Will Amazon Disrupt Sweden’s Book Market?

In Discussion by Saskia Vogel

Sweden’s book market is bracing for the launch of Amazon, where ebooks are hamstrung by high taxes and print books are still relatively affordable.

By Saskia Vogel

Swedish FlagOn September 25, Göteborgs Posten ran the headline “Amazon’s feared invasion,” followed by Linda Skugge’s commentary piece praising Amazon’s intelligent recommendations…noting that at online retailer Adlibris all she gets is “mommy lit” and diet books. She thinks the competition that is coming to the Swedish book market might do the online retail market some good. That said, what is Amazon doing in Sweden? Ann Steiner, an academic at Lund University studying the Swedish book market noted that they’ve set up shop in Stockholm in January, but she couldn’t even tease out a whisper of what they are working on.

Focus on Children’s Reading

There is an intense focus on children’s reading abilities following a 2012 600-page report that revealed a steep decline in this area particularly among fifteen-year-old boys, but the question is whether efforts will continue when as this report fades in memory. Steiner feels that this is a problem that is here to stay and needs sustained attention. There has also been a significant increase in municipalities that don’t have their own bookshops, mainly in Northern and rural areas. Online book-shopping isn’t filling this gap, Steiner says. She says most online book-buyers are in urban areas, and that access to books is therefore a growing problem in the country.

Vertical Integration

She cites an increased polarization between large publishers (Bonnier, KF Media and Natur&Kultur) and small, and that the mid-sized publishers are disappearing or being bought up by the big guys. “This is affecting who is publishing what, what becomes visible,” including translations which are becoming less and less visible and harder to publish with the big houses unless the author has a strong name. One of the reasons is vertical integration in the trade. The big three publishers, because they also own “every kind of retail,” they have a strong influence on what is pushed for book clubs (who had a 9% market share in 2013), in-store and online. Steiner also says that there is no meta-data service like Nielsen BookScan for Sweden, so publishers who are not also retailers miss out on this vital information. “Owning retail is a means of control,” she says.

Book Trade Fueled by Low Taxes

In terms of book sales, since the book trade was deregulated in the 1970s, Sweden has had a “stronger focus on price than anywhere else” and “has long had the cheapest books in Europe” (along with Eastern Europe), in part due to the low 6% book tax. There are a wide variety of places that sell books: tobacconists, department stores, supermarkets, 7-11 and more. However, bookstores and book ’s 300-plus bookstores) has started stocking a wider range of non-book items to bring in new streams of revenue, and fewer books are being sold, for example. Books sales are down, Steiner says, but publishers have responded by printing fewer copies, preferring to reprint. Conversely, the Science Fiction Bokhandeln is doing very well, probably down to the targeted niche that it occupies. Here’s how the market breaks down in terms of sales: 38% bookshops, 21% bookstores, 9% department stores, 9% book clubs (which are moving online and a decrease here is predicted), 16% wholesale (department stores, etc), 7% other.

Ebooks Lagging Behind

An interesting point on ebooks is that they aren’t taking off in Sweden, even though the country has one of the highest saturations of Internet access and iPads. “People don’t seem interested in e-readers,” says Steiner. “E-readers in Sweden are badly made and boring.” Without someone like Amazon creating an ebook market, this has been slow to develop. E-books are considered a service, says Steiner, so they fall into the usual 25% tax bracket. Ninety percent of sales are to libraries, Steiner says, and libraries are the driving force for development in this market, (Elib and publit.se are the two key players at present, she says) but the big question is: who will pay for the development? Will libraries continue to be the driving force in this market? The market is still waiting for the break-through of e-books.

According to new reports, audiobooks, on the other hand, are making headway in the market. Services include Storytel, a subscription service, and Storyside, whose best-sellers are thrillers, feel-good books, chick lit and romance.

On a high note, Steiner suggests that the golden year of 2007 (the year Stieg Larsson “happened”) may have given us a false sense of decline in the market. Growth is still up from 2005/2006, and perhaps the doom and gloom is not as doomed and gloomy as it may feel in the after-glow of that phenomenal year.

Saskia Vogel is a Swedish to English translator and the co-founder of Dialogue Berlin , an international collective of communications strategists. @saskiavogel

About the Author

Saskia Vogel


Saskia Vogel is a writer and a Swedish-to-English translator. Her writing has appeared in Granta, The Paris Review, The White Review, Sight&Sound, and The Offing. Her debut novel, I Am a Pornographyer, will be published in 2019 by Dialogue Books/Little, Brown (UK), Coach House Books (North America), Mondial (Sweden) and Alpha Decay (Spain).