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Crossing the Pond: The Promise and Pitfalls of the US Book Market for UK Publishers

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by Lily Ryan, Head of Marketing, Austin Macauley Publishers

Lily Ryan

As Austin Macauley, an independent publisher of quality literary fiction, nonfiction and e-books, prepares to open a New York office for the first time, we explain some of our reasons for choosing to gain a foothold in the United States, and discuss some of the lessons we have gleaned during our ongoing expansion into the American publishing industry.

Like many UK publishers, we spent the last few years researching different ways of tapping into the vast potential of the US book market, the largest in the world. According to John E. Sinclair of UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), the American book publishing industry generated a net revenue of 28 billion dollars, or approximately 18.5 billion pounds, in 2014 from unit sales of 2.7 billion books. By comparison, UK book sales (printed and e-books) in the same year were 3.3 billion pounds, a fall of 2 percent on the previous year. According to a report published by The Publishers Association, the British industry now relies on export sales for more than 40 percent of its revenue from physical books. In the past, some 40 percent of all the UK’s book exports have gone to Europe.

The book market in the United States is also much less crowded than in the United Kingdom, where the number of published books per head of population is the highest in the world. Despite having around five times as many people, the United States publishes less than twice as many books per year: approximately 300,000 (not including self-published titles) compared to the United Kingdom’s 180,000. In addition, a number of book genres specifically associated with the United Kingdom, not least British history, are particularly prized in the United States. Given the shared language, the same spread of popular book genres and a familiar-looking industry landscape — dominated by many of the same giant multinational publishing houses, with Amazon the biggest player on both sides of the Atlantic—the United States would seem an obvious area for expansion.

Past Approaches

At first sight, it may seem enough for a UK publisher to push sales by operating as a perpetual “guest,” attempting to expand its presence through a US distributor but without a base in the country. In essence, to regard the marketing of books in the United States as a profitable but secondary adjunct to the United Kingdom. Up to a point, this should prove adequate; however, a publisher sticking to this strategy will never be able to take full advantage of what the US book market has to offer. This will require a publisher to become fully immersed in America’s book culture and to consider the highly complicated relationship the US market has with our own.

For example, there are mixed messages about whether to stagger the publication of a book in both countries. Conventional wisdom states that simultaneous publication in both countries is vital, but at the same time the UK book market is sometimes regarded as a testing ground for the United States, which would suggest bringing the book out in the United Kingdom first. Simultaneous publication may also fly in the face of differences between long-term publishing cycles within each country. The United Kingdom and United States are rarely in sync when it comes to which particular genres are “hot” at any given point. For example, children’s and young adult literature in the United States have recently seen double-digit growth in both revenue (20.9 percent) and units (13.5 percent), according to StatShot Annual (2014), and has surpassed the adult fiction market: in 2014 it sold 843 million units to adult fiction’s 746 million units.

Overall demographics can vary, too: During an industry event at Random House, Carl Kulo of Bowker Market Research shared highlights from its 2013 US Book Consumer Demographics and Buying Behaviors Annual Review, which indicated that while women dominate the US book market, accounting for 60 percent of print book sales and 65 percent of e-book sales, men pay more on a per-book basis.

The Retail Market

The two countries are not even on the same page when it comes to the fortunes of their independent bookshops. The United States has seen an unexpected upturn in the numbers of such bookstores over the last few years: Last year, for instance, the American Booksellers Association reported a 22 percent increase in membership since its lowest point in 2009. Compare this with the calamitous decline of independent UK bookshops over the past decade—a 40 percent fall in numbers since 2005, to a total of less than 1,000 now—and although the rate of closures has slowed, the picture continues to look grim, despite much fighting talk from those British booksellers who have managed to hang on.

These differences mean that the United States demands its own sales strategy—or, put more accurately, strategies, as it is very far from being a single market. In publishing terms, the United States devolves into a series of quite distinct areas, known in the trade as “median markets.” Centered on large cities, these include North California (around San Francisco), South California (around Los Angeles), Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas/Fort Worth, Washington, D.C., New England (around Boston), and New York. Each of these has a regional independent association representing local book buyers, and sales patterns can differ widely within each market. Of course, the UK book world is hardly a monoculture either, but the variations are not so pronounced and the scale, of course, is not as vast.

One aspect that is common to all US markets is the purchasing power of libraries. It is arguable that the different methods of raising library funds in the United States—for instance, the use of endowment funds and specially created foundations, as well as often extraordinarily generous individual donations —give those institutions a greater resistance to the sort of government cutbacks that have bedevilled UK libraries for decades. Another general difference between the two countries is the much greater emphasis placed on face-to-face relationships in the United States. It is noticeable, for instance, that our American authors and sales colleagues are much more likely to ask for conference calls than their British counterparts!

How Far to Go?

Having committed ourselves to a US presence, we are currently grappling with the question of whether to repackage our books for the US market, and if so, how far to take it. It makes sense to reduce the often crippling costs of shipping books across the Atlantic by using US printers. If this is limited to a print-on-demand service by digital printers, the profit margins will be lower and there may be some administrative costs, though it should be possible to make use of most if not all the existing production files. On the other hand, higher sales of individual books would require interaction with US litho printers, with a whole new terminology to learn: inches instead of millimetres, pounds instead of gsm.

Whether printing digitally or by offset, it should be possible to make use of most, if not all, of the existing production files, which will reduce administrative costs. However, it may also be worth considering whether the book would work better with a different cover. After all, what works aesthetically for the UK market won’t necessarily appeal to the North American consumer. Rachel Seigel, sales and selection strategist for EduCan Media in Ontario, Canada, considers the differences between UK and US book covers in an article written for Pub(lishing) Crawl:

“Unlike music and movies, which generally have the same appearance globally, book jackets (and sometimes titles) change from country to country… The goal of a cover designer is to make it scream ‘buy me,’ and how that goal can be accomplished will change from country to country. ‘One Size Fits All’ might be a good idea in theory, but just as no one book fits every reader, no one cover fits every market.”

If we do go as far as changing the cover (and even the title), what then? Do we alter the book sizes slightly to make them more consistent with US practice? Do we rework the text to remove UK spellings and even specifically British idioms? At what point would the book become a wholly different edition, requiring a new ISBN? These and many other questions are much on our minds as we prepare to open our first US office later this year.

The US book market does hold vast potential for UK publishers, but it is far from uniform. To properly tap into this market, it is not enough to simply distribute UK books to US bookshops. For UK publishers to be successful in the United States, it is important for them to properly embrace the intricacies of the US market. Only by taking into account the US market throughout the entire process, from book cover design to marketing, can UK publishers hope to successfully expand within the US market.

Lily Ryan is head of marketing at Austin Macauley Publishers. With a background in PR and journalism, she has a keen interest in the future of the publishing industry.

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