Book sales boosted by coronavirus while literary exports reach record levels
Finland made it through the first wave of coronavirus this spring mostly unscathed. Finns obeyed the rules set by the government and kept the spread of the virus in check. In isolation, people sought out the company of books. One in four Finns said they had read more than usual this spring.
Public libraries were closed as part of the lockdown, which led people to stock up on reading materials beforehand. Bookshops, along with other retail stores, were allowed to remain open, but customer footfall sank and many shops reduced their opening hours.
Customer numbers at Finland’s largest bookstore, Akateeminen Kirjakauppa in central Helsinki, plunged by 60–70 per cent in April. Sales did not fall as much, though, as average purchases were larger than usual.
The Finnish economy coped relatively well this spring. Key figures from Eurostat show that Finland’s economy shrank by 5.2% in April–June compared to the same period last year, while the EU economy as a whole decreased by as much as 15.0%. The relatively small decrease in Finland’s GDP is partly due to Finns spending their money at home instead of travelling abroad.
Publishing houses continued operating throughout the restrictions without postponing or cancelling publication dates. Staffing requirements did not decrease, so there was no need or possibility for layoffs.
Finnish publishers’ sales figures tell a positive story. Publishers’ sales of books for general audiences increased by a whopping 11.3% in the first half of 2020 compared to figures for the same period last year.
That increase was driven by a number of factors. The format seeing strongest growth was audiobooks. Audiobooks are now well enough established that the percentage leaps are no longer just a function of small numbers; digital publications now make up a substantial portion of total book sales.
At the start of the year digital editions accounted for 45% of publishers’ book sales, but that figure also includes dedicated online libraries, which represent half of all digital publication sales. Sales of audiobooks to subscription-based services like Storytel and BookBeat or individual online retail sales in the first half of the year made up one-sixth of publishers’ book sales.
The leading audiobook and ebook subscription service in Finland is BookBeat, which is owned by Bonnier. Storytel is close behind, and several more services with similar offerings entered the Finnish market in the early months of this year. The Sanoma Group has added audio books to its Supla streaming service, and Suomalainen Kirjakauppa – Finland’s largest bookstore chain – had launched its own subscription service.
The largest Finnish publishing houses also publish ebook and audiobook versions of most of their fiction and non-fiction titles for adults. Mid-size publishers pick and choose which of their titles to release as audiobooks, while it is rare for small publishers to release audiobooks.
Some titles – especially chick lit, lad lit and true crime – are acquired primarily for their potential as audiobooks. The major publishers WSOY, Otava and Tammi have also released classic works not previously available on CD or cassette as digital audiobooks.
Another factor in this year’s strong growth in book sales was the fairly steady performance of print books. Quarterly statistics from the Finnish Book Publishers Association show that sales of print books for general audiences in the first three months of this year were just under one per cent below figures from the same period last year.
As travel abroad was virtually non-existent, Finnish consumers spent their money here at home instead.
The bestseller lists for Finnish books were dominated by new titles in crime series by established authors, particularly during the summer months. Elina Backman’s debut thriller, Kun kuningas kuolee (‘When the King Dies’, Otava), has attracted attention from abroad. The Elina Ahlbäck Literary Agency reports foreign rights sales to nine territories. Meanwhile, Bonnier Rights Finland has sold Arttu Tuominen’s crime novel Verivelka (‘The Oath’, WSOY) to six territories.
Among non-fiction books, the year’s early hit was Suurin niistä on rakkaus (‘The Greatest of These Is Love’, Otava) by Ulla-Maija Paavilainen. It is the authorised biography of Kirsti Paakkanen, the long-serving owner and managing director of the Marimekko fashion and textile company. Demand for books on topics like crafts and gardening understandably surged during the coronavirus restrictions.
On the literary side, the boom in autofiction shows no sign of abating. Fictional works with strong autobiographical elements by younger women attracted a great deal of attention in the spring. One such work is Paperilla toinen (‘Like Me’, Kosmos) by Emmi-Liia Sjöholm. Kosmos has made a niche for itself as a publisher of works aimed at thirty-something readers. Philip Teir’s Jungfrustigen (‘Maiden Lane’, Schildts & Söderströms) is another successful title that can be classed as autofiction.
Well-known international names also found their way on to the Finnish fiction bestseller lists, including Elena Ferrante, Camilla Läckberg, Lucinda Riley, Sally Rooney and Elizabeth Strout.
The Finnish children’s and YA publishing scene is vibrant, with strong sales.
The value of foreign rights sold for Finnish literature reached a new record last year of €3.7 million. That is the highest sum achieved in eight years of statistics compiled on behalf of FILI – Finnish Literature Exchange. The true value of literary exports is even higher, because the statistics do not include figures from literary agencies outside Finland that represent some major Finnish writers in the international marketplace.
Children’s and YA books have been a major part of Finnish literary exports for many years. These categories accounted for over half of all foreign rights revenues last year.
Royalties have noticeably increased their share of revenues from literary exports and now account for nearly 40 per cent of the total.
In 2019 over 650 translation rights deals were agreed for Finnish books – an increase of nearly 150 over the previous year. Translation rights were sold to 40 countries. The top countries in terms of revenues from Finnish literary rights were the USA, UK, Japan and Germany.
Karo Hämäläinen, journalist
translation: Ruth Urbom