Published May 5, 2015
The annual jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood, is a beloved Icelandic tradition. Every year around Christmastime, publishing houses across Iceland unleash a deluge of new books on the marketplace and inundate bookstores with stacks of fresh titles for the holiday season. During this lively time of year, book vendors and literary museums alike host reading after reading, release party after release party, giving hundreds of Icelandic authors—both emerging and well-known—a chance to showcase their latest work.
However, as Iceland continues to publish books at a higher volume every year, an important question naturally arises: are Icelanders actually buying up all these books? When the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season fades away, bookstores increasingly report that they must resort to steep sales and heavy discounts in order to rid themselves of their excess inventory. Furthermore, Icelandic state television recently aired a news report stating that this backlog of unpurchased books is posing problems for Iceland’s largest publisher Forlagið, which sometimes struggles to find storage space for these leftover books in its warehouse. In some cases, these unpurchased books even have to be destroyed.
It appears the annual Book Flood is leaving behind large “puddles” of books that never fully dry up. Is it time for Icelanders to scale back this time-honored tradition and seek out more efficient ways of distributing books? Faced with these challenges, Icelandic bookstores and publishing houses are brainstorming new ways to market literature to the public, while still preserving the nation’s cherished Book Flood tradition.
The annual book glut?
“I definitely think we could do some ‘editing’ in the book market here in Iceland,” says Anna Friðríksdóttir, manager of Mál og Menning bookstore. “I would say that the excessive amount of books published is, in a way, reckless. I think part of the problem is that books are always being printed in large amounts,” she says. “Sometimes it’s cheaper to print in bigger volumes, but it ends up wasting paper because some books naturally don’t sell as well as others.”
Anna recalls one year when the publishing companies collectively released almost a hundred new cookbooks, showing just how unpredictable and haphazard the Book Flood business in Iceland can be. “Herd behaviour in the book market is a common thing,” she says. “An idea catches on and then everyone else follows the trend until it dies out.”
According to Anna, this follow-the-leader mentality causes a considerable amount of excess and frustration for booksellers. “We return the books that don’t sell to the publishers, and they end up selling them at discount book markets,” she says. “It causes some tension between the bookstores and the publishers when they end up selling books at these markets for a ridiculously low price, lower than they sold them to the bookstores the previous year.”
Another consequence of Iceland’s massive amount of publishing is that great books frequently go unnoticed. “Every good Icelandic author was publishing a book a couple of years ago, causing some of them to be overlooked,” Anna reports. “Someone was throwing a release party one day, then the next day someone else was, so the previous book suddenly became old news.”
From the bookstores’ standpoint, it is clear that the annual Book Flood is not always an ideal marketing strategy, leaving customers to wonder how this once-a-year book-selling bonanza became a custom in the first place.
The publishers’ perspective
“During World War II, there were strict restrictions on imports in Iceland and we didn’t have the currency to import foreign products,” says Jóhann Páll Valdimarsson, director of Forlagið publishing house. “Because Icelanders couldn’t buy many foreign goods, this tradition of giving a book at Christmastime came around.”
Responsible for managing Iceland’s largest publishing company, Jóhann sees that important changes are steadily taking place that will improve the efficacy of Iceland’s cluttered book market. “Until recently, books were marketed only at Christmas. This is changing a lot, though,” he reports. “Publishers originally thought that there was no market for paperbacks. The books at Christmastime are usually published with the best paper and the best covers because they are designed to be gifts.”
Jóhann recalls sitting up in bed one night, asking himself if any convincing effort had ever been made to create a paperback book market in Iceland. Unable to say yes, he later devised an experimental plan to market and sell six paperback titles using cardboard display stands in grocery stores. The experiment was an overnight success. “Paperback sales have convinced me that the people of Iceland really are interested in reading throughout the year, not just at Christmastime,” he says.
To help reduce Iceland’s growing backlog of books, Jóhann also suggests scaling back the number of book vendors across Iceland. “We are selling to 150 stores across Iceland, so our stock is spread all over,” he explains. “We have to print 1,500 copies of each book just to be able to cover and fill all the bookstores, and even if there are only five copies left in each shop after the Christmas season, then that still leaves 750 copies that we have to buy back and store in our facilities. We eventually have to destroy books that we can’t store any more because it would simply take too long to sell them.”
This problem is not as simple as publishing fewer books and fewer authors to fewer bookstores, though. The high volume of books published in Iceland each year allows up-and-coming voices—not just a few perennial, best-selling authors—to make a mark on the Icelandic literary scene. “We could publish fewer books—and many think we should—but which ones should we not publish?” asks Guðrún Vilmundardóttir, publishing director of Bjartur, Iceland’s second-largest publishing house. “Usually, and for most titles, our print runs are quite accurate. When we have great success, we have to order extra print-runs, which is of course a good thing. But we have also made mistakes. It has happened that we order, late in December, a new print run that we see later was unnecessary. That is a waste, and it happens because of the great frenzy of the Christmas book market,” she says. “I like to be optimistic, though. I think there are a lot of positive sides to this Book Flood. It puts the spotlight on literature for a few months of the year and promotes Iceland’s literary culture.”
An evolving market
Because of its small size and sparse population, Iceland’s economy rarely, if ever, fully equalises, and the nation’s book market will probably always reflect the nation’s enduring economic challenges to some extent. However, as the remnants of the annual Book Flood pile up each year, Icelandic publishers are starting to rethink how books are distributed, marketed, and sold to customers not only to improve efficiency but also to reduce growing paper waste. For now, the Book Flood tradition will live on, but the evolution of the book market in Iceland is far from complete.