Holiday Retail: Iceland’s Jolabokaflod, or Christmas Book Flood

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The Icelandic publishing industry puts a major emphasis on holiday sales, with Jólabókaflóð this year carrying more than 840 titles.

Image: jolabokaflod.org, a crowdfunding site raising money for the annual book bulletin

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

‘Backbone of the Publishing Sector’ in Iceland
ANPR’s Jordan G. Teicher reports, Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world, with five titles published for every 1,000 Icelanders.

From jolabokaflod.org, a crowdfunding site raising money for the annual book bulletin

And historically, a majority of those books are sold between late September and November. It’s a national tradition, and it has a name: Jólabókaflóð, roughly translated, “Christmas Book Flood.”

Kristjan B. Jonasson, president of the Iceland Publishers Association tells Teicher, “The culture of giving books as presents is very deeply rooted in how families perceive Christmas as a holiday. Normally, we give the presents on the night of the 24th and people spend the night reading. In many ways, it’s the backbone of the publishing sector here in Iceland.”

Teicher describes how well Icelanders love their books. In 2009, the Reykjavík City Library loaned out a total of 1.2 million books, in a city of 200,000.

There’s a popular Icelandic television show—Kiljan—whose topic is books. And of course, Reykjavik was named a UNECSO City of Literature in 2011.

Baldur Bjarnason

It’s a love, says Baldur Bjarnason, publishing industry commentator, that’s widespread:

“If you look at book sales distribution in the UK and the States, most book sales actually come from a minority of people. Very few people buy lots of books. Everybody else buys one book a year if you’re lucky.

It’s much more widespread in Iceland. Most people buy several books a year.”

The tradition began, according to Hildur Knutsdottir of The Reykjavik Grapevine, during World War II, “when strict currency restrictions limited the amount of imported giftware in Iceland. The restrictions on imported paper were more lenient than on other products, so the book emerged as the Christmas present of choice.”

The event starts when he Iceland Publishers Association distributes free copies of a catalogue of new publications, to every home in the country. It’s for this catalogue in 2017 that jolabokaflod.org is crowdfunding, currently.

“It’s like the firing of the guns at the opening of the race,” Bjarnason says. “It’s not like this is a catalogue that gets put into everybody’s mailbox and everybody ignores it. Books get attention here.”

This year’s catalogue comprises a record 842 tiles. And even if some publishers wonder if the major release of the Book Flood is the best course, “It’s still very difficult,” Bjarnason tells Teicher, “to release a popular fiction title outside the Christmas season, unless it has its own kind of cachet, like the Harry Potter books and the Twilight books.”

Read NPR’s full article here.

Reykjavik, a view from Perlan. Image – iStockphoto: Boyloso

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.

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