11 Books From Iceland You Must Read

A man reading in a book shop corner.

What are considered to be the best books from Iceland? How can they teach us about Iceland today? And are the Icelandic people truly as prolific in their writing as it is claimed? Read on to find out all of this and more.  

Let’s begin by clarifying Iceland’s historic contributions to world literature. Almost everyone knows about the mediaeval sagas. These were epic tomes that speak of courageous settlers. Reigning Scandinavian kings. And vengeful Norse Gods vying for power. 

In short, there is a deep tradition for storytelling here. Modern-day Icelanders continue to write engaging and original works of fiction. In doing so, they sculpt a new place for themselves in the realm of words, grammar, and publishing. 

After all, it is said that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime. An admirable stat for such a diminutive population. So what are the reasons behind their affinity for weaving such fanciful tales? Is it that the dark winters provide for plenty of time to sit at the proverbial typewriter? Or maybe their passion for narrative is so ingrained as to be inescapable? 

How do Icelanders celebrate their literary roots?

Iceland Publishers' Association 2023 book fair
Photo: Golli. Iceland Publishers’ Association 2023 book fair

Whatever the case, cultural events like Jólabókaflóð (The Christmas Book Flood) and the Reykjavík International Literary Festival demonstrate just how deep this devotion to the written word has become. And by taking just a small stroll around Reykjavik, you will also spot plenty of bookshops, many of which remain wholly independent and offer a wide selection of titles in both English and Icelandic. 

For the sake of this article, let’s focus solely on books that have been translated into English and have made a significant cultural impact. So, what are the most widely celebrated novels to have come out of Iceland over the last century, and what prescient insights about this island’s culture can we glean from their pages?

1) Independent People (1934) by Halldor Laxness 

Halldor Laxness and his wife
Photo: Gljúfrasteinn / Laxness Museum

If there is one author who towers above all others in the pantheon of Icelandic writers, it is Halldór Kiljan Laxness. Born in 1902 in Reykjavik, Laxness began writing at an early age, his imagination inflamed by the poetry sang to him by his grandmother. 

His first published works appeared in the newspaper, Morgunblaðið, in 1916. His first novel, Barn náttúrunnar (Child of Nature) was released only three years later, beginning what would be a hugely influential, sometimes controversial, but ultimately incredible literary career.

Laxness’ best known work is Independent People, the story of an impoverished farming family struggling to overcome the inhospitality of the landscape, and the prison-bars laid down by a burgeoning capitalist nation. 

Originally, the novel was released in two parts and deals with themes of social realism and what, if anything, should be willingly sacrificed to ensure independence of the individual. Presenting a rather bleak view of rural life in Iceland during that time, it is still often said that Independent People is one of the greatest books of the 20th Century. 

Quite deservedly, it was Independent People that secured Halldor Laxness the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. He remains Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate. 

Laxness Museum
Photo: Gljúfrasteinn / Laxness Museum

Where can you learn more about Halldor Laxness?


Laxness wrote many other critically-acclaimed books, including
The Fish Can Sing (1957) and Salka Valka (1931). While not overly appreciated in his time, another of his books, The Atom Station (1948), was an early example of an urban novel set in Iceland, cementing the framework for later works based in Reykjavik. 

You can discover more about Halldor Laxness at Gljúfrasteinn hús skáldsins, his former home and now museum on the leafy outskirts of Mosfellsbær. This cosy building is a great place to not only learn more about Iceland’s most acclaimed author, but see firsthand how the man lived and worked. Your tour will begin with a brief documentary about his life and output, and audio guides help explain the exhibitions inside. 

Evocative and inspiring for anyone interested in making writing a career, the house is very much as the great man left it. Even if his shoes and ties can be seen hanging in the cupboard! 

2) Angels of the Universe (1993) by Einar Már Guðmundsson

 

 

Angels of the Universe has left its mark on Icelandic literature in ways that most other books have not. 

Written by Einar Már Guðmundsson, the semi-autobiographical work tells the story of Paul, covering everything from his early childhood to his death. The book was acclaimed for its incredible balance between comedy and tragedy. It quickly found a devoted audience both in Iceland and abroad. 

Guðmundsson won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 1995 for his novel. Five years later, Friðrik Þór Friðriksson directed a feature film adaptation of the same name.

The film won countless accolades upon its release, including Best Film and Director of the Year at the prestigious Edda Awards. 

