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Drowning in books

I may have mentioned before that many Icelanders LOVE books. Not only do we buy them for ourselves, but we also love to give them as gifts. The market is small and therefore the one time it really pays to advertise books is the time of the year when you can give books to lots of people. In other words: Christmas.

Don‘t get me wrong: Books do get advertised at other times, like in March/April/May when the 14-year olds go through their confirmations and in May/June when school graduations take place. The market at those times is however mostly for reference books, classic literature in fine bindings and expensive non-fiction books about subjects like photography, natural history or cooking, and the advertising is likewise mostly limited to these subjects.

Books that are likely to sell well and are published in paperback at various times of the year, such as the latest by authors like Jo Nesbø or Lee Child, also get advertised, while some, especially translations of Harlequin romances, are simply sold in grocery stores the year round and can usually be fount right at the register.

Religionwise, Iceland is for the most part Christian. While many people who are registered members of the national church are really only nominally religious, they still celebrate Christmas. Some agnostics and people of other religions celebrate it too, either as a family holiday or to make sure their kids don‘t feel left out. Many of these people give books as gifts. The price tag on the average hardback novel happens to coincide with many people‘s idea of the right amount to spend on a Christmas present, and (in case I didn‘t put it across strongly enough before) ICELANDERS LOVE TO READ!

No surprise then that Jólabókaflóðið (English: The Christmas Book Flood) is a major annual event in Iceland. In the three or so months leading up to Christmas new books begin to appear on the market, beginning with a trickle and ending in a flood, or possibly a tzunami. It certainly feels that way when you look at all the juicy new titles and the stacks upon stacks of books appearing in book shops and some supermarkets, beginning in November. This is also when the media bombardment starts for real.

The March-June advertising I mentioned earlier is only a dress rehersal for the Big Season. New books and books that were published without fanfare earlier in the year are advertised with various levels of build-up, ranging from an entry in Bókatíðindi (English: Book News or, literally Book Tidings) or newsletters from publishers, to ads in newspapers and magazines, to radio and TV still ads. I have even spotted a few book trailers in recent Christmas seasons.

However, there is a downside to all this. The book flood causes an over-inflation of book-selling data, as a large number of books will be returned to the bookshops for credit after the holiday season. These go back in stock, and while some will be re-sold normally in the course of the year, most will end up at the big annual Book Publisher's Union (Félag íslenskra bókaútgefenda) book market and at individual publisher's sales throughout the year, which is where canny book-lovers can pick up great bargains on previous years' books. The stocks will then dwindle little by little, year by year, until finally, sometimes after a couple of decades of making these rounds, the print run will finally be sold out.

About 15 or so years ago, Bónus, a chain of low-price supermarkets in Iceland, started stocking books around Christmas-time, and soon other chains followed suit. They only carry the books most likely to sell, and sell them at such bargain prices that one knows there must be robbery going on somewhere. Many people will rather buy these books there than at a higher price elsewhere because who doesn't love a bargain? However, it seems that it's the authors who lose the most when books are sold at such bargains, and therefore, when I buy books in Icelandic to give as gifts, I prefer to buy them at full price from a book shop.

Another reason why I prefer to take that approach is that although it is possible to return books to Bónus and the other supermarkets, you can not get a direct refund, but must either choose another book or choose to get a credit note.

Getting a book bought in a supermarket is a horror for me, because people rarely get it right when they buy me books because of not asking what I want but simply assuming I would like something, and because I rarely want any book that's available in the supermarkets, and then the alternative is the credit note and in Bónus or Nettó that means your Christmas present ends up being... groceries.

At least books bought in Hagkaup can be exchanged for clothes, magazines (which cost as much as paperback books around here), electronics or costume jewellery.

Additionally, supermarket books are only returnable for a couple of weeks after Christmas, whereas if you return a book to a bookshop, you have a vastly bigger choice of both books and other merchandise to get in exchange, and if you don't find anything then, you can get a credit note that's valid for a year.

So, expats living in Iceland: I know books are expensive here, but if you are unsure whether your Icelandic friends actually want the book you're planning on giving them for Xmas, or there is a chance they might get more than one copy, spend a little more and buy it in a bookshop. They will thank you for it if they end up exchanging it. And don't forget to ask for a skilamiði, because without it they will have to pay to exchange the book.

Yep, you read that right: if the book does not have a little exchange sticker with the bookshop logo and a date on it, you have to pay to exchange it. This is because dishonest people realised that they could buy a book in Bónus and return it to a bookshop and pocket the difference. This happened at such a large scale that the bookshop chains took to putting exchange stickers on the books with "exchange by" dates.

I hope you have found this article on the Icelandic book-flood informative, and if you have any questions or comments, you know what to do. My comments are moderated and since time differences mean that you might be commenting while I am sleeping, it can take as much as 12 hours for a comment to appear, and longer on weekends.


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