Coronavirus drives book sales, while hybrid reading makes an impact on figures
As in many other countries, the coronavirus pandemic boosted sales of general trade books in Finland in 2020. While sales of printed books increased by just 2 per cent, demand for audiobooks and ebooks was far greater, leading to an overall increase in trade book sales of 12 per cent from 2019 figures.
Audiobooks in particular benefited during lockdown, even after experiencing strong growth for several years in a row. Audiobook sales more than doubled in 2020 compared to the previous year. While many Finns commuted less than before as they switched to working from home, they also focused on exercise and spending time outdoors, which provided more opportunities to listen to audiobooks.
Audiobooks now represent a significant segment of book sales. Last year they made up nearly a fifth of trade book sales.
Most surprising of all in 2020 was the whopping 84 per cent increase in ebook sales. Ebooks made up only a small share of the total market – smaller than audiobooks – but that growth far outstripped their previous year-on-year increase of 32 per cent.
The increase in ebook sales might be partly a result of the spread of subscription-based book and audio services. While people usually sign up for these services in order to access audiobooks, ebook libraries are included for the same fee. The ease of swapping between audiobooks and ebooks helps to diversify usage across formats.
With the increase in digital book formats, there is less of a difference between fiction and non-fiction titles. Among printed books, non-fiction represents a larger segment than fiction. In audio and ebook formats, though, fiction is bigger – and the gap grew even further in 2020, as sales of fiction ebooks and audiobooks increased more than sales of non-fiction in the same formats. Sales of printed fiction titles increased by 11 per cent last year, while sales of printed non-fiction decreased by 6 per cent.
Audiobook boom spurs company acquisitions
The rise of audiobooks has fuelled a wave of mergers in the Finnish publishing world. There is now a more distinct division into two camps centred around the Otava and WSOY publishing houses respectively. The Otava Group is a family-held corporation which also owns Finland’s market-dominating bookshop chain. WSOY is owned by Sweden’s Bonnier Group. Bonnier also owns bricks-and-mortar bookshops in Finland as well as the Adlibris online bookshop.
Last autumn Otava acquired the Jyväskylä-based publisher Atena Kustannus. In recent years Atena has displayed a knack for spotting trends ahead of other publishers, with a particular strength in non-fiction. Among its biggest successes are the recent boom in colouring books for adults, popular psychology books by the Swedish author Thomas Erikson and last year’s non-fiction blockbuster, Extraordinary Women of History by the Finnish writer and journalist Maria Pettersson, which contains mini-biographies of outstanding and unusual women who have been overlooked by historians.
At Christmastime WSOY announced its acquisition of Docendo, another Jyväskylä-based publisher, as well as Helsinki-based Minerva. The Docendo deal was a sort of homecoming, as Docendo had previously been owned by WSOY but then was spun off in a management buyout in the midst of its parent company’s reorganisation. As an independent company, Docendo widened its offerings from its previous tech-focused non-fiction to include general non-fiction and, in recent years, some fiction as well.
Like Docendo, Minerva’s list focuses on non-fiction. Minerva is Finland’s leading publisher of sports biographies of international figures. The most popular international fiction authors in Finland are Peter James and Pierre Lemaitre.
Publishing mergers have been fuelled by the rise of audiobooks. Larger publishers enjoy a significantly better negotiating position with regard to audiobook and ebook platforms compared to medium and small publishers.
The sales cycle and rate of return on investments for audiobooks differ from those for printed books. If a publisher’s owners are considering a sale, the natural time to do so is before investing in a large-scale audiobook venture. Then again, the backlists of publishers offered for sale take on new value in the audiobook world. Successful series in recently acquired publishers’ backlists have been quickly turned into audiobooks.
Sales topped by humour and thrillers
Top sellers in Finnish fiction in 2020 included Miika Nousiainen’s relationship comedy Pintaremontti (‘Facelift’, published by Otava and represented by Elina Ahlbäck Literary Agency); actor and writer Antti Holma’s Kaikki elämästä(ni) (‘All About [My] Life’, pub. Otava) which plays with the autofiction genre; and the thriller Kotkanperä (‘Eagle’s Nest’, pub. WSOY) by Ilkka Remes, one of Finland’s best-selling writers of the 21st century. These titles sold a total of over 60,000 units across all formats.
Remes’ book sold mainly in print, while Holma’s book was especially popular as an audiobook read by Holma himself. Anni Kytömäki’s Finlandia Award-winning novel Margarita (pub. Gummerus, represented by Helsinki Literary Agency) was the year’s second-best selling fiction title in print, after Remes’ thriller.
Sales of Finnish non-fiction were dominated by biographies and memoirs, while true crime titles topped audiobook sales. The story of gang kingpin Janne Tranberg, Wanted: Janne ‘Nacci’ Tranberg (pub. CrimeTime), written by crime reporter Pekka Lehtinen, achieved sales of more than 55,000 in audio format. The top-selling printed non-fiction title was Suurin niistä on rakkaus (‘The Greatest of These is Love’, pub. Otava, represented by Elina Ahlbäck Literary Agency) by journalist Ulla-Maija Paavilainen about the life of Kirsti Paakkanen, the long-time principal shareholder and chief executive of the Marimekko fashion company.
Far and away the top-selling new Finnish children’s titles were humorous picture books by long-time favourites Mauri Kunnas (Joulupukin joululoma / ‘Santa’s Christmas Holiday’, pub. Otava, represented by Rights & Brands) and the husband-and-wife team of Aino Havukainen and Sami Toivonen (Tatu ja Patu – Kovaa menoa kiskoilla / ‘Tatu and Patu’s Tremendous Train Trip’, pub. Otava, represented by Rights & Brands).
When all formats are taken into account, though, they were edged out by Heinähattu, Vilttitossu ja ärhäkkä koululainen (‘Ruby, Ficelle and the Sassy Schoolgirl’, pub. Tammi, represented by Bonnier Rights) by the sisters Sinikka and Tiina Nopola, originally published in 2013. Audiobook sales of that title were especially strong, boosted by the release in early 2020 of a children’s film based on the book. Although the Ruby and Ficelle books are illustrated throughout, they are text-driven and work very well as audiobooks.
Karo Hämäläinen, journalist
translation: Ruth Urbom