“The summer has been very good in general when it comes to selling books, but we haven’t sold this many translated Icelandic books over the same period since 2019,” says Egill Örn Jóhannsson, Executive Director of Forlagið, the biggest book publisher in Iceland.
Book sales have been skyrocketing over the past few months, and nobody seems to have a particularly good theory regarding why. Icelanders—and visiting travellers—just seem to be reading more. Normally the best time for selling books in Iceland is always around Christmas—the so-called Christmas Book Flood.
But this unexpected summer increase in book sales is very welcome to publishers like Forlagið.
Crude humour helps
When it comes to tourism, the selection is pretty obvious.
“We sell a lot of books by Brian Pilkington, children’s books, traditional photo books—and also pompous novels,” Egill Örn explains laughing. “But we are also seeing a lot of uptick in sales of Hugleikur Dagsson’s comics for example,” he adds. Asked if Hugleikur is not too controversial for tourists, Egill Örn says he doesn’t think so. “I think travellers are interested in modern Icelandic humour, this crude dry humour we are known for.”
Unsurprisingly, the year started slowly when selling books. The world was still under the confines of the Covid-19 pandemic. But it seems like Icelanders, as well as tourists, are getting back on track. Tourism numbers are almost back to pre-pandemic levels, but even this doesn’t fully explain the boom in book sales.
When asked for his take on matters, Egill can’t really offer a simple answer. “In general, when it comes to fiction, interest in Icelandic literature is growing,” he says. “Icelandic literature has been doing quite well internationally, but extremely well in France in the past few years, for example.”
Egill says that he expected this to be a temporary situation, but we have seen Icelandic writers in bestseller lists in France again and again. Perhaps a trend that is spreading—do we dare to say it— like a virus.
Audio vs visual
Although there are positive signs all around, there is still a deeper threat looming for book publishers both here and internationally.
“Whatever we feel our potentials are as a literature nation, the interest in translations in the world seems to be going down in general,” Egill explains. The reason is fairly simple: books are now competing with incredibly diverse forms of entertainment, everything from video games to the whole internet, social media and streaming services. It’s simply harder to grab people’s attention and time, and the day isn’t getting any longer to make room for extra activities.
Nonetheless, there are signs that the interest in a good story isn’t really diminishing. For example, Icelanders have warmly embraced audiobooks, while they are not as interested in e-books. Egill Örn is both very glad and sceptical when it comes to audiobooks.
It means that more people have the opportunity to “read” books, including those who struggle with traditional books, perhaps due to a lack of time or difficulty reading. But audiobook access is also following the same and very controversial business model as streaming platforms like Spotify. While it’s incredibly user-friendly, it doesn’t give writers or publishers much to live on.
Writing into the future
Despite these concerns, Forlagið has a very ambitious programme to sell Icelandic literature abroad and has succeeded in an impressive way over the past decade at least. Egill Örn says he can be content—up to a healthy point.
“First of all, we have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams in finding foreign markets for Icelandic books, and the future is bright when it comes to younger authors,” he says. “Over the past 3 – 4 years we have been seeing a lot of good young authors finding their own markets and most importantly, new young readers,” Egill continues. While it might not be clear exactly what’s behind the recent craze in book sales, Egill is clear: the future for Icelandic literature is bright.
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