Per Almgren’s office on the fifth floor of Natur & Kultur’s modernist headquarters looks like a cosy library; a room where someone yearning for knowledge could spend days. There are books on everything from the American Right to Swedish baked goods, as well as plenty of copies of Factfulness, the company’s latest blockbuster on statistics. As Almgren, the publishing house’s CEO, explains the history of this building (on one of Stockholm’s most expensive streets and designed by eminent architect Sven Markelius in the 1960s), his voice fills with pride. “We’re extremely lucky to own this property. Given the location, it’s worth a lot. Quite a few people have been interested in buying it over the years.”
Where others in the industry may be tempted (or forced) to sell their assets to make up for falling sales, Natur & Kultur is under no such pressure. Its capital amounts to SEK1.1bn (€106m) and annual profits have averaged about SEK40m (€3.9m) in recent years. It’s an enviable situation that’s explained largely by a catalogue of widely adopted teaching materials, which have formed the company’s economic backbone for decades. Natur & Kultur also prints fiction and non-fiction titles.
“To succeed as a publishing house you need a bouquet of genres,” says Almgren. “For us that means textbooks, children’s books, fiction, non-fiction and illustrated non-fiction, such as cookbooks. Teaching materials are where we make our money, but fiction and non-fiction build our brand. They are also closest to our values as a company.”
These values are much more than a loose, unofficial framework: they are written in the company’s by-laws. The mantra is that all titles should aim to “discourage totalitarian ideas and forms of government and encourage political and economic freedom.” The regulations also encourage the production of titles that promote education and cultural understanding – and nothing less than world peace.
This ideological base was laid in 1922, when the company was founded, and was upheld throughout the Second World War. Natur & Kultur stood against Hitler and the Nazis, publishing several critical books that were confiscated by the Swedish authorities. The current business model – an unusual combination of idealism and logic – was born in 1947 when the company’s founder, Johan Hansson, set up the foundation that still owns Natur & Kultur today. All profits go back into the company or into selected projects that follow the same principles. “Being profitable is not a goal in itself. Our aim is to support democracy and publish quality books,” says Almgren. “We need profits to be able to publish good books and support other organisations that work for equality. Money gives us freedom.”
Many of those quality publications are put together by Natur & Kultur’s food-books department. Maria Nilsson, responsible for the illustrated fact-book division, has an office two floors down from Almgren. Her room, too, is of course filled with books but here it’s all about food – and much of it Asian.
“I was adopted from Korea; I also studied East Asian cultures at university and lived in Seoul for several years, travelling a lot in Japan and China,” she says. “We’re allowed a lot of freedom at Natur & Kultur. Our publishing is based on the things we are interested in.” Some of the titles commissioned by Nilsson have gained interest beyond Sweden’s borders. Australian publisher Hardie Grant recently acquired the rights to its Foodie series: a collection of guide books covering different cities’ food scenes. The first three – about Paris, Rome and Tokyo – will be published in English soon. Nilsson is currently working on the next in line, New York for Foodies, together with a writer, designer and photographer.
Aside from the personal touch each writer brings to the titles, Nilsson and her small team (the division only has three employees in total) are keen to keep the graphic design innovative and original. That often means enlisting new designers and photographers for each project.
“As much as we love working with certain people, we know that we can’t get comfortable and rely only on them – that would just result in everything looking the same,” says Almgren. “We want to keep developing. It’s about finding a balance between something that can sell but also pushing the limits design-wise.”
While the food and craft books that Nilsson produces may seem removed from Natur & Kultur’s ideological heartland, she has no trouble seeing a connection. “Take the Foodies series: when you’re in a new city, it’s a lot of fun to discover small restaurants but it’s also a way to learn about that country’s culture and cuisine. You always learn something from our books.”
Natur & Kultur is publishing its books in a country where the political landscape is changing radically. In September’s parliamentary elections, the populist anti-immigrant party Sweden Democrats secured about 18 per cent of the vote. Amid this rise in nationalism, Natur & Kultur has intensified its efforts to support initiatives that promote democracy and, particularly, integration – the lack of which is a problem in many Swedish cities. Last year, the foundation donated SEK7m (€678,000) to journalists, authors and projects such as Ortens bästa poet, a competition that encourages young people in Stockholm’s suburbs to write and perform poetry. “Democracy sounds good: every person has a voice,” says Almgren. “Natur & Kultur is about giving people that voice. The state can take care of money and housing; we can do something about the language.”