By Amanda DeMarco
“It’s been my dream for over a decade. We have everything to do it properly.” says Pétur Már Ólafsson regarding Iceland’s status as Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year. Pétur Már is Publisher at Bjartur-Verold, a Reykjavik-based publishing house with a strong fiction list.
The added attention has had an amplified effect in the tiny Icelandic market. “The most important thing is that many of our authors are being published in Germany,” says Pétur Már. Everyone hopes that the momentum gained there will spread elsewhere.
Rights sales outside of Germany have been uneven but occasionally significant. Margrét Örnólfsdóttir has become immensely popular in France, and Pétur Már recounts an opening of one of her plays in Reykjavik, well-attended by Icelanders — and many French journalists! It’s a revealing tale about the uneven reception of what might be considered ‘world literature.’ In general, Pétur Már is optimistic about Bjartur-Verold’s prospects abroad: “It just depends on the author. I believe there’s always a chance. You have to know the market. For example, Finland doesn’t like fantasy.”
“We believe all good books need to be published in Icelandic.”
Pétur Már, a longtime Icelandic publishing veteran, founded Verold in 2005. They found their first success with Steinunn Sigurðardóttir. “I gave her a call and said, ‘Do you want to be the star author of a new publishing house?’” She did.
Verold published her first book in 2005 and sold translation rights in 15 languages before it was published in Icelandic. “The first offer came two hours after I sent off the materials.” It was such a hit because of the quality of the writing of course, but also because Pétur Már had been Arnaldur Indriðason’s publisher, and had built up a great deal of trust among his contacts due to that success.
In 2007 Verold merged with Bjartur, an older publisher, becoming Bjartur-Verold. Both houses have strong literary programs, in translations and Icelandic literature.
Bjartur-Verold has gained renown as the Icelandic publisher of many blockbuster English titles like Harry Potter and The Davinci Code, along with a great deal of world-class literary fiction, such as work by J.M. Coetzee. Publishing translations of English-language books in Icelandic is a complicated business. Most Icelanders speak English well and many will read books in English. For Pétur Már, that doesn’t make translating them any less worthwhile: “We believe all good books need to be published in Icelandic.”
Timing is critical to the success of any translation from English, in a way that it isn’t from other languages. “Sales of English books effect the sales of our books, so we try to publish before they come out in paperback. We have to do it fast, otherwise we lose the market.”
Flourishing in an unstable market
Bjartur-Verold weathered the 2008 financial crisis well. Pétur Már says he was most concerned about the status of the major bookstore chains, which were mired in debt due to overambitious foreign investment. But he credits a strong Christmas season for helping everyone to pull through — giving books as presents is already an Icelandic seasonal tradition, and in difficult financial times they became even more appealing as gifts because they’re affordable. Still, Bjartur-Verold hasn’t been able to raise prices, says Pétur Már, so even with stable sales “the margin wasn’t so good.”
The financial crisis actually created one genre in Icelandic literature. Prior to the crash, Icelandic books on current affairs did extremely poorly. History titles on World War II, for example, could succeed in Icelandic but Icelanders tended to seek out English-language books when it came to politics and current events.
“But after the crash people became more interested in current affairs,” says Pétur Már, and for the first time they wanted books on their own politics. When the government published a huge report on the Icelandic financial meltdown, Bjartur-Verold was able to bring out a book on it about three weeks after its publication. They’ve done other similar titles, on Wikileaks for example, succeeding in a way unthinkable four or five years ago.
Even when it’s not being shaken by global financial meltdowns, the Icelandic book market isn’t the most stable in the world, simply owing to its tiny size. “It’s a fragile business,” says Pétur Már. Following trends can be particularly dangerous. “Scandinavian crime fiction is very strong, but we don’t know how long it will last.” Bartur-Verold’s core is and will remain literary fiction. Other genres enrich their program but won’t define it.
As Iceland’s second-largest house, Bjartur-Verold publishes 50 to 60 titles per year, with only four full-time employees. In such a turbulent market, it makes sense to keep things lean. As Pétur Már says, “We’re trying to be big but small.”