Q: I have a question regarding Icelandic literature. I have heard a crazy statistic that something like one in five Icelanders have been published. I was wondering whether this is true, and how is it that Icelanders are so into writing?
Nichola, London, UK
A: Kristján B. Jónasson, chairman of the Icelandic Publishers Association, said that there are no statistics available on this issue but it is not true that books by one in every five Icelanders have been published; 20 percent is a highly exaggerated figure.
However, various other statistics on book publishing in Iceland are available; the National and University Library of Iceland collects such information and publishes it on the website utgafuskra.is in Icelandic and English.
In 2010, approximately 1,500 books were printed in Iceland of which 400 were translations which means that 1,100 books were written by Icelandic authors.
If we assume that each of these books were written by different individuals it means that 0.3 percent of the nation (320,000 people) had their books published in 2010.
If we take into account every person who has ever had his or her book published in Iceland, that ratio would grow considerably, but it is hard to speculate how high it would be.
As for other statistics that show the literary participation of Icelanders, Kristján mentioned that these 1,500 books that appeared in 2010 were published by 150 different publishing houses, associations or individuals.
On average, every Icelander buys eight books per year, 93 percent of Icelanders say that they read at least one book per year and 75 percent of Icelanders say that they give books as Christmas presents.
There are mainly two reasons for the significant interest in writing in Iceland, Kristján said.
One is that it is very easy to have your books published and put up for sale in bookstores. Most prospective authors don’t see it as a hindrance to write and have their work published and don’t consider it reserved for a special class in society.
This attitude is based on tradition; to write is ingrained in the Icelandic culture. Kristján said he often tells a story to back this statement up:
At the farm where he grew up in Skagafjörður, north Iceland, there was a poor farmhand called Tómas dagbók (Tómas “the diary”) who never owned anything and moved from farm to farm for work.
But he always kept a diary with him and wrote every day. He wrote novels, tales where he and his brother were knights, and also translated foreign novels; he seems to have learned Danish on his own account.
Another author of similar origins was Erlendur Guðmundsson from Mörk in Laxárdalur in northwest Iceland who wrote an autobiography, which Kristján published, and a number of other books. He had no formal education either.