Nibbie returns for exports as overseas business rises

Nibbie returns for exports as overseas business rises

Perhaps there are fresh signs to be heeded by key parts of the UK publishing industry when it considers its international business: in the wake of a record proportion of turnover coming from markets outside the UK in 2017 (43%), The British Book Award for Export is being revived with a new sponsor after a ten-year absence; and only this week an element of job description within an announcement about the Hachette International Department included ‘a strategic role with publishers to develop international facing lists’.

The steady rise of English as the language of international communication, business, and education (European universities such as Maastricht and Lund now have a range of courses taught only in English) is increasing our industry’s export potential, and even if reading for pleasure in a second language is a minority pastime, it too is on the rise in some markets where those with a high level of English prefer to read creative literature in the original, or where aspirational parents see the English language as a route to success for their children. British book exports are viewed as a centre of excellence within the UK creative industries: from a domestic market around one-fifth of that of the US, the UK industry exports rather more by value in most years than the US does (no doubt our history combines with the pressure of having so much smaller a domestic market to make us seek out overseas markets more urgently). It suits the present agenda of the DIT that our exports have such wide global reach, and it is ready to support and promote them. Strong export sales have been integral to the success of some lively publishing start-ups in recent years, and the PA is developing an Export Toolkit for smaller publishers with the purpose of giving them what they need to get started on the business of export or helping them build on their existing export performance.

The Hachette announcement is of special interest, for while other publishers may also be adopting such an approach, there has long been a contradiction at the heart of UK trade publishing in particular: while academic, professional and educational publishers share a long tradition of developing lists specifically for overseas markets, trade publishing’s tendency even in the context of strong export performance has been to see those markets as an extension of the domestic. True, there has been acknowledgment that the effect of globalisation on publishing has certainly not meant ‘one size fits all’; that even identical content can demand differences of format, binding and cover design; and that there should be a bolder willingness to adapt content and sometimes retitle it. The most successful international departments have been those who saw this need and embraced it, spotting the opportunities presented by repackaging an author for a market and taking their colleagues with them to drive it through. They have interpreted their role as something that goes creatively beyond the dutiful export of a fixed range of books, developing their own strong relationships with authors and agents as well as with colleagues and customers.

But the concerted development of lists targeted at international markets is a further step. While there have always been individual editors who recognised the possibilities presented by an able international department, and cannily acquired books (non-fiction especially) of which the sales would be led by, say, the Asia region, and which were therefore packaged and priced accordingly, the creation of an internationally-minded company culture with specific shared ambition is something quite different.

What it mainly requires, of course, is detailed market knowledge. Each year after Frankfurt, a group of publishers’ sales people (mostly retired veterans and therefore far above any whiff of collusion!) with many aggregate years of involvement in the international side of the business meets for lunch in London. Between them over those years they were responsible for billions of pounds’-worth of British book exports. Their unspoken but shared approach was to build their knowledge (not just of markets and of fitting books to them, but of the varied ways of doing business) and establish close customer relationships. When a Random House editor transferred from New York to London and sought to engage with the company’s international business, I said she could do no better than spend an hour with an experienced member of our team. She emerged wide-eyed: “So many markets”, she said, “and so much knowledge!”

Perhaps because of the genuine nuance and variety, and because ‘export’ was seen as a business extension, some of these experts may have tended to reinforce their art by mystifying it. What’s needed now is a demystifying, a repositioning in the cultural mainstream of publishing organisations, and an acknowledgement that this expertise is not just valuable but essential to a cogent business strategy, bringing increased sales and profitability and palpable benefits for authors.

Around five years ago, helped by improved analytics, a senior finance colleague and I saw that UK trade publishing’s international business had risen to around 30% of the total from close to 20% at the Millennium. “When’s it going to be 50%?”, he asked. That moment may be closer at hand than we thought.

Simon Littlewood is adviser, consultant and coach to a range of book trade and government organisations, and represents the UK PA on the Executives of the Federation of European Publishers and the International Publishers Association. He was international director of Random House from 1997 to 2014.