Icebreakers, water-sprites and global nomads

Non-fiction books from Finland

The best-selling Finnish non-fiction titles of 2011 included Linnut äänessä (Birds in song, a reference book with audio content – total sales: 58,900 copies), the Guinness Book of World Records 2012 (42,000 copies) and the biography of Steve Jobs (35,100 copies). Although the list is top-heavy with titles translated from other languages, over half of the top 20 best-selling titles were written by Finnish authors. The list of top titles includes Ari Väntänen’s biography of rock musician Michael Monroe (16,300 copies), which has also found its way into this brochure from FILI.

Finland’s most prestigious award for non-fiction, the Tieto-Finlandia prize, was given in 2011 to Suomen jäkäläopas (A guide to Finnish lichen), published by the Finnish Museum of Natural History. This choice also says something about the changing nature of non-fiction publishing: the subject matter does not appeal to mass-market tastes as viewed by general publishers, even though Finland is home to many varieties of lichen and nature-related subjects are generally popular with Finns.

Publishing non-fiction books has been challenging in recent years, in Finland and abroad. Many traditionally reliable types of reference works, such as encyclopedias, no longer generate revenue for publishers’ coffers because the information is available for free on the internet.

Once it gets up and running, electronic publishing may provide a shot in the arm for the declining non-fiction book market. Surprisingly, Finland lags behind other Western countries in sales of e-books, with e-books accounting for just one per cent of all books sold in 2011. There have been many obstacles along the way for non-fiction e-books. They require large file sizes, and the development of suitable publication platforms is labour-intensive. There have been issues with getting applications that work on different devices to consumers. Readers also have to navigate through a jungle of different reading devices. Gradually, the majority of readers will become net-natives, and then it will just be a matter of time until e-books storm the market in earnest.

Non-fiction e-books, with all their features, are distancing themselves more clearly than fiction from paper-format books. Will we even be able to talk about e-books any more, when current applications already include things like video and music clips or links to additional websites, in addition to the usual text and images? Would it make more sense to call a digital cookbook an e-Cook rather than an e-book? Besides traditional recipes and serving suggestions, an e-cookbook can provide illustrative video instructions on how to make sushi or smoke fish. You can then add the ingredients you need to your electronic shopping list, where you can simply click on items in your own online grocery store and have the products delivered to your door. A comprehensive solution.

Even this mundane example shows that electronic publishing will open up amazing possibilities for non-fiction books. Whether the subject is astronomy, physics, history or memoirs – we will be able to experience everything via the internet, moving images and sound.

FILI’s 2012 selection of non-fiction books includes traditional printed books, many of which are also available as e-books. Subjects range from the exotic world of ice-breaker ships, the rock star Michael Monroe (frontman of cult Finnish band Hanoi Rocks), the problematics of the history of Islam in relation to the West, global nomads who have left the rat race, deities and goddesses of underwater mythology, and the tragedy of the Soviet Union, 1917–1991. All of the selected titles will transport readers, opening up worlds they didn’t even know existed.

Tuula Kousa, translation Ruth Urbom