The Jólabókaflóð

Iceland's yearly flood of books
14.12.2009
Words by Hildur Knútsdóttir
You might not have heard of it, but Iceland has a yearly flood. It’s not like the monsoon where the streets are overrun with water and mud. No, this is a different kind of flood, namely the so-called Christmas-Book Flood. Well. It doesn’t necessarily translate well, but in Icelandic the term is “Jólabókaflóð,” and it is a yearly sign that Christmas is coming in Iceland. Unlike in most countries, the bulk of the nation’s literary output is published in the two or three months leading up to Christmas.

    Iceland has just over 300.000 habitants. And in this year, there are around 700 titles published in Icelandic, which is among the most we have ever seen. The titles include poetry, children’s books, novels, translations, non-fiction etc. I know this because of a nifty little catalogue called Bókatíðindi. It would roughly translate as The Journal of Books. It comes out every November and lists damn near every book “officially” published in Icelandic. It is delivered to each and every home in the country, and for many it is a sign that Christmas is officially upon us. And for Icelanders, Christmas is the time where you snuggle up and read your presents.



It all dates back to World War II

But why does every Icelandic publishing house deem it sensible to release its yearly output in the two or three months that every other publishing house releases theirs? The tradition dates back to World War II, where strict currency restrictions were imposed, so there wasn’t a lot of imported giftware. And Icelanders had quite a lot of money to spend in those days due to the economic upheaval during the war. The restrictions on imported paper were more lenient than on other products, so the book emerged as the Christmas present of choice. And Icelanders have honoured the tradition ever since.

    The Icelandic Christmas-book market is mainly a gift market. People tend to buy hardcover books for their friends and relatives, but purchase cheaper paperbacks for themselves. As a result most books are published in hardcover before Christmas, and then the most popular ones come out in paperback, even as soon as January or February.



New possibilities in publishing are emerging

According to Guðrún Vilmundardóttir, publisher at Bjartur, the second largest publishing house in Iceland, the sales in December figure a staggering sixty percent of their yearly turnover. And most are sold in the few days before Christmas. But during the last few years there have been some signs of a change in the Icelandic publishing landscape. There have been experiments with publishing novels at other times of the year. And according to Guðrún, the market has been becoming more flexible lately. Bjartur has begun publishing paperbacks in the spring for summertime reading. “They are books to take on holiday, thrillers and lighter reads, and people have definitely started buying more paperbacks for themselves. And last spring we published a new Icelandic novel in paperback (Handbók um hugarfar kúa, by Bergsveinn Birgisson) and that sold well. So new possibilities in publishing are emerging.”

    Egill Örn Jóhannsson, manager at Forlagið, Iceland’s single largest publishing house after JPV and Edda merged in 2007, tells a similar tale. “From the start, we have consciously tried to increase publication in what may be called ‘other seasons’, i.e. not the Christmas season. It has gone very well and now we probably publish more than half of our titles before the so-called Christmas season begins.” And for them, sales in the spring have also been picking up. “Our bestselling summer paperbacks are sold in thousands of copies, which is very good considering market’s smallness,” says Egill.

    And indeed, with so few people reading and speaking Icelandic, it is a very small market. So small, in fact, that according to Egill, many foreign publishing houses think it nothing short of miraculous that such a diverse literary scene can be found in such a small country.

The inevitable question of the economic collapse

But what of the meltdown? The Kreppa? The economic collapse or whatever you want to call it? Well, it has certainly had an impact on the publishing industry. As the Króna plummeted, prices on imported goods have risen again, and sadly, this time around it goes for paper as well. Says Guðrún: “Last year we didn’t raise our prices, although everything had become more expensive—but this year we are forced to raise prices a little. But prices on books haven’t been raised much those last few years compared to everything else. A book is a classic gift and very reasonably priced. And I think we have even sensed a kind of goodwill since last fall. People don’t go abroad as much to buy presents. They would rather buy Icelandic products.”

    Egill answers along the same notes. “For a very long time we have heard of the cliché that books are an especially strong product during recession. Now it’s been a year since the economic collapse and it’s clear that the book can well stand its ground on the market. What’s important is that publishers keep at it with confidence and believe in the literary market. If they do, I’m not worried at all. But consumer behaviour seems to have changed a bit, with fewer people buying the more expensive books. But we publishers have done a pretty good job at keeping prices down during the last few years.”



The creeping Kreppa

But the Kreppa has been creeping into the literary scene by other means as well, as a large amount of Icelandic novels and non-fiction books are in one way or another a spin on the situation Icelanders find themselves in. There are several non-fiction books that try to explain what exactly led to the economic collapse in Iceland, as well as books regarding the pros and cons of joining the E.U. in the wake of the meltdown, and even a book on corruption by our saviour Eva Joly. There are a number of poetry books struggling to grasp the reasons for and consequences of the Kreppa, and the Kreppa even figures strongly in more than a few children’s books, albeit mostly in a metaphorical way. And the novels? Many of them seem to be on issues such as greed and vanity, though quite a few of them also read like nothing drastic has happened in the country. This may be due to the fact that it is now almost exactly a year since the collapse, and novels do take time to write. We likely have nowhere near exhausted the impact that the Kreppa will have on Icelandic society, including its literary scene. 

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