the Icelandic literature that’s been translated and they’re all amazed by how simple and lyrical the narration is, exclaiming: ‘What!? This is just a story!’ This applies to some of the country’s most skillful writers, this symptom of Icelandic literature, they just tell simple lyrical stories. With noteworthy exceptions, it feels to me as if post-modernism in literature is just making its way here now.

Jónsdóttir: We also seem to define and interpret our literature differently from some of our neighbours. I published the same book here and in Denmark and Icelandic critics kept referring to it as being of the realist vein, while the Danish media uniformly cited it as absurdist. So what we feel is realistic, they think of absurd. Neither interpretation is more correct, but I do feel we tend to look at things differently over here.

Jónasson: We haven’t been doing a good job of defining ourselves in regards to the outside world. We haven’t examined our literature from an outside perspective, and we’re lacking a vision of how whatever it is we’re doing falls in place in a historical context.

Helgason: It’s especially noteworthy in light of just how many literary scholars we have.

Jónasson: Yes, they’ve failed. The last 20 years have been a literary golden age in Iceland as far as I’m concerned, a lot of really presentable work has been published, things that stand comparison to the best of what’s happening in Europe. It’s certainly telling that only twenty years ago, it was an exception if an Icelandic book got translated. There’s since been an explosion in terms of sales and translations.

Hasn’t that got a lot to do with marketing?

Jónasson: Of course there are trends, but you can’t get away with selling something that amounts to a worthless piece of crap.

Jónsdóttir: That’s true. The crap gets sifted out pretty soon, but we do have authors such as Jón Kalmann [Stefánsson] and Hallgrímur Helgason getting five-star reviews in places like Germany.

Jónsdóttir:Jónasson: They’re likening Hallgrímur Helgason to Thomas Mann over there.

Helgason: Eiríkur is wincing! Why?

Jónasson: Well, Rokland is getting those kinds of reviews.

Guðmundsson: That book is written specifically with a German audience in mind, isn’t it?

Jónasson: They’re also raving about Höfundur Íslands [The Author of Iceland]. The discourse is on a much different note than what we had here, when people were focusing on politics…

Guðmundsson: When they market these books in Germany, no matter what the subject matter is, they always put the same picture of a field on the cover, same as with the Laxness novels. A freshly mowed field, even for Atómstöðin [The Atom Station]. They play that field; perhaps it’s our only chance to get attention in that market?

Jónasson: Well, you have to look at the situation over there. Many German publishers are very market-oriented and they base all their covers on extensive research. The editors don’t have any say in those matters.

Helgason: You seem to think that the golden age is defined by your stint in the literary business. I rather feel like it’s just beginning right now, this Christmas. There seems to be such a heap of good stuff coming out now.

Jónasson: I never said it was over.

Mínervudóttir: We are facing an endless golden age!

Jónasson: It’s multi-voiced; a lot of very different authors have been prominent in the field. It’s hard to find a common denominator for all of you, for instance. Maybe Eiríkur and Auður are the most similar ones here. We’ve been hesitant to draw lines and make up categories, something that foreign translations can perhaps help us with. It can help us put things into perspective.

Helgason: With all the snow pouring down outside, it’s tempting to look at Iceland as the Platonic realm of Ideas. It could be said that over here, we’ve got single representations of all the noteworthy trends in the outside world. The outside world could then be construed as the real one, and when students return from Portugal, Spain or New York, they bring home a sampling of what it has to offer.

Jónasson: That’s a good analogy, and if you look at each of the present company’s work you’ll find a lot of prototypes of larger literary movements. Eiríkur represents the recycled, self-reflexive story, Guðrún Eva has the macabre fantasy, and Auður’s work is actually the most European, in some respects her new book could have been written by a German. You have a distinctly European worldview; I was actually concerned when I read your latest work that Icelanders wouldn’t warm to it. And then there’s you, Haukur, with the modern avant-garde.

Helgason: Avant-garde?

Jónasson: You know what I’m referring too, historically.

Mínervudóttir: Well, he did call mine a fantasy.

Jónasson: Each of you is writing in a different genre, and you’re pretty much on your own there. You’re not necessarily engaging in a dialogue with your next-door colleagues, rather your voices are meant for a worldwide discourse.

Helgason: Perhaps Iceland is like literary Noah’s Ark in this respect. If everything goes to hell out there, we’ll have a sampling of everything there was.

Jónsdóttir More like Noah’s freezer trawler, where we keep one of each [the room bursts out laughing at this point].

Guðmundsson: Only one of each?

The Icelandic music scene is similar in this respect. What the literary establishment needs now, then, is an Einar Bárðarson [a prominent Icelandic music promoter/agent].

Jónasson: I can agree on that, we do need an Einar Bárðarson for the literary world. We’re having trouble reaching the young adults, the 15-20 year olds. It can easily be done, if the task is approached on adequately commercial terms.

Mínervudóttir: You did it once, with very good results.

Jónasson: And once with really horrendous results. We can’t just have a slew of literary masterminds writing nothing but epic works of staggering genius for others of their ilk. You also have to appeal to kids on their own terms.