3) Jar City (2000) by Arnaldur Indriðason

Author Arnaldur Indridason
Photo: Arnaldur Indridason

Written by renowned crime-fiction author, Arnaldur Indriðason, the premise of Jar City is not for the faint of heart. Detective Erlendur investigates the corpse of an elderly man, found dead in his flat, and apparently killed by a glass ashtray thrown at him in a moment of passion. 

A mysterious note, plus a photograph depicting a girl’s gravestone, are the only clues as to what may have happened. Little by little, Erlendur pieces together that, forty years before, the deceased escaped conviction for sexual assault. 

Those with a deeper inside knowledge of Icelandic enterprise will, no doubt, recognise that much of the book is a steadfast criticism of deCODE genetics, a biopharmaceuticals company based in the capital. 

In 2006, a film was produced from the novel, directed by Baltasar Kormákur. 

4) The Blue Fox (2003) by Sjón

An arctic fox on a beach in Hornstrandir, Westfjords.
Photo: Golli. An arctic fox on a beach in Hornstrandir, Westfjords.

Taking place in 1883, this short and surreal story by the acclaimed writer Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson – better known as Sjón – follows two morally complex characters trying to survive in rural Iceland. 

The first is a priest who is doggedly hunting down an elusive blue fox. The second is a herbalist forced to bury a young woman following discovering her in a shipwreck. 

Throughout the events of the book, the changing nature of reality is a common motif, putting readers on edge as they too try to comprehend just what in the story is true, and what is conjured up in the imagination of its protagonists. 

Critics describe the book as a piece of magical-realist fiction, and it earned Sjón the Nordic Prize for Literature in 2005.

5) Hotel Silence (2016) by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Writer Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Photo: Wikimedia. CC. Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s novel follows a divorced, forty-year-old man struggling with a midlife crisis as he travels through a war-ravaged Balkan country state. As readers soon discover, the reason for his being there is that he hopes to be killed, saving the possibility that his Icelandic daughter might discover his body should he commit the act at home. 

Despite the heavy subject matter, the book is rife with lighthearted witticisms and tender reflections on what it means to be human. Hotel Silence is just as capable as being tragic as it is hilarious, intimate, and powerful.

Having published three novels and countless poems, Auður is one of Iceland’s most esteemed writers, having won many literary awards both at home and in France. In 2018, she received the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for her work on Hotel Silence

Two years after, Auður published another well-received novel called Miss Iceland that focuses on the conservative nature of 1960s Iceland, and a determined woman attempting to break the mould by becoming a writer. 

6) I Remember You (2012) by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

 

 

A spine-tingling ghost story by acclaimed children’s and crime author, Yrsa Sigurdardottir. It follows three friends as they renovate an abandoned and isolated house. After a short while, it becomes obvious that something malevolent within the house is trying to make them leave. 

As you can imagine, the permeating horror and eldritch themes in this novel does not make it suitable for young readers.  

The central mystery of I Remember You creeps up slowly. A doctor in a nearby town uncovers how the suicide of his former patient began with an obsession she had with her vanished son. How these two seemingly unrelated events intertwine sets the scene for what becomes a truly terrifying read. 

In the past, Yrsa’s penchant for horror has been compared to masters of the genre like Stephen King. 

7) The Fires: Love & Other Disasters (2020) by Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir

Meradalir eruption, August 2022
Photo: Golli. Meradalir eruption, August 2022

A sharp rise in earthquakes and eruptions demonstrate that Iceland is likely entering a new chapter of volcanic activity. These events have been limited to the Reykjanes Peninsula, and there is no indication that Iceland’s population is in danger. 

Of course, those living on the peninsula – such as the former residents of Grindavík – have had their lives turned upside down. There is great sympathy both at home and abroad for how they have been affected. But still, the point remains. By and large, Icelanders remain safe from incurrent lava flows. 

However, in the world of fiction, Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir explores the worst case scenario. In her new novel, The Fires: Love & Other Disasters, she asks the question. What if Iceland was to be made unliveable by a catastrophic volcanic eruption?

The story focuses on a determined volcanologist named Anna Arnardóttir. As a true scientist, Anna places great importance on clear and rational thinking. She does so often at the expense of allowing personal feelings to cloud her views. But, as the threat of a large volcanic eruption threatens to destroy the Icelandic nation, she finds herself faced with another dramatic obstacle – love!

For those rare, but die-hard fans of romantic-disaster stories, Sigríður’s book is the perfect choice. Though it might make you irrationally fearful about Iceland’s molten underbelly, this novel contains plenty of fascinating science that will provide a clear understanding of the volcanic forces that characterise this island. 

