Bókamessa, Iceland’s annual book fair, is a déluge of books, publishers, readers, writers, and piparsmákökur—Icelandic pepper cookies. As the kick-off to the country’s infamous Jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood, the book fair, now in its ninth year, provides a safe harbour to sample new publications in anticipation of the season’s book-buying frenzy.
The ultimate gift
“This is such a sport for Icelanders during Christmastime,” Bókamessa organizer Bryndís Loftsdóttir explains. “At Christmas parties, the question is always, ‘What books have you gotten? What are you reading?’”
In Iceland, it has become rote that the ultimate Christmas present is a book… in addition to socks, of course, so as to ward off jólakötturinn from kidnapping unfortunate souls to be devoured by the ogress Grýla. But more significantly: books. This has little to do with bleak midwinter superstitions, but has become tradition on our subarctic island.
Poetry for days
Harpa’s views of Faxaflói Bay and the snow-covered Mt. Esja in the distance juxtapose against the busy book-fair interior. Throngs shuffle through Bókamessa looking for titles to add to their wishlists.
Cult author Stefán Máni perches by rows of his new novel, offering commentary on cover designs for his blood-soaked ‘Aðventa’ (‘Advent’) and the biblical ‘Svartigaldur’ (‘Black Magic’). Ásta Fanney Sigurðardóttir smiles in a portrait overtop Partus Press, where her poetry collection ‘Eilífðarnón’ (‘Cows Come Home’) astounds in purple cloth, hardcover, and metallic ink. Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir sits in Storytel’s booth for a live-broadcast interview on her new book ‘Aðferðir til að lifa af’ (‘Methods of Survival’).
In addition to publisher booths and tables, the book fair features a robust programme of author readings and public interviews. These are organized as a partnership with Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature program managers Kristín Viðarsdóttir and Lára Aðalsteinsdóttir.
“We had poetry hour for several hours today, but we could have been reading continuously for days with so much new poetry in Iceland,” Kristín says of the live programming. “It’s so fabulous, so many young authors.”
Aprés moi, le déluge
The growth in publications is truly staggering, Bryndís confirms. “There is 21% more Icelandic fiction this year than the year before, and 51% more poetry. It’s crazy,” she explains.
The organizers agree that the rise in publications has to do with a new generation of publishers and writers flooding the market. “So many young people are into publishing,” Kristín says. “I think that’s wonderful.”
Icelandic fiction for children ages six to 12 is also increasing. “There are more Icelandic authors writing for kids than translating books,” says Bryndís.
Publishing house Sögur emphasizes children’s books in Icelandic and in translation. Their import innovation this year caught the eye of Bryndís. “Sögur used the opportunity to import 300 books in Polish. They have books in both Icelandic and Polish. It’s so clever,” she exclaims.
East meets West
Sveinn Snorri Sveinsson has travelled from Egilsstaðir to represent his two new novellas ‘Minning þess gleymda’ (‘Memory of the Forgotten’) and ‘Þorpið í skóginum’ (‘The Village in the Woods’). Initially publishing his first book at the tender age of 18, Sveinn has gone on to publish poetry, novellas, and a comic book over his28-year career. It is, however, his first time attending Bókamessa. He stands with one of his publishers, Félag ljóðaunnenda á Austurlandi, also visiting from East Iceland, engaging visitors in conversation about the books.
He is no stranger to face-to-face sales. As a teen, Sveinn sold his first books by going door-to-door in Egilsstaðir. “I sold a lot,” he confides, “because it was something new—that a kid like me was publishing poetry in Egilsstaðir. Over time, I developed a group of people who always buy my books.”
Sveinn is thrilled by his first experience at Bókamessa. “You have an opportunity to show and present. The best thing about selling a book here is when somebody doesn’t want to buy but he reads it and decides to buy it. That’s a compliment.”
A sea of readers
“It’s a public fair,” explains Kristín. “It’s not a business fair. It’s from the publisher to the readers.”
The fair features numerous Icelandic-language publishers, most from Reykjavík. The largest publisher, Forlagið, displays its titles against a wall of pallets gussied up with pine boughs. Bjartur / Veröld decorates its walls with larger-than-life portraits of their authors; each eye is as large as a reader’s head, and stares directly at each would-be consumer. When some of these authors arrive later, life-sized and animated, whiffs of fandom ripple through the room.
“There is this beautiful relationship to be able to talk to authors,” Lára remarks of the encounters taking place during Bókamessa. “People see their favourite author and you can see them thinking, ‘I’m going to catch this one.’”
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