Jólabókaflóð: the curious case of Icelandic publishing

Credit: Caroline Kessler

At the time of writing, Scotland is blissfully warm; the few clouds in the sky are mere observers rather than active participants; the daffodils are merrily yellow along Lade Braes. It thus seems, counterintuitively, the perfect time to write about a phenomenon that exists several hundred miles away, on a cold, rocky island with a population of less than a third of a million people, and which is most obviously manifested at Christmas-time. The manifestation is the wonderfully-named Jólabókaflóð; the island, of course, is Iceland; and the phenomenon, often written about and well-known throughout the publishing world and beyond, is the curious endowment and expression of the Icelandic publishing industry.

In the UK, the average person reads two or three books in an entire year. The national library in Reykjavík, meanwhile, sees over a million books checked out annually (Reykjavík is a city of slightly over 100,000), contributing to Iceland’s position as the country that reads the most books per capita in the world.

Rekjavik. Credit: Caroline Kessler

In Iceland, more than one in ten people will publish a book in their lifetime. There is an Icelandic proverb: “ad ganga med bok I maganum” — “everybody gives birth to a book.” It is at Christmas that this passion for writing and for reading is most apparent.

Iceland has long been a country steeped in literature. CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, for instance, both lauded the ancient Prose Edda as formative in their appreciation of books and writing. But the Icelandic passion for native-tongue books, rather than the works in translation for which most small countries opt, has persisted in part due to several mid-century years of burden and boredom. During the Second World War, tight restrictions were imposed on importation to Iceland, and the cost of foreign goods rose to unaffordable levels. Icelanders, lacking the necessary currency to buy luxury goods from other countries, gained some comfort from the fact that blank paper was unrestricted. Accordingly, the local book market boomed and Icelanders, always fond of books, began to read and write prodigiously, entertaining themselves in the traditional way but on a larger scale.

It was not until the past few years, however, that their publishing calendar began to resemble those of other countries. It is here that the Jólabókaflóð (the “Christmas Book Flood”) must be explained. Though Iceland is undeniably a nation of booklovers, such that it is not uncommon to find two or even three published authors in a family, it is also undeniably a small country; and as a small country and (still trickier) a small country with a language not spoken beyond its own sea-girt borders, economies of scale are far fewer than they are elsewhere. For all that it is often a labour of love, publishing is an industry, and it is accordingly at Christmas, when demand is high, that publishing houses open their gates and allow the Book Flood to pour out. The famous Bókatíðindi catalogue is produced – a book catalogue delivered to every house, detailing all the new titles available that year —and the enormous Reykjavík book fair opens.

Christmas in Iceland is characterised by reading. Talk around the water cooler is of books; radio shows and TV programmes are oriented around the latest works by well-regarded authors. The long, dark evenings (very long, and very dark; Iceland in the depths of winter can receive as few as four hours of sunlight a day) were traditionally filled by the tradition of kvöldvaka, in which a book or story was told in the communal living space in order to keep people spiritually alive while they did their “winter work” of knitting, spinning wool, and so on while the snow fell outside. In modern times, this tradition has become less central, replaced by individual reading. At Christmas, the typical present is a book; and these books, once given, will often be read that same evening— families en masse, and following established custom, retreating to their beds with their new gifts.

That last word, however, has caused a problem for the Icelandic publishers. The books published are intended to be gifts: they are luscious hardbacks, printed with the best available paper, and published only at Christmas, when it is certain that the demand will be there. The demand very evidently is there; the supply, however, has only increased over the past decades, with detrimental results. A few years ago the various publishers, noticing a developing trend towards cooking, collectively released over a hundred new cookery books. This was far more than could possibly be consumed, and is not a unique story. Every year, “puddles” of the Christmas Book Flood are left behind, books printed for that Christmas but unsold in Iceland’s (at a hundred and fifty, excessively competitive) bookshops. These books are bought back by the publishers, and are then sold at knockdown prices later in the year, or in some cases destroyed. In order to reduce the scale on which this happens, booksellers are beginning to create a more continuous market of paperbacks, selling books all year round instead of just at Christmas: a book Floe, rather than a yearly Flood.

Whatever happens, however, and for all the disadvantages brought by the Jólabókaflóð, it is certain that the Flood, writing, and reading will remain fundamental to Iceland. Like no other country in the world, books make up its cultural spine and its traditional spirit.


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