8)  Öræfi: The Wasteland (2014) by Ófeigur Sigurðsson 

Sólheimasandur
Photo: Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck

Once known as Litla Hérað (Little District,) Öræfi is among Iceland’s most barren regions. It has lain deserted since the violent 1362 eruption and glacial flooding at Öræfajökull volcano. As far as dramatic settings go, it is a fitting place. One that can serve as a blank canvas upon which the author can experiment with literary styles and influences.  

In Icelandic, Öræfi translates to “desolation” or “wilderness.” While this might at first strike you as a somewhat bleak and depressing title, this expansive literary work is as filled with lighthearted comedic moments as it is profound drama and illuminating scientific theories. 

The major event of the book is when its title character – an Austrian toponymist by the name of Bernharður Fingurbjörg – falls headlong into a glacier. However, given the interweaving threads that make up this epic novel, it’s an incident that almost seems inconsequential to the plot, but one that instead allows for Ófeigur to explore countless subjects and lines of inquiry. 

9) The Woman at 1000 Degrees (2011) by Hallgrimur Helgason

 

 

The Woman at 1000 Degrees caused widespread and controversial coverage upon its release in Iceland in 2011 due in large part to the fact that many of its characters and events were taken directly from real life. Hallgrimur Helgason left a note at the beginning of the book stating what follows is a work of fiction. However, claims suggest that surviving family members do not appreciate the depiction of their relatives.. 

Scandals aside, this story is as enthralling as it is personal, strange, and quirky. It showcases Hallgrimur’s flair for writing in its most biting and unsentimental form.

As is often the case with Icelandic novels, the premise begins on a dark note. It is narrated in the first-person from Herra’s perspective.

She is an elderly woman nearing the end of her life. We begin by knowing that she has scheduled her own appointment at the crematorium. In roughly two weeks’ time, they will cook her body at a scalding 1000 degrees.

Hence the title of the book. 

While waiting for this self-imposed finale, she recounts various experiences from her life. First we learn that she is the granddaughter of Iceland’s first President. She also once kissed a member of the Beatles. Her father fought in the Second World War on the side of Nazi Germany. She once married and was a mother to children. She even lived through the financial crash. We learn all this and more, right up until where we find her in the novel. Having mastered the internet and living in a small garage smoking endless cigarettes. 

10) Heaven and Hell (2010) by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

fishing lumpfish net
Photo: Golli. Lumpfish being caught in East Iceland

Described as ‘Like an oyster – a glinting treasure in a rough shell,’ Heaven and Hell is the first book of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s widely-lauded trilogy. 

It is set in the harsh reality of 19th-century Iceland. This superb story explores how the tumultuous ocean relates to the lives and deaths of those who dare brave it. Fishermen struggle against monolithic waves. Tempestuous storms. And unruly companions as they fight to earn a meagre living.So, people compare the intensity of reading this novel to the drama and inhospitality of Iceland’s own coastal waters.

The novel’s protagonist – known only as ‘the boy’ – sets sail on a cod fishing boat with a strange crew. But he soon becomes disillusioned upon observing their callous reaction to a tragedy aboard the vessel. Abandoning his crewmates, he heads back to land. As expected, he is uncaring as to whether he survives the perilous journey or not. But once he reaches shore, he realises that circumstances are not much better there than they were at sea…

The next two books The Sorrow of Angels and The Human Heart continue to follow the story of the title character. Both delve into the interplay between the forbidding nature of Iceland and the stoic lives of those who endure it.  

11)  A Fist or a Heart (2019) by Kristín Eiríksdóttir

 

 

As Kristín Eiríksdóttir’s first novel translated into the English language, A Fist or a Heart makes for a fantastic introduction to one of Iceland’s most celebrated modern authors. Here in Iceland, she has been a huge name in the local literary scene since releasing a collection of short stories, Doris Dies, in 2010. 

The main character of A Fist or a Heart is Elín Jónsdóttir, a lonely seventy-year-old woman who creates gruesome props for a theatrical company based in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. Aside from busying herself with work, Elín becomes increasingly interested in who she deems to be a fellow outsider. A young, upcoming playwright named Ellen Álfsdóttir. 

As the story progresses, we as the reader learn that these two characters share many experiences. Troubled childhoods. Struggling to remain independent within their respective creative visions. And yet, the harder Elín attempts to unravel the parallels, the more her connection with reality wanes. This confusion lays the groundwork for an intricate and emotionally-astute novel. One that deals with themes of isolation and creativity on its own terms. 

