Scandinavian literature has been having a moment in the U.S. market since Stieg Larsson posthumously stormed onto the scene with the American publication of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2008. That success has remained mostly in the suspense and thriller category, with Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle proving itself an exception—and Atria Books believes it’s found another exception in the books of Fredrik Backman.
Backman first found success in the U.S. with A Man Called Ove (pronounced OO-va), a novel about that most enduring character, the angry old man next door. When it was published in July 2014, Atria did a first printing of 6,600 copies. As of this month, Ove has 325,000 copies in print in trade paperback after 18 printings, and another 26,000 in hardcover. The novel hit the New York Times bestsellers list during the first week of 2016 and was the #1 hand-sold book in independent bookstores from May to December of 2015. A Swedish-language film adaptation, with subtitles, is planned for U.S. release in September.
Since Ove’s publication, Atria has put out two more Backman titles—which, along with Ove, it’s billing as an unofficial series, the Wonderful World of Fredrik Backman. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, published in hardcover in June 2015 and paperback this April, follows a seven-year-old girl as she carries out her grandmother’s wishes to apologize to everyone her grandmother had ever wronged. Backman’s most recent title, Britt-Marie Was Here, was released on May 3 of this year. Its eponymous heroine, a fussy busybody who walks out on her cheating husband, finds more adventure than she could have imagined as a newly single 63-year-old in a backwater Swedish town.
For Britt-Marie, Atria printed more than eight times as many hardcovers as it did for Ove’s first printing—roughly 56,000 copies—and had to return to press three times before its on-sale date. Backman will be featured at BookExpo America, giving an in-booth signing on May 11 and included in a May 12 panel, “Favorite Book Group Authors from Abroad,” alongside British writer Chris Cleave. His BEA appearances will coincide with the beginning of a 10-day 12-event tour across the Midwest and Northeast, culminating with a stop in Los Angeles.
Each of Backman’s books have seen sales accelerate. Through March of this year, Atria has shipped nearly as many copies of Ove as it did in all of 2015, and the novel is now being sold in Costco and Target. The publisher has gone back to press eight times for the hardcover edition of Grandmother, and for the April paperback edition Atria did a 60,000-copy first printing. E-book sales have done well too; Ove and Grandmother combined have sold more than 150,000 digital editions.
Atria thinks it knows why Backman’s readership is growing; the publisher sees Backman’s works as universal. “All of his stories are about people who are, for one reason or another, alone in different phases of their lives,” Atria’s president and publisher, Judith Curr, said. “It’s about this human connection.“
The loneliness of Backman’s characters may ring of Knausgårdian pathos, but that’s only one piece to the puzzle, in Curr’s mind. Along with the pathos comes charm, wit, and humor all his own. “I think it’s against trend, and that’s part of why it’s appealing,” Curr said. “It’s the yin to everybody else’s yang.”
Backman’s editor at Atria, Peter Borland, concurred. “I think Fredrik is different from the dark crime writers and doing something different from writers in general,” he said. “He has such a distinctive voice and point of view. He might be the herald of a larger trend in Scandinavian literature, but I think he’s doing his own thing. There’s a certain charm that comes from his Swedish heritage, but I don’t think that’s what’s driving interest here.”
The big drive, Borland continued, is the books themselves—the characters, the themes, and the stories. And Atria believes that, with Britt-Marie, Backman has come up with his best yet. “I really feel that we’re sort of at the tipping point with Fredrik Backman,” Curr said. “We’ve been working with him a long time, and we’ve always believed in his ability to appeal to people.”