US Dollar $
UTC-4 to -12, +10, +11; Summer UTC 14 to -10
Area (sq. miles)
$22.940 trillion (PPP)
Department of Education (ED) is a government department that establishes policy for most federal assistance to education, collects data on US schools and enforces federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights.
Each state operates its own tax regime.
AAP StatShot Annual Tracks multiple years of sales by publisher revenue and units with a focus on category and format sales.
AAP StatShot Monthly The most frequent, current revenue data by categories and formats for the month and year-to-date.
AAP Elementary/High School (El-Hi) Annual report In-depth industry data including tracking of adoption and non-adoption states in grades prek–6 and 6–12.
AAP Higher Education Annual Report Gross and net revenue and returns of all college pro cuts, produced by the market’s largest higher-education content stakeholders.
American Library Association (ALA) key shows:
Annual Conference, Washington, DC: June 20-25, 2019
Midwinter Meeting, Philadelphia, PA: January 24-28, 2020
Annual Conference, Chicago, IL: June 25-30, 2020
This guide is for those wishing to access the market from the UK, either for the first time or because they wish to review their existing mode of access. It is also a source of information for those who seek to deepen their understanding of the market and how it operates. Because of its main purpose, a large part of the report’s value lies in the appendices, which principally gather together information about the all-important organisations and contacts who may provide an entry-point. This information can be otherwise difficult both to obtain and to interpret.
The report should be taken in close conjunction with its sister-report on the book markets of Canada. Those who have dealt with the Canadian publishing and bookselling market know that it is culturally and structurally distinct from that of the USA, and proudly so, reflecting as it does Canada’s different historical development. In terms of territorial rights Canada has the frequently-exercised capacity to separate itself from its larger neighbour. At the same time geographical, linguistic and economic factors mean that the two markets have a particularly close cross-border relationship: territorial rights for the two countries are often purchased and exercised together, mostly from the USA, and similarly US distributors will commonly cover both countries. Many of the observations in this report on the USA will also apply to Canada, and any company considering market access to the one should also consider the other and take a strategic approach to North America as a whole, even if access to the two markets is to be achieved through separate channels.
Readers should also consult these reports alongside information contained within this toolkit, which offers extensive information and advice on assessing opportunities for market access, and preparing to take such opportunities, as well as on the wider practice of doing business around the world.
The USA is the largest of the world’s book markets, and one of the most dynamic and exciting. Its consumer adult and children’s sectors reflect a culture of high energy and diverse creativity, while its academic sector is larger, wealthier and more full of opportunity than any other in the world. In education, the scene is one of huge plurality, given that each state determines its curricula and the materials used to teach them, and the consequent challenge in accessing the market is reflected in the low position it occupies in UK exports of educational product (see below under Market Access).
Despite the rise of Spanish as a spoken and written language within the USA, and certain publishers’ response to that rise in developing Spanish-language publishing in more than one sector, the dominance of the English language offers a cohesion to the market and to the business opportunities it presents to the publishing and bookselling industries. (Even if many languages are spoken within a great variety of communities, the USA lies at the opposite end of that spectrum from e.g. India or South Africa, where English is the lingua franca against a background of complex linguistic diversity and a long list of official languages).
This linguistic background means of course that the market is one of great interest and potential for English-language publishers, as revealed in the Publishers Association Yearbook 2020: it is a measure of the power of the market that despite a territorial rights framework within which many fiction titles, including almost all the most prominent, are separately published in the USA (see below re Territorial Rights), the USA is second only to Australia in fiction exports ex-UK. Information on further categories is to be found below.
Some of the largest publishers in the world are complemented by a vibrant and highly varied independent publishing scene; and after a period of contraction in the face of the steep rise of online bookselling, independent bookselling has been reinvigorated as bookstores have consolidated their role as places of community, personal engagement, shared interest, expert recommendation and creatively curated events. (See Appendix C: Useful Links, for lists of associations where more information on these parts of the sector can be found.)
This report sets out the framework and functioning of those markets, and you will find listings of key operators, some of whom could become partners for UK publishers seeking first-time or alternative market access. The focus of the report is determined first by the prioritising evidence of existing UK exports; and secondly by the fact noted below: the global nature of copyrights in academic publications means that the absence of territorial barriers simplifies USA market access.
