Iceland’s Uppheimar: From the Underworld to the Top of the Volcano

In Frankfurt 2011 by Edward Nawotka

Operating out of a converted car dealership, Kristján Kristjánsson publishes some of the most exciting literature in Scandinavia

By Amanda DeMarco

Kristján Kristjánsson, publisher, Uppheimar

Kristján Kristjánsson, publisher, Uppheimar

If you take the number six bus east from the center of Reykjavik toward Bryggjuhverfið, you’ll find a sleepy suburb of brightly painted homes and light industry overlooking the coast. On a side road lined with automotive repair shops, in a converted car dealership hardly altered from its original state, Kristján Kristjánsson is publishing some of the most exciting Nordic literature Iceland, or even Scandinavia, has to offer.

Krístján’s publishing house, Uppheimar, got a slow start after its founding in 2001. He wanted to support himself as a writer (though the business actually left little time for him to write), and with the help of his wife and his friend Aðalsteinn S. Sigfússon, gradually Uppheimar increased its output starting with just one book a year. It was initially based on Kristján’s kitchen table in the rural town of Akranes in western Iceland — the upgrade to the Reykjavik car dealership came a couple of years ago.

The year 2007 is when Uppheimar really came into its own. That’s when the house signed Gyrðir Eliasson, winner of the Nordic Council’s 2011 Literature Prize and a major figure in Icelandic (and increasingly, world) literature. It’s also when Aðalsteinn stepped up as Director and Uppheimar bought a smaller house that published Swedish crime writers. Bringing in the likes of Camilla Läckberg and Liza Marklund established Uppheimar as a publisher of high-profile Scandinavian thrillers. (Their crime imprint is called Undirheimar, which means “Underworld.”)

Though most Icelanders will read books in English, most are note willing to read in Scandinavian languages. “That certainly helps us to sell Scandinavian titles,” Aðalsteinn says with a chuckle. At the moment, Uppheimar isn’t actively looking to buy more translations since it’s developing the authors it’s taken on recently, according to Kristján: “We’ve been quite busy buying the past few years and we’ve signed on about ten new authors, most of them writing series, so we have our hands almost full at this moment. Of course, when something interesting comes along, we try to act swiftly. But we’re not that interested in producing one book by someone. This is a publishing house of authors. In the same way that we have this family tradition, that’s how we want to work with the authors.”

Uppheimar has “had several good years now,” says Kristján. Their success even overcame the 2008 financial crisis. “Everybody was effected in one way or another, but for us it also turned out to be an opportunity. The market opened up a bit. In times of crisis, people read more. They look inward. When the banks fell, reading in my local library went up forty percent.” Uppheimar was also able to take on some new Icelandic authors whose previous publishers couldn’t sign another book, notes Aðalsteinn: “While others were reducing, we found a gap.”

Then there was the attention that came from Iceland being Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year. Kristján and Aðalsteinn experienced it most intensely at the fair last year. “There was a different atmosphere, much more interest, and what I would call a genuine interest. As this year has developed, with all of the translations that are being published in Germany, it’s obvious how effective this is. We sense this as by far the biggest opportunity that Icelandic publishers have ever had,” says Kristján.

Beyond Germany, Uppheimar is receiving queries from around the world, most notably from China, where it’s never done business before. English licenses have been sold to the US, Canada, and the UK. “We sense that something is starting. There’s often talk that German is the gateway for Icelandic and Nordic literature to the world. So when this gateway opens so wide, for a small country it must have enormous effect. We also think that what will follow is probably the most important.” To that end, Kristján and Aðalsteinn trust (and hope) the Icelandic government will continue to support the initiatives begun these past years.

To date, Uppheimar’s most successful title actually hasn’t been a Scandinavian mystery, or Icelandic literature — it’s a large-format art book documenting the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. The dual-language Icelandic-English title was conceived of on April 20th, 2010, and the Uppheimar team managed to write, translate, edit, design, and send it to print on May 18th. “It was probably the fastest-published book in Icelandic history,” Kristján laughs. One image from the book was printed on the cover of the New York Times, another on the cover of National Geographic Magazine, and the whole book was translated into German.

Though the publishing company is technically 11 years old, Uppheimar’s newly raised profile is only a phenomena of the past few years, so in some senses it functions as a newcomer in the Icelandic publishing world and abroad. “Of course we’ve had our disappointments. Annually we produce a foreign rights catalog and we set up a lot of meetings at book fairs: London, Göteborg, Frankfurt. But as we are so new to this, we still have to earn our reputation. That reputation, though, is growing quite fast.”

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.