In the Land of Larsson

In Global Trade Talk by Hannah Johnson

• Stieg Larsson has made Swedish writers trendy abroad, but Stockholm’s publishers are still challenged at home

By Lasse Winkler

Two years ago Swedish writer Camille Läckberg couldn’t break into the US book market no matter how hard she tried. But this year, she signed a three book paperback deal with Simon & Schuster’s American imprint Free Press, worth $750,000. What’s changed?

Nina Wadensjö, publishing director at Alfabeta

For Camilla Läckberg there is only one explanation: “I am eternally grateful for Stieg Larsson,” she says. “He has opened up world in a new way for us. The United States was nearly impossible before.”
From the late 1990s until the early 2000s, Swedish publishers, agents and writers could credit Henning Mankell for putting the country on many people’s literary map all over Europe, but particularly in countries like Germany. By the time Stieg Larsson’s arrived on the scene, Mankell had already sold some 20 million copies, so it it wasn’t an entirely new phenomenon, more like moving up a division. And the stakes are much bigger.

Today, countries like France, Spain and Italy have started to take Sweden even more seriously. Even the United States has changed its attitude. Where, before, the request for an appointment was typically met with, “I’m sorry, but Mr. Sonny Mehta does not take meetings.” Now, all doors are open.

True, there has been no dearth of Swedish crime writers published in English translations. But until recently, almost all, save for Henning Mankell, have been left to smaller publishers, issuing small print runs, and offering zero marketing. These days, we find they are being launched with sizable first printing, proper marketing budgets and written about in the media.

But the “Stieg Larsson effect” isn’t just limited to overseas. In Sweden, it’s raised the status of the detective novels and even prompted some established, literary-oriented writers to try their hand at it. Sometimes, as with the work of Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril (Lars Kepler), with successful results.

What’s more, publishers are reporting seeing a boost in the overall quality of the submitted manuscripts. “We are getting better offerings,” says Nina Wadensjö, publishing director at Alfabeta. “One sees that it is possible to make money from writing and that it’s okay. The submissions are more commercial than before, and many come with a synopsis of book two and three, and sometimes even with marketing plans. But that´s were we draw the line.”

Swedish book buyers too are catching on. Looking at the Swedish bestseller lists for the year 2004, just eleven of the 30 best-selling titles that year were detective novels or thrillers. In 2009, that figure rose to 18 of 30.

Any publisher worth his salt has identified the trend and added several new crime writers to their lists, largely in an effort to alleviate the pain of the recent economic recession, one that has forced leading Swedish publishers to cut their lists in an almost brutal fashion.

To take just one example, Sweden’s largest group publisher, Bonnierforlagen, has cut its list by 30% in recent years. It competitors are not far behind. Midlist and debut authors have suffered, but the single area hardest hit is translations, with Bonnierforlagen, cutting their translation list by 40%.

The symptom of this is that Swedish publishers are now behaving much like US publishers did for many years while visiting Frankfurt, uttering the mantra: “We are not here to buy, we are here to sell.”
It’s only this year that some optimism is seeping back in. But the byword remains “caution.” Average annual book sales have fallen in recent years. Retailers are demanding greater discounts from the publishers, and the publishers in turn have raised prices. The result is that it’s getting more expensive to be a reader in Sweden.

(This story originally appeared in the Publishing Perspectives show daily at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 8 October 2010. Download the complete show daily here or click on the image to view the online version.)

About the Author

Hannah Johnson

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Hannah Johnson is the Publisher of Publishing Perspectives. Before joining PP in 2009, she worked as Project Manager at the German Book Office New York.