When I first set up Nordisk Books in 2016, I felt that it would be useful to travel to Stockholm to meet some of the city’s publishers, to get a feel for their contemporary literary scene. Of the major Scandinavian languages, it was at the time the one with which I felt the least au fait and, as such, I was keen to get some first-hand insight.
“All the crime thrillers will get sold to a lot of countries, someone in France will take the very highbrow stuff, but everything in the middle? We struggle to place that, at least in English.”
This was what one of the rights managers told me then and I guess it still holds. The percentage of novels published in the UK and the US which are in translation has increased a little in recent years, and in the nebulously titled ‘literary fiction’ segment, sales are reportedly higher than those of English language titles, but the big names are still reticent to publish and, perhaps more to the point, aggressively market, creative translated fiction.
So, almost five years in, how are things looking for Nordisk Books? Was it a stroke of genius to focus on the avant-garde-ish fiction that the establishment clearly saw as being impossible to weave into (pecuniary) gold?
This will be the first year that Nordisk Books turns a profit. I am fortunate enough to have a day job that has allowed me to fund the basic needs of Nordisk Books so far (supplemented by grants from the ever-generous Nordic arts councils). However the goal has always been for the press to stand on its own two feet, something that it is now beginning, albeit a little shakily, to do.
Each book has to operate under its own merit, both financially and artistically. Clearly some titles sell better than others, but there is no golden goose, bankrolling ugly ducklings. With that said, it is one of the great pleasures of running a small press that the only books that have seen the light of day under the Nordisk banner are those that I have personally read, loved and desired to bring to an English speaking audience. They might not all have basked in the life-giving glow of Waterstones’ tables, but seeing the books ordered by indie bookshops in both Paris and Jakarta, as well as directly from us by individuals from all over the UK, Europe and further afield is really satisfying.
There are things that Nordisk Books can improve on – it’s early-October and I’ve no idea what we’re publishing next year yet, which is shameful. But each organisation that we’ve worked with has made us a little more professional – starting with Clay’s and their assistance in the printing process and leading up to Inpress, our distributor and tireless champion of indie presses generally.
There is a lot to be excited about. I’m still considering whether we should dip our toes in the financially choppy but intellectually refreshing waters of poetry; as a co-founding member of the fabulous Borderless Book Club, we are reaching new readers all the time and we may be on the verge of a genuinely exciting audio project.
Being able to publish whatever books we like without any artistic or logistical constraints is a fantastically liberating feeling. The sense of community that comes from those who buy those books is endlessly encouraging. So maybe there are good reasons why the major publishers have left these books on their Nordic shelves, but we’ll keep blissfully ignoring those reasons and be all the happier for doing so.
(Duncan J. Lewis is Director of Nordisk Books, an independent publishing house in Whitstable, founded in 2016 and with a focus on modern and contemporary Scandinavian literature.)