FILI Editors' Trip

Last week I had the opportunity to travel to Helsinki, Finland at the invitation of the Finnish Literature Exchange. FILI invited fourteen editors, from Tawain to the UK to the US, to attend a few lectures on the Finnish Publishing scene, meet with individual publishers and agents, and generally soak up the publishing atmosphere in Helsinki.

The first morning was taken up with two lectures, the first by Sakari Laiho, the director of the Finnish Book Publishers Association. The organization was founded in 1858—much of Finnish publishing seems to have gotten its start around this time—and they currently represent 103 publishers. These 103 publishers account for 80% of the commercial books printed in Finland and 90% of the revenue. Some facts and figures from his lecture:

  • Books account for €300 million in sales/year
  • 10% of that is domestic fiction
  • 77% of Finns buy a book in a year
  • 16% of Finns buy more than ten books a year
  • That 16% accounts for 54% of the books sold
  • Two book chains account for 80% of the market
  • The average print run is around 2000 copies
  • Sofi Oksanen’s Purge sold 160,000(!) copies (There are around five million Finns.)

The most interesting tidbit from this lecture was about ‘sample stock’. In Finland, every publisher sends one copy of each book they publish to every bookstore. The bookstores agree to keep that book in their store for one or two years. If that copy is sold, they agree to order a replacement copy and so on. If it isn’t sold in that time, they return it to the publisher. This is a fantastic, if not universally exportable, idea.

The next lecture was by the director of the Academic Bookshop (the above photo is of their flagship store in Helsinki), Annamari Arrakoski-Engardt. Academic is the largest book chain in Finland; they have seven shops and account for 10% of the market (I’m not sure how these numbers square with the numbers of the last lecture). Some facts and figures from her lecture:

  • Academic Bookshop sold €562 million in books in 2008
  • In 2008, 13,419 books were published (I love how exact that number is)
  • 10,515 were in Finnish
  • 627 were in Swedish (There’s a large minority Swedish population in western Finland, around 5-6% of Finns are Finnish-Swedish)
  • 2,277 were in translation (A healthy 17%)
  • In 1965, there were 788 book shops
  • In 1972, they abolished the fixed price law (each bookstore sells the same book at the same price)
  • In 1975, there were 603 book shops
  • Today there are 296
  • Academic’s flagship store is 3000 square meters and houses 100,000 books
  • Academic buys from 10,000 (!!!) publishers worldwide

The above photo is of the ceiling of the Academic Bookshop. It’s a beautiful space. This whole building was purpose-designed for books by the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto. The shop also has a café, Café Aalto, on the second floor, where I spent hours and hours; their espresso is really good and they have these fantastic sweet croissant things that I could eat by the dozen.

After the lectures were done, each of the editors had scheduled individual meetings with all of the publishers. I ended up having ten meetings altogether, which seemed to give me a pretty good overview of everything that is going on there—well, as much as can be gleaned in three days without the ability to speak or read a single word of Finnish. But I met with the biggest publishers, like WSOY and Otava, and newer publishers, like Siltala, and heard about the authors they’re excited about; that’s one of the really great things about working for Open Letter, by the way. We do different kinds of books here (My favorite story so far is when a publisher was going to tell us about two books: one, a more commercial author, they thought would sell 10,000 copies in the US, and the other, a more literary author, who was wonderful but who they thought would sell 1,000. Chad and I both said at the same time, “Tell us about the 1000 copy guy.”), and because we do a special kind of book, I feel like we have different kinds of meetings with publishers. There’s a common sort of lament in publishing, and I heard it in Finland too, that publishing used to be different before the money guys got involved. People are usually in publishing for the same reason—it feels like you’re a part of something a little romantic in a world without much magic left in it—but one tends to spend most of one’s time outside of that romantic space, worrying about sales, or having hour-long discussions about books written by wrestlers. We have maybe a bit more access to that romantic space than most (thank you, University of Rochester), and so in our meetings those worries tend to disappear, which, in the end, makes for a much better meeting. I get to say, “Just tell me about who you love.” And that’s a lot of fun.

Anyway, the above photo is from the ‘cash desk’ at Otava. In the old days, authors would come by Otava once a week to pick up the money from their sales. Finland’s only Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Frans Eemil Sillanpää, used to come by here, until it was decided that it might be better for his wife to come instead.

On the last day of the trip, we were invited to a luncheon at the Finnish Literature Society. Also at the luncheon were the nine members of a translation symposium on the work of Monika Fagerholm, fourteen translators who were taking part in a beginning translation seminar, and numerous members of the Finnish publishing community, many of whom we had had the privilege to meet. The above photo is of FILI’s director, the lovely, thoughtful, intelligent, and multi-lingual (I think I heard her speak at least five different languages when I was there) Iris Schwanck, who delivered a moving lecture to cap the trip.

Thanks to Iris and everyone at FILI, and everyone in Finland who was kind enough to take the time out of their busy schedules to meet with me, for an absolute gem of a week.

Don’t forget to check out FILI’s Books in Finland literary journal, and, if you’re going to Frankfurt, try to catch up with Iris and the FILI team.

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