Core domestic statistics (2020)
Estimated total size of book market 2020: USD 25.7 bn (Source for these and all other US book industry statistics, with acknowledgement: Association of American Publishers (AAP) Statshot) of which the principal components are:
Consumer adult: USD 10.8 bn (42%)
Children’s: USD 4.5 bn (18%)
School educational: USD 3.8 bn (15%)
Academic and Professional: USD 4.8 bn (19%)
As in the UK the US consumer book industry overall was a beneficiary of the 2020-2021 global pandemic, as confinement led to increased leisure reading, and while the publishing industry as a whole showed flat performance in 2020 against the previous year, the consumer sector showed an increase of 6%. Other major trends were a 13% increase in downloaded audio 2020/2019 (audiobooks have historically been a high-performing sector in US publishing, with marked migration over the past five years from physical to downloads); and an increase of 12% in ebook revenue, though the five-year trend is -9%. The surge in ebook sales early in the second decade of the C21st has been described as ‘the unread books on the digital bedside table’: very low ebook prices encouraged purchasing levels far above buyers’ reading capacity, taking ebook percentages of total consumer publishers’ sales in both the UK and the USA to around 25%. In both countries there has been a correction, and in the USA in 2020 ebooks dollar revenues returned only to the 2017 level, and represented 12.9% of total consumer sales.
Standing in league table of UK exports (print and digital)
Source: PA Publishing Yearbook 2020
Fiction: 2nd after Australia
Non-fiction and reference: 2nd after Australia
Children’s: 3rd after Australia and China
School education: not in top 15 countries (state-specific curricula amongst other factors mean there are barriers to market access: see below in the Market Access section)
ELT: not in top 15 countries (naturally the top countries for ELT exports are second- or third-language markets)
Social Sciences and Humanities: 1st (+132% on second country, Germany)
Scientific, Technical and Medical: 1st (+290% on second country, Germany)
Journals: 1st (North America region including Canada; + 41% on second region, Europe)
Rights and Co-editions sales to USA and Canada by UK publishers
At £44m in 2020, publishers’ rights and co-editions sales to the USA and Canada represented 76% of such sales made by UK publishers in the English-language.
Here it should be noted that UK publishers’ sales of North American rights in consumer adult and children’s titles represent only a proportion of those sales overall. UK literary agents generated revenues of £99m in 2020 by selling rights which they had retained to US publishers, more than double the £44m quoted above for such sales made by publishers to the USA and Canada.
Territorial rights status of the US market’s consumer adult and children’s categories
Since the C19th the Atlantic Ocean has constituted an English-language territorial rights border between the United Kingdom and the United States, de facto in the earlier stages and subsequently contractual. Fiction in particular was published in separate editions in the UK, USA and sometimes Canada, and these divisions became contractually formalised in the course of the C20th, with the UK retaining exclusivity in its home market and imperial possessions (which over the decades from 1931 onwards became one by one British Commonwealth members) while the US exclusive territory included the home territory and its dependencies.
According to standard contracts each party agreed not to sell into the other’s defined exclusive territory.
An entity known as ‘The Open Market’ was also contractually defined, meaning all the non-English-languages territories around the world, into which both parties might sell their editions. This non-exclusive status derived from a shared view that such markets were of subordinate importance.
However, with the rise of English as the world lingua franca in the second half of the C20th, the non-English-language markets grew dramatically in importance, and following the advent of the European Single Market in which the UK participated until the beginning of 2021, literary agents in the UK introduced a policy of selling European rights exclusively to the UK publisher, and UK publishers often insisted upon it. Mostly this was resisted by US agents and publishers when they were sellers, though some major US authors supported the move, recognising that publishers would be much more likely to invest seriously in the development of an author’s sales in Europe if all the resulting sales would be theirs. Since the UK’s withdrawal from the Single Market voices have been heard in the US supporting the restoration of Europe’s Open Market status, and it remains to be seen what will transpire.
This separation of rights means that the top tiers of a UK trade publisher’s titles are not available for distribution into the USA, and distribution applies only to the lower tiers or to specialist lists. Nevertheless, the available titles generate very significant business, as demonstrated by the impressive export facts and figures quoted above.
In recent decades the pull of economic and geographic factors as against historical links in Canada has meant that US trade publishers have increasingly succeeded in acquiring Canadian rights to international titles alongside those for the US. But it remains significantly the case that UK publishers may secure Canadian rights and either sell into Canada through a distributor, or sell those rights on to a Canadian publisher.
This division of rights remains the rare exception in the case of academic product, the publishers of which normally exercise global rights. Thus a UK publisher’s entire list is available for distribution. It is this, combined with the strength in depth of the US academic market, that accounts for the fact that exports to the USA of UK academic book and journals publishers far outperform both those to any other country, and the exports to the USA of any other UK category; while the market offers a commensurate opportunity to new exporters of product of suitable quality and applicability.
The bookselling scene in the USA
The retail bookselling scene in the USA has arguably undergone greater transformation in the last fifteen years than any other, with the possible exception of the UK. Online retailing led by amazon, with the addition of ebooks, has taken an increasingly dominant market share at the expense of bricks-and-mortar retailers, with only two major nationwide physical bookstore chains now operating.
