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As the ongoing trade war between the United States and China rumbled on early this year, some interesting book industry statistics were coming out of the People’s Republic. In January, OpenBook, the Beijing-based industry data monitor, announced that retail sales in China had jumped 11.3% to RMB89.4bn, or around $13bn.

This was actually a slight deceleration of China’s rapid retail growth rate this decade: it’s essentially been at around 15% year on year since 2010. Much of the incremental slowdown is due to a sluggish physical bookshop performance. While OpenBook reported that online sales rocketed once again (up 24.7%) and accounted for the lion’s share of retail sales (RMB57.3bn, or 64%), bricks-and-mortar shops revenue dropped 6.7%, to RMB32.1bn.

A few days later, China’s Books and Periodicals Distribution Association (CBPDA) released a report that said total sales revenue of publications in China hit an eye-popping RMB370.4bn ($54.1bn) in 2018, a 5.9% rise. CBPDA’s data on retail sales chimed with OpenBook’s 11.3% growth curve, but the government organisation put the revenue at a far larger RMB158bn ($22.96bn).

The CBPDA and OpenBook figures are not contradictory. OpenBook, like Nielsen BookScan in the UK, calculates print sales. The CBPDA data includes all publications—and not just from book publishing—but it does also capture areas we would commonly associate with the book industry which is not in OpenBook’s remit, such as audio downloads and China’s massive online-reading market. And while the CBPDA numbers do not break out the sectors, there is an underlying suggestion here: with China’s ongoing retail growth and the sheer size and scale of its digital market, it is not a question of if, but when, China becomes the biggest books beast in the world.

The Ts and Cs
The devil, of course, is in the detail. Trying to determine the relative size of global book industries is vexing because the data available is rarely completely compatible. We have rounded up what are commonly thought of as the six biggest books markets in the world (minus one notable omission, which we will return to later), using the best data sources from each country and, due to the vagaries of each system, none of them reports figures in the same way. For example, we have used the OpenBook data for China— because it is the most robust—and those figures are retail sales based on domestic volume sales with final value estimated on books’ list price—which may not account for the sometimes hefty discounts of Chinese online retailers.

The Association of American Publishers’ numbers are far wider in scope than OpenBook’s, as they are based on all book formats and distribution channels—not just print retail—using annual data submitted by member publishers, along with what it calls "market modelling"; essentially, estimates for those publishers not involved in its data collection. But we should underscore that the US (and UK) figures are underplayed somewhat, as they are based on invoiced sales: what the publishers earn from resellers, not what the consumers end up paying. While figures from the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels focus on the German domestic market, the UK Publishers Association’s include exports (where Britain is a powerhouse) and ancillary publishing revenue streams, such as rights sales.

Heck, sometimes the data is not even there. The Japan Book Publishers Association figures are not currently available for 2017 or 2018, so we used estimated figures from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which is broadly in line with the largely unbroken 22-year decline of the Land of the Rising Sun’s books market.

India probably merits a place at the top table, but the figures available are, shall we say, not the most solid. The last truly comprehensive overview of the full Indian industry was a 2015 Nielsen report commissioned by both the Federation of the Association of Publishers in India (API) and the Federation of Indian Publishers (FPI); it put the market at around RS261bn ($3.8bn), and posited that it may be nearing RS740bn ($10.8bn) by 2020. With the growing wider economy of India, its huge population of young people, many of whom are in education—about 50% of the country’s 1.3bn people are under the age of 25—that circa-$10.8bn mark is probably on the money. But despite huge strides in data gathering since Nielsen’s entry into the market in 2010—BookScan India currently monitors around 50% of the English-language books market—there are still too many blind spots, so we have omitted India for now.

But there still is a significant gap for China to bridge if it is to overtake the US. If the AAP numbers are based on invoiced sales, we can add a conservative 40% on to American publishers’ totals to give us a massive consumer market value of $36.5bn.

The crucial question is, what is the size of the digital market in China, to add to that RMB89.4bn retail total? Well, it is substantial. A white paper released at the annual China Digital Reading Conference (CDRC), held in April this year, said that the digital sector—which it defines as e-books, audio downloads and China’s hugely popular online serialised reading market—generated RMB25.5bn ($3.7bn) in 2018. That is a rise of 19.6% year on year; in all five years the CDRC has issued its white paper, it says the digital market has consistently had an annual 20%–30% value increase.

In our market value calculation, then, China’s retail plus digital totals (RMB114.9bn/$16.7bn) are still some way off the US’. But publishers in the US and the other more mature markets, with their flat digital growth rates, will look enviously at China and its year-on-year double-digit percentage rises. This is obviously much to do with the limits of population as the West still spends far more per capita than China. The Germans are by far top in this regard, with €114 ($127) per person spent on books in 2018.

But that growth is the key. If China and the US’ rates remain the same, China’s print retail sales alone will surpass the US’ overall total in five years’ time. Throw in digital to that equation, and the Chinese consumer market’s total will surpass the US by 2021.

Sources OpenBook; Association of American Publishers; Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels; Publishers Associaton; Syndicat national de l’édition; Japan Book Publishers Association. *Estimated sales for 2017/2018.