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Audiobooks Account for a Third of Books ‘Read’ in Iceland

The popularity of audiobooks in Iceland has exploded in recent years, RÚV reports. A third of books ‘read’ in Iceland are now consumed in audio form.

The audiobook boom happened later than anticipated in Iceland, says author and literary scholar Halldór Guðmundsson. When digital music formats became the norm, it was expected that the Icelandic literary world would also naturally shift to digital and audio formats. This didn’t happen, however, in part simply because audiobooks were not being published in any significant way. The Icelandic Audio Library (previously known as the Library for the Blind) made audiobooks available to Icelanders who were unable to read printed material. But their collection was not accessible by the general public. Leaving the Audio Library’s collection out of the tally, therefore, a grand total of nine audiobooks were published in 2017. But just a year later, when Swedish audiobook retailer Storytel arrived in Iceland, audiobook publications skyrocketed, with 168 audiobooks published in 2018. This trend has continued apace: 770 audiobooks were published in Iceland in 2020.

A side benefit of this audiobook explosion, says Halldór, is that Icelandic books that have gone out of print are now readily available once again, as production costs are much lower than they would be if the books were republished in print format. He also noted that there are now authors who are have begun writing specifically for audio format, creating, in essence, a new literary genre as they go. “What’s interesting about it is that this could become, and in some cases has already become, its own literary genre: the audiobook. If you’re writing specifically for audio, you have to do things like introduce characters to the story a bit differently. It’s an aesthetics called ‘audio-first.’”

Audio books are also bringing many authors new audiences, something that Halldór—who wrote a celebrated, 824-page biography about Iceland’s Nobel Prize for Literature winner Halldór Laxness in 2004—knows from personal experience. “…The big plus is that you get new readers. All of a sudden, people who would have never attempted my doorstop [of a biography] about Halldór Laxness are getting in touch with me, and it takes a whole week to listen to that.” Indeed, the audio version of the biography, read in Icelandic by the author himself, is nine hours and nineteen minutes long. (An English version of the book, translated by Philip Roughton in 2008, was published under the title The Islander: A Biography of Halldór Laxness.)

There is still, of course, room for improvement in terms of how authors are remunerated for audiobook publication. It’s a well-known fact, concedes Halldór, that musicians have not been treated equitably in this new digital streaming world and authors are not faring much better. Storytel, for example, only pays authors a little more in royalties than Spotify, “by far the worst” of the streaming platforms, pays its musicians. The company is up front about its payment rates, however, so while Halldór agrees that “author remuneration could be higher, no question,” he notes that there is still payment and the terms are clear from the outset.

Platforms like Storytel are pushing Icelandic publishers to release more audiobooks themselves. Looking at the example of Forlagið, the biggest publisher in Iceland, Halldór notes that the company only released a single audiobook in 2017. Whereas last year, Forlagið published 192 audiobooks. This only makes sense, Halldór concludes: you can’t look at the figures — a third of all books in Iceland being read by audio format — and let that sort of opportunity pass by.

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