Rising Prices Likely to Affect Christmas Book Market

iceland christmas book

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

icelandic books

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.”

Iceland’s Culture Industry Needs More Support

Iceland Airwaves 2018

The 2008 banking collapse and the coronavirus pandemic have impacted Iceland’s culture industry more negatively than other industries. There are 25% fewer people working in culture in Iceland today than there were in 2008. The data are from a report published by the Icelandic Confederation of University Graduates (BHM) today. BHM emphasised the importance of a government policy that increases support for the arts in order to avoid permanent damage from the pandemic.

Decrease in salary payments and employees

According to the report, there has been a sharp decline in wage payments and the number of people working in the creative industries in Iceland in recent years. There are 25% fewer people working in the culture industry now than in 2008, while the total decline in wage payments amounts to 40%. The creative industries began to decline significantly after 2013, and the contraction increased significantly after 2017.

While COVID-19 is an obvious factor, the development in Iceland’s culture industry precedes the pandemic. In the last four years, total salary payments in the media industry have decreased by around 45%; in the film industry by 41%; and in the music sector by 26%. While the development began earlier, the economic shock of the pandemic made the situation go from bad to worse, the report states.

Artists’ salaries among lowest on the market

BHM points out that most artists have a university degree under their belt. Despite their education, however, artists’ salaries were considerably lower than the average salaries of others working full time in 2020. Artists’ salaries have fallen far behind the general wage trend and now compare to the lowest salaries on the Icelandic job market. While the wage index has risen by 96% in recent years, artists’ salaries have risen by 49%.

Low wages could explain contraction in individual sectors, such as in the publishing industry. While in 2011, 5.2 books were published in Iceland per 1,000 inhabitants, that number fell to 3.4 in 2019. BHM says Iceland’s government can look to the Nordic countries as an example of how to increase support for the arts in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Otherwise,” the report states, “there is a risk that cultural industries will suffer permanent damage from the pandemic.”

Book Sales Up By 30% in Iceland

Books by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir on a shelf.

Pre-Christmas book sales are up by 30% in Iceland compared to the same time last year, RÚV reports. Giving books as Christmas presents is a long-standing Icelandic tradition, and it looks like that tradition is not going to disappear any time soon. One Icelandic printing company has acquired equipment making it possible to produce hardcovers in the country for the first time in three years.

Icelanders have a long-standing tradition of giving books as Christmas presents. Publishers have supported this trend for decades with a flurry of new books released in the months leading up to Christmas. This surge in new titles is known as Jólabókaflóðið or the Christmas Book Flood. As the nation flocks to bookstores, the period is not only one of increased literary and cultural discussion – it’s also financially crucial for many publishers, who rely on sales during the flood to stay afloat.

Perfect Conditions for Reading Books

Heiðar Ingi Svansson, Chairman of The Icelandic Publishers Association, says many factors explain the recent jump in sales. “Of course very diverse and good publishing to begin with. I think that matters.” Statistics do show that publishing seems to be growing and diversifying in Iceland. “And the conditions we are living with are of course perfect conditions for reading books.” Heiðar says the Nordic noir books of authors Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir are selling well as usual, but children’s literature is also flying off the shelves.

Possible to Reprint Locally

Printing company Prentmet Oddi recently purchased a hardcover machine that allows Icelandic publishers to produce hardcovers in the country for the first time in three years. This means that books that sell better than expected can be reprinted locally and return to shelves sooner. Local reprinting can have books ready in five days, as opposed to three to six weeks if they were to be reprinted abroad. This will allow publishers to make the most of the Christmas book flood this year.

Read More: Icelandic Publishers Optimistic About Christmas Book Flood

Fans of Icelandic literature who don’t speak the language will also be glad to hear that translations of Icelandic literature into foreign languages have tripled over the past decade. Around 40 titles have recently been translated into English, or will soon be published in English, in the US and UK, according to the Icelandic Literature Centre.

Icelanders Reading More During Pandemic

Books by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir on a shelf.

Icelanders are reading more books and listening to more audiobooks this year than last year. A survey commissioned by the Icelandic Literature Centre shows that Icelanders are now reading 2.5 books per month, up from 2.3 around the same time last year. The survey found that women read more than men, and families with two or more children read more than others in Iceland.

More Reading in Icelandic

More than one third of respondents who listen to audiobooks (36%) said they consume more of them now than they did last year and 18% of those who read traditional books said they read more now than before the pandemic. Audiobook consumption increased overall from last year.

