Coronavirus Worklife, UK Book Industry: Publishers Call for Aid, Reporting 2019’s Success

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

UK book exports in 2019 rose 3.3 percent over those of 2018, as revealed in today’s Publishers Association report on last year’s pre-pandemic performance.

Street-dining for pandemic safety in London’s Soho on July 20. Image: VV Shots

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Historic Gains Interrupted by the Coronavirus
In an unwanted irony, 2019 is being described by the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association as the best year for publishing in that market’s history—only to have to call immediately for government support in a recovery from the effects of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

Association CEO Stephen Lotinga, speaking on today’s (July 22) release of the organization’s 2019 “Yearbook,” as it’s called, makes this clear.

Stephen Lotinga

“Before the coronavirus pandemic, the UK’s publishing industry was flourishing,” Lotinga says, “with 2019 being the strongest year in the history of publishing. These robust figures reflect people’s ongoing need and desire for books.

“The UK publishing industry was on course to be worth £10 billion [US$12.7 billion] by 2030 before the coronavirus, but that will only happen now if the government properly supports our recovery.

“This means ensuring there is a fair market for books, particularly support for bookshops, avoiding a no-deal Brexit and providing vital funding for schools and universities so they can buy the education resources that students need to learn remotely.

“Our 2019 Yearbook figures tell a story of pre-COVID-19 success, but they do not reflect the significant challenges that publishers have faced during this pandemic. Despite those difficulties, we know that many people have continued to look to books for solace, enlightenment and entertainment.”

In perhaps more irony, the first message on the pink pages of the 117-page report is from that government, in the person of Caroline Dinenage, the UK’s minister for digital, culture, media, and sport, who promises, “We are incredibly proud of the UK’s publishing industry.”

She adds, “The government has provided unprecedented assistance to support businesses through the pandemic and in their recovery, and we will continue to work with the publishing sector to ensure that it bounces back stronger than ever.”

Sales Abroad: The Pivotal Role of UK Book Exports

In export sales of print and digital books, the United States was the UK’s leading market, followed by Australia, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, India, and Spain. Image: Publishers Association

In her politic statement, Dinenage rightly points to UK publishing as “an export powerhouse,” putting her finger on one of the most important elements of this country’s book business going forward into its Brexitian future: “Exporting is crucial to the [UK] publishing industry,” the report clarifies, “with export sales income accounting for 59 percent of total sales income.”

This means, of course, that trade negotiations are of stark importance to the British book market, a historical reality. Its output vastly outruns its own consumers’ needs and interests and without its international ports of call, the UK industry is simply not what it has been—hence Lotinga’s direct reference to the importance of avoiding the crash landing of a no-deal Brexit.

Top-line points from the export factor:

  • Exports in 2019 are reported today to have been up 3.3 percent in 2019 over those of 2018.
  • Europe, with which the UK still is involved in its long-running divorce, “is our largest export region for printed books,” worth 36 percent of the invoiced value of exports.
  • In consumer publishing, Australia is the biggest export market for the UK.
  • Fiction exports to China were up 26.4 percent.
  • Nonfiction exports grew in Poland (71.2 percent) and the Netherlands (up 38.2 percent).
  • Canada was the fastest-growing major export market for children’s books from the UK, up 52.3 percent.
  • In educational publishing, the United Arab Emirates is the biggest export market for schoolbooks.
  • The fastest growing major export market in educational content is Kuwait (up 92.7 percent) followed by Oman (up 89.1 percent) and Turkey (up 60.3 percent).
  • Spain is the largest export market for English-language teaching content (ELT), with the fastest-growing markets in this area including Russia (up 110.9 percent) and Peru (up 58.9 percent).
  • The United States is the UK industry’s biggest export market for academic and professional books.
  • Sales income from exports to Singapore of social science and humanities books were up 19.9 percent, while the fastest growing export market for science, technical and medical books was Canada (up 51.2 percent).
  • The largest export region for scholarly journals is North America, and the fastest growing is sub-Saharan Africa (up 9.6 percent).

So much quantified evidence is a useful tool in demonstrating how critically important the internationalized market is to the UK’s operation.

Its day-to-day campaigns for reading promotion and good causes; its valiant efforts to protect the bookstores of its high street; its world-leading efforts in publishing-house diversity and inclusivity; and its collective joy in a boggling plethora of awards programs—these elements hold prime focus in-country, while the foundation for much of it is in international channels.

Dinenage asserts in her message that the UK exports more physical copies of books than any other world market. Technically, that may not be something fully knowable. But her point is well taken.

Sales at Home: Nonfiction and Children’s Books

Image: Publishers Association

The news in 2019 was good in home sales, as well, powered across all formats mainly by nonfiction, reference, and children’s books. The invoiced value of UK publisher home sales of books rose by 3.5 percent last year to £2.1 billion (US$2.7 billion) with a 3.8-percent increase in print sales and a 2.4-percent boost for digital sales to UK consumers.

  • Home sales of print were 8.5 percent higher last year than in 2015 (the report uses many useful five-year comparisons).
  • Home digital sales were up 1.1 percent over the same five-year period.
  • Digital formats—inclusive of audiobooks as well as ebooks, online subscriptions, and learning-management systems—made up 19 percent of the UK book industry’s home sales in 2019 and were up 4 percent across all channels, to £2.8 billion (US$3.6 billion).

And for all the excitement about audiobook sales growth (not just in the UK but in many markets), that collective digital gain is actually slightly behind the 2015 increase of 20 percent.

“Our 2019 Yearbook figures tell a story of pre-COVID-19 success, but they do not reflect the significant challenges that publishers have faced during this pandemic.”Stephen Lotinga, Publishers Association

Nevertheless, for audiobooks in particular, the rising trend continued. Consumer downloaded audiobook revenue was up 39 percent in 2019, to £97 million (US$123 million). This put consumer sales income for ebooks and audiobooks up 4.6 percent in 2019, to £336 million (US$428 million).

The ongoing energy in nonfiction, of course, is interesting in many markets, in some of them because politically related content is so relevant. Nonfiction and reference in print in the UK rose from 35 to 38 percent of value between 2015 and 2019, as children’s books—always a darling of the industry—moving forward at 1 percent per year.

Academic and professional titles accounted for a quarter of sales throughout the five-year period, with fiction showing some decline, to 14 percent and schoolbooks sliding to 8 percent.

The average invoiced price of a print sold to the UK  home market was up, rising 2.8 percent in 2019. This was driven by a 7.4-percent increase in children’s book prices, alongside increases of between 1.8 and 3.1 percent in fiction, nonfiction, reference, academic, and professional books.

Schoolbook prices fell in the UK, coming in 17.9 percent lower than in 2015. This, as even fiction and children’s prices over the five-year period rose between 1.9 and 4.2 percent.

Image: Publishers Association

In its 8:34 a.m. ET update (1234 GMT), the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center has the UK at ninth place in the world for caseload, with 297,389 infections. The market is third in the world for COVID-19 deaths, after the United States and Brazil, at 45,507 fatalities in a population of 67 million.

The wearing of masks in shops and supermarkets becomes mandatory in England by order of No. 10 Downing Street on Friday (July 24). A similar order has been in place for about a week in Scotland. As Ivor Bennett has reported for Sky News, demonstrators against mask mandates in the UK have argued that such an order is an override of their rights.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the United Kingdom market is here, more from us on the Publishers Association is here, more on industry statistics is here, and more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

Facebook Twitter

Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.