However, as noted above, independent book retailing has enjoyed a resurgence as it has identified and reconfirmed its role in the context of the new bookselling order. Readers acknowledge and value the part played by the independent bookselling sector, and the largest stores are widely renowned.
Meanwhile the pandemic of 2020-2021 naturally resulted in an increase in online sales of almost 20% at the expense of physical retail, with the online channel representing 37% of total sales, almost exactly the same percentage as physical retail and wholesale combined. Interestingly, hardbacks and paperbacks grew modestly in 2020 as a proportion of sales made through the online channel, while ebooks (20% of total) and downloaded audio (12%) showed commensurate declines. Physical books constituted the remaining two thirds of sales through that channel.
The library market in the USA
The library market in the USA is the largest, best-funded and most substantial in the world, and draws on powerful cultural, social and educational traditions across its three sectors:
- Public Libraries
- Academic and Research Libraries
- School Libraries
The American Library Association (ALA) has since its foundation in 1876 represented the interests of libraries in all these three sectors through lobbying, support and research. It holds an annual conference widely attended by publishers, and is the source for library information and data quoted and referenced in the present report. Its highly informative website is here https://www.ala.org, along with a comprehensive report on the state of libraries in America, including the sector’s response and position on topical social, cultural and educational matters, as well as crucial library-specific questions such as that of e-lending (policy and practice on this issue is variable across the world):
American Library Association. The State of America’s Libraries 2020: A Report from the American Library Association. Steve Zalusky, ed. 2020.
The public library sector occupies a key social, cultural and educational position in American communities, as evidenced by a Gallup poll in 2019/20 stating that visiting the library is ‘the most common cultural activity Americans engage in by far’. Including branch libraries there are more than 16,000 public libraries in the USA: many have additional outlets in the form of bookmobiles and there is even experimentation with a BookBot as a possible element in the future of book circulation. The role of public libraries is undergoing considerable expansion: internet access, the provision of health information and help with access to services, literacy and digital literacy programmes, and the promotion of parental engagement in learning are all elements in a widening brief which has book provision at its heart.
In book market terms from a UK perspective, the public library sector accounts to a notable degree for the strength of the USA as an export market for UK adult fiction and non-fiction and children’s publishing (with the school library market also playing a part in that phenomenon for the children’s category), despite the fact noted above that many titles, and particularly the higher-tier titles in overseas publishers’ lists, are separately published by US publishers. The main distributors of publishers from outside the USA have highly-developed sales and marketing resources for accessing this core market sector.
Academic and research libraries number more than 3,000. Just under 40% of these are in Junior or Community Colleges which offer two-year first degree courses; the remainder are in universities offering full four-year degree courses. As well as buying journals in digital form (and representing the largest single market for journals publishers), US academic and research libraries are leading the world in the purchase of digital ‘bundles’ of academic research publications. Unlike their counterparts in other parts of the world including the UK, however, US academic librarians are resistant to a subscription model for such digital bundles, preferring to purchase on a ‘perpetual access’ basis.
These notes on market access are to be read together with the detailed general advice offered on the Export Toolkit. The context and evaluative criteria are set out and explained there, as well as methods of approach and contact. In addition, they should be studied in close conjunction with the detailed, annotated list of distributors and other vendors provided at Appendix A: Distributors and Wholesalers in the USA.
Accessing the Adult and Children’s consumer books markets
Against the background of the territorial rights framework described above, UK publishers wishing to gain access to the US market are faced with a decision about the best approach:
- Sell licensed rights only (or co-editions in the case of illustrated titles), in those books that are taken up by a US publisher or publishers. This choice means that your list will be cherry-picked for the titles judged to have the most potential, and the list will not be consistently represented in the market. It is also a less profitable route to market for the selling publisher.
- Distribute your full list, recognising that the US market potential within it is likely to vary, often widely. Some UK consumer publishers, notably those with a particular subject focus, have employed this approach with great success, finding a distribution partner (sometimes a US publisher) who will bring to bear the full publishing process of sales and marketing on the client’s list. This makes that process indistinguishable from publishing the books, as has long been the practice with certain publisher-distributors in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. A corollary of this option is that the client agrees not to cherry-pick the list by selling rights to another party, but commits the entire list into the hands of the chosen distributor-partner: this assurance gives added motivation to the distributor and enhances the partnership element. This option has the potential to yield the most profit, and is also that which requires the highest maintenance from the client publisher. It is moreover the one which is most likely to establish the client publisher’s name and reputation in the market, given that the full list is offered under the publisher’s own brand imprint and with the support of a complete publishing apparatus.