More respondents this year reported reading exclusively or most often in Icelandic than in last year’s survey (61%). Those 18-35 read more in languages other than Icelandic than any other age group. Around 80% of respondents stated they felt it was important that new foreign books were translated into Icelandic. The majority of respondents, or 73%, considered it important for Icelandic literature to have public funding (this figure was similar to last year).

Women and Families With Children Read Most

Families with three or more children read more than households with no children and also reported using libraries most. Around half of the survey’s respondents reported that they use library services.

Women read more than men, according to the survey’s findings. While women in Iceland read on average 3.1 books per month, men read just 1.9. Men’s reading has increased more between years, however, while women’s reading has stayed largely the same. Around 78% of the survey’s female respondents had read a book in the past 30 days while 65% of male respondents had.

Spending the Same on Books

While the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have encouraged reading among Icelanders, it does not appear to have affected book purchasing much. Around 78% of respondents said they buy a similar number of books now as they did last year, while 16% say they buy fewer and 6% that they buy more.

The survey was commissioned by the Icelandic Literature Centre in collaboration with six other organisations in the literature industry and carried out by Zenter. The sample size was 2,200, of which 1,101 responded.

Icelandic Publishers Optimistic About Christmas Book Flood

iceland books

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Icelandic publishers are not especially worried sales will drop during this year’s Christmas Book Flood, RÚV reports. While restrictions limit the number of shoppers in bookstores, sales remain steady, and many locals are turning to online stores to buy the books on their Christmas shopping list.

Icelanders have a long-standing tradition of giving books as Christmas presents. Publishers have supported this trend for decades with a flurry of new books released in the months leading up to Christmas. This surge in new titles is known as Jólabókaflóðið or the Christmas Book Flood. As the nation flocks to bookstores, the period is not only one of increased literary and cultural discussion – it’s also financially crucial for many publishers, who rely on sales during the flood to stay afloat.

“There is so much uncertainty that both are possible. You can be optimistic or you can be pessimistic,” stated Guðrún Vilmundardóttir head of publishing company Benedikt bókaútgáfa. “It’s much better for the soul and the nerves to be optimistic so I’m just going to allow myself to be that.” Guðrún says there has been significant interest in Benedikt’s newest titles and online sales are promising.

Read More: Icelanders Opt for Audiobooks During Pandemic

Borgar Jónsteinsson is director of sales at Penninn-Eymundsson, Iceland’s largest bookstore chain. “You could say the action hasn’t started yet,” he told reporters. “But book sales are nice and even and pretty much on par with the same time last year,” Borgar stated. “I’m very optimistic because I also see that publishing is good now.”

Read More: Record Number of Icelandic Books Published in 2019

Recent history also suggested there are reasons for booksellers to be optimistic despite the economic situation. Books sold well in Iceland in 2008 and 2009, during the recession that followed the banking collapse. Perhaps Icelanders will also turn to the deep-seated tradition of book-giving this Christmas as well.

Iceland Had Third-Highest Spending on Culture in Europe

Design March Fetival 2019 Hönnunarmars

Around 2.5% of Iceland’s total general government expenditure in 2018 went toward cultural services. Iceland’s government spending on culture was the third-highest in Europe that year, surpassed only by Hungary (2.7%) and Latvia (2.8%). Nearly one third of this funding went toward culture workers’ salaries, though it also supported museums, theatres, broadcasting, and publishing.

hagstofan culural expenditure
Hagstofan.

Municipal Budgets Devote More to Culture than State

Culture funding has remained at similar levels in the past 10 years, ranging between 2.2% and 2.6% of general expenditure. A larger proportion of municipal government spending went to culture than state spending in 2018. While municipal governments devoted 4.7% of their general expenditure toward culture that year, the state proportion was 1.5%.

When both municipal and state spending is considered, 31% of all culture spending went toward compensation of employees. The largest proportion, 42%, went toward the use of goods and services, including purchases and expert services from non-employees. The third-largest portion, 12%, went toward subsidies, which include Artists’ Salaries.

Higher Spending on Broadcasting

When it comes to broadcasting, 0.5% of Iceland’s total general government expenditure went toward broadcasting and publishing services, above the EU-27 average of 0.4%. This figure has remained similar since 2009, though it reached 0.8% in 2015.

The data was published yesterday by Statistics Iceland as part of the institution’s work towards increasing the visibility of statistics regarding culture and media.