After several very in-depth discussions with publishers, booksellers, and writers in Sweden, I can report an industry in crisis – and one which is stumbling towards possible solutions, frequently in the wrong direction. The situation was typified, according to my sources, by recent reports that Hedengrens, Sweden’s most widely respected bookshop and something of a cultural institution, was complaining of ever more difficult trading conditions, citing showrooming and general competition from online book ordering services. Some insiders feel that Hedengrens has long enjoyed and exploited its market dominance, and is simply grumbling about loss of its privileged status. But pretty much everyone agrees that the country’s Number One book chain, Akademie Bokhandeln, is neither doing very well nor any kind of model for how to run a modern book chain.
Feedback from various industry participants and observers suggests that Akademie Bokhandeln is bringing a rigid, top-down mentality to the challenges facing the retail book trade everywhere, with centralized ordering focused on bestsellers, and little autonomy or creativity at the individual store level. Waterstones in the UK stands as a counter-example of how to turn around the modern book chain model by taking the opposite approach, and the book trade in near neighbour Norway has apparently been learning from this lesson. However, neither example seems to have made much difference to Akademie Bokhandeln senior management, and faith in their capacity to manage change appears wanting.
Admittedly, they seem to have had surprisingly little help from major Swedish publishers. In a small country of just under 10 million with its own language, you might expect more openness and cooperation between the various corporations and entities that support that language in print, but apparently it isn’t so. The talk is of opaque, hidebound attitudes towards sharing mutually beneficial trading information, let alone developing common, coordinated strategies towards the newest developments in the book trade.
Ebooks are yet to exert much competitive pressure on the Swedish book marketplace, with readership percentages still in single figures. Amazon has yet to roll out a Kindle platform for Sweden, which may have slowed adoption down. But pressure from online ordering of print books is serious enough.
This situation at least allows for some more dedicated and nimble independents to carve out a position for themselves. For one thing, a surprising number of well-known English authors haven’t found their way into Swedish translation with the majors – due apparently to conservatism and risk-aversion among leading Swedish publishers, and to adventurous opportunism by smaller houses and agents able to snatch up Swedish translation rights well ahead of the bigger outfits. One such is Printz Publishing, Swedish publisher of Jojo Moyes, among others. I’ll be reporting on other standout examples in due course. But their individuality and enterprise has to be seen against a drabber backdrop of retrenchment and passivity in the Swedish industry at large.