Bookselling in Denmark: Prioritizing English Over German, Nonfiction Over Novels?

In Europe by Amanda DeMarco

A visit to bookstores in Copenhagen reveals a bias toward nonfiction over fiction and translations from America and the UK rather than Denmark’s neighbor, Germany.

Editorial by Amanda DeMarco

Franzen's Freedom is still going strong

On a recent trip to Copenhagen, I was able to spend a good deal of time in five bookstores, and briefly popped in to several more. The five were a popular chain store, a more intellectual chain store, a huge highbrow independent, a well-regarded used bookstore, and an academic shop. That represents a pretty broad range of bookselling culture, but I was able to draw out some general characteristics, and hit upon some surprising differences between Danish bookstores and those in the US or my current home, Germany.

Everywhere I went, English-language books were mixed in with the Danish titles (which fits with the flawless English spoken to us everywhere). All of the stores additionally had an English-language section.

Denmark's Bestsellers

Politikens, probably the best bookstore in the city, stocked both US and UK editions of recent important titles. What I wouldn’t do for a bookstore in Berlin that would give me that option! When I asked the bookseller why they chose to stock both, she simply explained that some people prefer one or the other. Mistaking my dreamy reverie for incomprehension, she clarified, “To sell them.” Amen.

Only one store had a section for Danish novels translated into English (a standard in bookstores in many small countries) — it consisted of nine titles in total and unfortunately was placed next to the apparently more popular Xenophobe’s Guide to the Danes.

Xenophobes guide to the Danes...

Actually, the impression I got was that the Danes weren’t really that into novels at all. With the exception of the used bookstore, all of the stores dedicated less space to literature than similar stores in Germany or the States. Instead they offered whole walls of biographies, tables of mythology, shelves of books on music and film, lavish comic and graphic novel sections, and aisles and aisles of mysteries and thrillers.

Denmark and Germany are neighbors and their languages are similar, and considering Germany’s powerhouse literary culture, I expected to see tons of German books. While the two countries share the same imported trends (eg. Jane M. Auel; Jonathan Franzen, though Freedom appeared to have arrived later in Denmark and was still at the zenith of its recent-release arc), the only contemporary German title I saw (and it was everywhere) was AxoLotl Roadkill, a flashy 2010 debut novel tainted by plagiarism.

From what I could tell, the Danes are simply more oriented toward Scandinavian English-language literature than toward anything else. Proof of the stereotype of Danish xenophobia? Or of European hypocrisy in criticizing Americans for lack of interest in other cultures when they apparently have no interest in books written by people living a stone’s throw away?

A regular contributor to Publishing Perspectives, Amanda DeMarco also edits Readux: Reading in Berlin.

DISCUSS: Is Literary Xenophobia a Global Problem, Not Just an American One?

About the Author

Amanda DeMarco

Amanda DeMarco is a freelance writer and translator living in Berlin. Originally from Chicago, her work for Publishing Perspectives focuses on German-language publishing news.