Forlagið: Iceland’s Publishing Powerhouse

In Frankfurt 2011 by Amanda DeMarco

By Amanda DeMarco

Jóhann Páli Valdimarsson, publisher at Iceland’s Forlagið, was born into publishing. The course of his professional life in many ways outlines the volatile history of the Icelandic book industry, and his work today broadly influences its future trajectory.

As a boy and young man, Jóhann worked in his father’s publishing house, and from the beginning he showed a great deal of ambition: “I was very eager to prove I had some talent. I was afraid everyone would think I was only in it because I was my father’s son.”

In 1984 difficulties with his father led him to write a dramatic letter breaking off the relationship. Though the family company had been very successful, he owned no part in it and he left to found his own house, Forlagið, with no capital of his own. Forlagið was later bought by Mal o Mennig, where he worked for several years before leaving in 2000 to found JPV. In 2007 JPV bought Mal o Mennig, which by then was part of a larger house, Edda.

The new amalgamation took up the old name of Forlagið and is by far the largest and most successful publishing house in Iceland. As Krystján B. Jónasson, President of the Icelandic Publishers’ Association explains, through its many mergers, Forlagið has acquired backlist rights to “practically everything that’s been seriously done in Iceland in the past 70 years.”

Jóhann swears by careful personal oversight of every aspect of his business as the key to his success. Forlagið is also a family business, which contributes to the close coordination of its activities. Jóhann’s son is Managing Director, his wife is Senior Editor, and his daughter is Assistant Publishing Director. There are about 40 full-time employees.

Surviving the Crash

Like all Icelandic businesses, Forlagið was effected by the financial crisis that ravaged the country’s banking system. When JPV bought Edda they had been approved for “a very big loan,” Jóhann explains. “That Christmas was a great success and we never needed to borrow the money, which was our great luck. I will not say it would have broken the company, but there would have been serious difficulties.”

Even after dodging the bullet with the loan, there was still the hurdle of surviving in the new enervated economy: “I was really afraid. It was obvious that Iceland was going down the drain.” How would Icelanders react? Would they stop buying books along with other luxuries?

Luckily not. “Soon after the collapse we saw Icelanders turned back to their roots, that has always been based on our literature, the Sagas. They were grasping for something to hold onto and that was our literature. It was a huge relief.”

Though sales haven’t dropped off, a depressed economy has meant Forlagið hasn’t been able to increase the price of books as it normally would, so it’s been forced to hold down operating costs. Jóhann counts his blessings that he never had to let people go or lower wages, as many other companies did.

The Benefits of Being Guest of Honor

Being chosen as Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair came at just the right moment to help Icelandic publishing weather the financial storm. Úa Matthíasdóttir, Foreign Rights Director at Forlagið, has seen the benefits up close. She estimates she’s received 50 percent more inquiries than last year, and the two years before this one were higher to begin with.

When Iceland was selected, “the Germans were very organized” and got a head start buying rights. Then during the past year interest came from other areas. In America, Forlagið has sold rights to Random House and Open Letter Books.

Of course English-speakers are less active translators than the Germans, so when AmazonCrossing came knocking, rights to a lot of desirable titles were available. “They could choose from our list,” says Úa. “They made a good selection and we’re hoping that this is just the beginning.” All told, they took five titles: three from one author and one each from two others.

If you ask Úa about her frustrations selling rights, she says children’s books and nonfiction books don’t rouse enough interest, probably due to preconceptions about what translates well—for example, many think that illustrations are a “cultural thing.” And she adds with a laugh “I would like to see literary fiction selling as much as crime fiction.”

But Úa is quite upbeat about Forlagið’s progress this season. She’s enthusiastic about two titles that are charmingly Icelandic. One is a ghost story related to the Sagas with an endearingly ill-humored main character. The other is the boldly titled A Novel of Jon and His Written Letters to His Expectant Wife When He Dwelt in a Cave over a Winter and Prepared for Her Arrival and New Times, based on the life of an Icelandic folk hero.

And it seems Forlagið’s prospects are good for selling rights to titles like these, since Úa sees the buzz generated by being Guest of Honor as something that won’t end after the fair: “Iceland is becoming more visible, and not just for crises and eruptions, but more positive things.”

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.