Helgason: Are you saying it’s easier to sell this age group worthless crap?

Jónasson: Icelandic kids read a lot. Just this year, there are 220 titles being released that are aimed specifically at children. Around 30 percent of children aged 8-10 subscribe to some sort of book club, they read a lot. Then, at age 12-13, their libido kicks in and reaching them becomes near impossible. Authors start moralising and preaching, something that’s bound to alienate and annoy their target audience to no end. I think Manga comics are going to come on strong in a while, they all feature OC-like plots, themes of jealousy, gender blunders, etc.

Do Icelandic authors compromise to an extent, to widen their appeal in order to reach a greater success?

Helgason: Compromise isn’t the right word. Writing a piece of text is like stretching out a certain fabric of meaning that’s already out there. It’s never merely your own, it’s something you have to pull at it without tearing it, to employ a certain amount of force without breaking it apart.

Jónasson: Like pulling at that Charles Atlas spring mechanism to exercise your chest. No, I don’t think this question is really applicable to literature, selling out isn’t really an option.

Mínervudóttir: I haven’t even had editors instructing me to compromise. It happened once with a column I wrote for radio, they thought my death talk would offend all the old people listening.

Jónasson: In terms of the Icelandic literary tradition, the only sure-fire way to be a sell-out is to write a memoir or an interview book. Non-fiction, that’s where the literary sell-outs reside, but there are also tons of flops published in that genre every year.

Helgason: That’s probably the surest way to become a sell-out. You don’t have to do a lot of writing when you start getting all kinds of pressure to write books about one person or another.

Jónasson: I think Iceland’s smallness imposes the greatest limits on Icelandic writers, where it’s pre-determined what you can and can’t do as an author. There are all kinds of unspoken agreements to be honoured, and fought. People like Guðbergur Bergsson [fabled Icelandic novelist] sometimes venture outside of those boundaries and reap anger and fear in the process. At the time he released his defining novel, Tómas Jónsson, Metsölubók, [Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller] people were really upset, going as far as mailing him boxes of faeces. It’s those unwritten laws that pose the greatest threat to Icelandic authors, not selling out. It’s the fear of overstepping those boundaries that have been silently agreed on; doing that will always cause an author to experience all sorts of righteousness and rejection from the public.

Guðmundsson: The bottom line is that there’s not nearly enough of us Icelanders to maintain such a culture, or do any damn thing, really. We still do, however.

Mínervudóttir: Like the Flateyri theatre club.

Helgason: President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson pointed out in the recent Klink & Bank documentary that Iceland had a similar population that Florence had during its golden age.

Jónsdóttir: People in Denmark used to giggle when I told them I was an author on the Icelandic market. The reaction was similar to what people here would be like if I told them I was writing solely for Keflavík’s populace.

Guðmundsson: At its core, I think writing for such a small market is a beautiful task to undertake. It has a kind of poetic hopelessness.

Auður Jónsdóttir

Auður Jónsdóttir
Auður Jónsdóttir (b. 1972) is a highly revered author with a total of eight published works under her belt, among those four well-re- ceived novels. She was awarded the Icelandic Literature Prize in 2004 for her novel Fólkið í kjallaranum (The People in the Basement) and her just published fourth novel, Tryg- gðarpantur (Depositum) has received great reviews. Her works have been translated into Swedish and Danish.

Eiríkur GuðmundssonEiríkur Guðmundsson
Born in 1969, author, National Radio One personality and literary scholar Eiríkur Guð- mundsson has made a reputation for himself as a veritable authority on Icelandic culture and literature. His collection of essays, 39 Þrep til glötunar (39 Steps to Damnation), was released in 2004 to critical acclaim, and his recently published sophomore effort, a novel entitled Undir himninum (Under the Sky), is already receiving the same treatment.

Guðrún Eva MínervudóttirGuðrún Eva Mínervudóttir
Thirty-year-old Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir spent her youth moving between Iceland’s smaller towns, before reportedly sleeping her way through college. She has thus far published five novels, as well as several po- ems, short stories and translations. Her work is widely acknowledged and critically lauded, and her latest novel, Yosoy, was awarded the DV prize for literature in 2005.

Haukur Már HelgasonHaukur Már Helgason
The youngest of the group, Haukur Már Helgason (b. 1978) released his first novel, Svavar Pétur & 20. Öldin (Svavar Pétur & the 20th Century) just last month. He has previ- ously released three volumes of poetry and been highly active in Reykjavík’s cultural life, co-founding the ever-growing publishing house/collective Nýhil. Helgason, an active proponent of Slavoj Zizek, holds degrees in philosophy and cinema studies.

Kristján B. JónssonKristján B. Jónsson
A literary scholar and published author, Kristján B. Jónasson (b. 1967) is perhaps bet- ter known for having, until recently, worked as publishing director and head of develop- ment for one of Iceland’s major publishing houses, Edda. He currently serves as presi- dent of the Association of Icelandic Book Publishers and remains one of the industry’s leading voices.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Show Me More!