Rising Prices Likely to Affect Christmas Book Market

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Inflation and the energy crisis in Europe are driving up prices for many consumer goods, and Christmas books are likely to be no exception this year.

Books are a traditional and popular Christmas gift in Iceland, so much so that the months preceding Christmas see a “jólabókaflóð,” or flood of Christmas books. The tradition is said to have originated during the Second World War, when products from Europe became scarcer. Books were largely printed locally and were seen as cheap and easily available Christmas gifts.

Read more: Icelandic Publishers Optimistic About Christmas Book Flood

In a statement to RÚV, chairman of the Association of Icelandic Book Publishers Heiðar Ingi Svansson stated that the industry hopes to avoid price increases as much as possible, but that some increases will be inevitable.

Heiðar outlined the factors contributing to rising costs: “the main ones are that the energy crisis in Europe is causing an increase in energy prices for the production of paper. In recent years, the supply of paper for book printing has also decreased due to the greater focus of paper manufacturers on producing paper for packaging production, due to the increase in online sales.”

Despite the energy crisis and rising costs, Heiðar says that the Icelandic publishing industry must still largely rely on Northern Europe for its needs. “The increase in transportation costs around the world and the fact that the state’s reimbursement of part of the production costs is limited to printing in Europe means that it is not possible for publishers to print books elsewhere in the world,” Heiðar stated. “Also, environmental considerations, including the carbon footprint, play a major role.”

Another factor keeping Icelandic publishing in Europe, and especially Germany, is the increasing time frame for printing books. Years ago, when paper was cheaper, publishers kept large stocks of paper. Now with increasing shift in logistics to “just in time” manufacturing, publishers tend to keep increasingly small stocks of paper, meaning that supplies have to be specially ordered for each print run. This means increased time between when the book is sent off to print and when it hits shelves. As a result of this, Icelandic book publishers are keen to keep the printing process as close to Iceland as possible to ensure on-time delivery.

Despite the bleak holiday forecast, Heiðar stated that “we are going to do everything in our power to hold back price increases on books before Christmas. The Christmas book is by far the most popular Christmas gift for Icelanders, and we plan to do everything we can to ensure that it remains so.”


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.

International Book Thief Targeted Icelandic Authors, Publishers

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The mysterious book thief whose five-year stint stealing unpublished manuscripts has sowed mistrust and anxiety among authors, agents, editors, translators and literary professionals of all stripes also specifically targeted Icelanders and went to great lengths to acquire Icelandic language texts. Following the FBI’s recent arrest of the man suspected of being behind the thefts—Filippo Bernardini, a 29-year-old Italian national who works in the foreign-rights department of publisher Simon & Schuster’s UK office—RÚV reports that the thief’s interactions with Icelandic authors and agents had, in at least one instance, been menacing enough to warrant filing a police report.

‘There’s no apparent reason for it’

The book thief—dubbed ‘The Spine Collector’ by journalists Reeves Wiedeman and Lila Shapiro who spent six months investigating the case—used intricate means of acquiring, or attempting to acquire, unpublished of big-name novelists (Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, Laila Lailami, and David Lagercrantz, the Swedish author who took over writing Stig Larsen’s Millennium series), celebrities (Ethan Hawke), and unknown first timers. The thief’s motives remain unknown and unclear—as pointed out in a 2020 New York Times article, the manuscripts never appeared on the black market and were never followed by any sort of ransom demand. To make things all the more confusing, the individual also targeted authors who write in a variety of languages other than English.

By early 2020, it was clear that the thief had set his sights on adding unpublished, Icelandic-language manuscripts to his collection, and although no one was entirely sure why the person would go to such trouble, it put everyone in the industry on edge. “It’s totally worthless material, in the sense that it was in a language that at most, 350,000 people speak,” remarked author Björn Halldórsson at the time. Björn had been contacted by the thief, who posed as an editor at a respected American publisher and asked for a copy of his as-yet unpublished first novel. “There’s no apparent reason for it,” Björn mused in an interview. “But after consulting with people who work for big publishers, I think that this is the first phase in some sort of scheme to build trust and relationships, so god only knows what could have happened if I’d sent the manuscript.”

‘I know where you live’

The thief also contacted Hólmfríður Matthíasdóttir, publishing director at Forlagið, Iceland’s largest publishing house. “He had created email addresses, we’ll call them impostor emails, that mimicked the names of actual people who work in the literary world,” she recalled in a recent interview. “Well-known translators, agents, and publishers, people we were in touch with.” (The thief would often employ tricks such as replacing an ‘m’ with ‘rn’ so that a fake email address—[email protected], for example—would look legitimate unless closely scrutinized.)

“He wrote to us using these fake email addresses and asked us to send manuscripts or files for books that we were about to publish,” Hólmfríður continued. “Because he was just so excited to read them and wanted to consider publication abroad.”

Hólmfríður saw through the ruse, however, and wrote back to the emailer, suggesting he get in touch with one of the other aliases he’d been using to solicit Icelandic manuscripts. “I say to him, ‘Now, be sure to talk to the other [impostor] because that person has just as much interest in Icelandic literature as you do.” The thief became threatening. “He explicitly said: ‘I know where you live and I’m going to show up there.’” After consulting with her colleagues, Hólmfríður decided to report the interaction to the police. “It’s really unsettling when you don’t know who is behind words like that.”

Thief wrote in Icelandic

The thief also impersonated a number of Icelanders in the literary world, Hólmfríður herself included. As she recalled in an interview with Morgunblaðið, he wrote to Icelandic author Sjón “in good Icelandic,” pretending to be her.

He also emailed Bjartur & Veröld publisher Pétur Már Ólafsson, pretending to be author Hallgrímur Helgason. In that exchange, fake Hallgrímur said he was in Denmark and asked for a pdf of a manuscript that he was interested in reviewing.

“I knew that the real Hallgrímur had been on a trip to Germany,” said Pétur Már, “and I found it a bit strange,” not least because Hallgrímur had written a post on Facebook about returning to Iceland.

Pétur Már responded to fake Hallgrímur, not letting on that he suspected that something was amiss. He said he’d seen that the author had come back to Iceland and invited him to come to the publisher’s office to pick up the book in person. He also suggested a phone call, but in both cases fake Hallgrímur demurred and repeated his request for a pdf. The impostor maintained his impersonation even after Pétur Már responded with well wishes about his sudden COVID infection—as it happens, the real author had posted on Facebook that very day, saying he’d caught COVID. Pétur Már included a screenshot of the Facebook post in his message to the impostor and said he’d send the book to the quarantine hotel in Reykjavík.

“I can’t receive any packages,” wrote fake Hallgrímur. “Only pdfs.”

But the real Hallgrímur had not only received the book, he’d called Pétur Már to thank him. Meanwhile, the impostor sent another email: “I haven’t received it…can you send me a pdf?”

“That’s strange,” responded Pétur Már, “you just called me before and thanked me for the package!”

That was the last that Pétur Már heard from fake Hallgrímur. Interestingly, however, when the FBI arrested Bernardini, the publisher recalled having corresponded with the man under his real name. In that instance, Bernardini addressed Pétur and his colleagues in broken Icelandic.

‘We know nothing about what he was doing’

While no material damage seems to have been done to any of the Icelandic authors and agents targeted by the thief, the person’s campaign of deception has made a real impact on the (Icelandic) publishing industry, which, Hólmfríður pointed out, is one that’s built on trust.

Even more unsettling is the fact that ostensibly knowing who was behind the thefts has done little to explain the thief’s motives. “The books, or the manuscripts haven’t appeared on illegal download sites, and we’ve never seen him take advantage of them in any visible way,” noted Hólmfríður. “In reality, we know nothing about what he was doing with these manuscripts.”

Storytel Purchases Majority Share in Forlagið, Iceland’s Largest Publisher

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Sweden’s e- and audiobook giant Storytel AB has acquired a 70% majority interest in Forlagið, Iceland’s largest publishing house. A press release confirms that Mál og menning, which maintains a publishing imprint (one of five under the auspices of Forlagið), as well as a literary journal, will remain a 30% minority owner in the publisher. Forlagið will continue to operate “independently from Storytel Iceland’s streaming operations on the local market.”

Forlagið now joins the ranks of three other Nordic publishers under the Storytell umbrella: Norstedts Förlagsgrupp (SWE), People’s Press (DEN) and Gummerus Publishers (FIN). “We are excited to welcome Forlagið to the Storytel family and our publishing business area,” wrote Jonas Tellander, CEO and founder of Storytel. “It feels fantastic to join forces with the proficient and skilled publishers at Forlagið, who share our passion for great authorships and stories.”

Forlagið CEO Egill Örn Jóhannsson expressed equal optimism about the deal, particularly as regards the potential he sees it having for bringing Icelandic authors to a broader global readership. “This will open up new markets for the authors of Forlagið and help us take a big step into the future and closer to the modern reader and listener. This deal will surely reinforce and future-proof Forlagið’s business. It will also cement our mission to continue publishing the best of Icelandic literature, to bring this literature to the audience via all means expected, and open new doors for our authors all over the world.”

Icelandic authors ‘blindsided’

The sale was not met with equal enthusiasm in all literary quarters, however. According to Ragnheiður Tryggvadóttir, the managing director of the Icelandic Writers Union, the sale “blindsided” Icelandic authors, whose concerns regarding rights-holding and future publishing policy have poured into the union since the sale was announced. “Our main concern is whether a foreign corporation…will be passionate about publishing Icelandic literature,” said Ragnheiður.

“People are taken aback that such a big share of an Icelandic publisher is now owned by a foreign company. Because we without question look at ourselves as guardians of the Icelandic language and the Icelandic language as the basis of our nation’s culture. So our first reaction is that this doesn’t make any sense.”

The union and its members would have never thought it possible that the copyright of such a huge percentage of the country’s literary heritage would be sold to a foreign entity, continued Ragnheiður. “The idea was totally foreign to us until yesterday morning.”

History of acquiring ‘legacy print publishing houses’

Storytel currently operates audiobook streaming services in 20 countries, including Brazil, Bulgaria, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates, although the Nordic market—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden—currently accounts for the majority of its business. In addition to buying up “upstart competitors” in the audiobook market, as an article in Publishers Weekly outlined last year, Storytel has also set its sights on expanding into the print market, and has done so through the acquisition of “legacy print publishing houses” in regional markets, such as Forlagið.