- Adopt a hybrid model, where rights sales sit alongside a distribution operation. According to this model, where the publisher believes there is an opportunity to sell rights in a range of titles in each publishing season, those titles are withheld from the distribution operation in the USA for an agreed period. Should a US publisher not be found for the title(s), they are then released for distribution. US distributors are familiar with this process, and pragmatic about it, but there is a need for precision and clarity of communication so that there is a shared understanding about which titles are available for distribution in each season: the distributors’ normal system is to publish a seasonal catalogue of new books from their client publishers, and if books are listed and then withdrawn from those catalogues there will be confusion which not only diminishes the distributor’s reputation in the market, but can also create uncertainty about the status of the book in the market.
Territorial rights and metadata
It will be true in any case that US rights are retained in many titles by a literary agent, or they may have lain from the beginning with an originating US publisher. In all these instances where US rights are not held by the UK publisher, those titles need to be ‘rights-restricted’ on a UK publisher’s distributor’s system as part of metadata set up for all bibliographical digital feeds. Territorial rights (that is, the definition of those territories into which a rights-holder may sell their particular edition) are an integral element of those metadata: once the territorial rights fields in the data are correctly set up, the distributor’s system will intercept any orders from a territory to which the publisher does not have the rights in the title concerned, and send an ‘answer’ on the invoice, explaining that the title may not be supplied into that territory, and possibly also including a ‘referral’ to the supplier holding the relevant territorial rights.
Accessing the US Public Library market
It has been noted that for UK exporters of fiction in particular, this sector represents the most significant market strand.
Your distributor, if not themselves a specialist library supplier (or ‘jobber’), nor including a library supply division, will need a robust supply chain relationship with such a supplier. As in the UK and other markets, library suppliers offer additional services such as cataloguing, and applying protective coverings.
To the general advice in the marketing chapter of the Export Toolkit should be added the following for this sector in particular: a range of publications aimed at librarians carry particular weight and influence, and the establishing of a relationship with these publications can be an important element in selling and marketing into the sector. That relationship is likely to include advertising, as well as ensuring that titles are submitted for review. The key journals are these:
Booklist, the review journal of the American Library Association (ALA): https://www.booklistonline.com/faq
The ALA also publishes a range of journals aimed at librarians: https://journals.ala.org
Library Journal, a publication whose 140-year history further underscores the importance accorded to libraries in the USA and the high ideals associated with their community role: https://www.libraryjournal.com
Kirkus Reviews, an unique independent book-review publication founded during the Great Depression by the entrepreneurial Virginia Kirkus. It began life as a service for booksellers, but librarians soon became its main constituency. It was rescued from closure in 2009, since when the magazine’s circulation has more than doubled: https://www.kirkusreviews.com
For educational and children’s publishers, School Library Journal, an associate publication of Library Journal, plays an important role in the sector: https://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/
Taken together, these publications offer not only access to the entire library community in the US (and not only the public library sector), but also detailed information and comment on the sector, including topical concerns and, crucially, on current purchasing priorities in public and school libraries.
Ebook market access
No matter where they are located, publishers have the capability to set up and control access to global eBook markets from their own territory. Although it is often said that internet activity and online sales know no borders, the online environment in fact offers the facility to establish and enforce territoriality through the application of metadata, provided the parties concerned agree. Thus a consumer attempting to order an eBook from a site which does not have the rights to supply into the consumer’s territory can be referred to a site from which supply may legitimately be made. Where a publisher holds some but not all territorial rights in a title, it will be essential for that limitation of rights to be reflected in the bibliographic metadata set up for the eBook as for the print edition.
If the publisher holds world rights, they can come to arrangements with a range of vendors for different territories, and in most territories those arrangements will be non-exclusive just as with bricks-and-mortar booksellers.
Some US distributors seek to include eBook distribution into their territory alongside the print editions. For those publishers who may not yet have produced digital editions of their titles, it can be an attractive feature of such a proposal that the distributor will offer a low-cost digitisation service, producing files that the publisher may then deploy with vendors elsewhere in the world. Discussions and negotiations with a potential distributor should always have this as an item on the agenda, whatever decision is ultimately reached, to avoid misunderstanding.
Accessing the Academic Sector
Here the PA Yearbook statistics noted in our introduction speak for themselves: the USA is by far the most important overseas market for UK academic and journals publishers, and therefore the top priority in the formulation of export strategy.
The restrictions and constraints imposed on consumer publishers by the division of territorial rights rarely apply here: publishers mostly hold global rights and are free to exploit them in the USA as in other markets. The key to US market access lies in establishing a relationship with a US vendor/distributor partner experienced in both print and digital supply chains.
An immediate distinction must be made, however, between the Higher Education (HE, or textbook) sector, where the book market consists mainly of students, with some support from libraries; and the Research and Reference sector, where the market lies mainly in libraries.
In Higher Education, the market is dominated by US text-book publishers who closely follow curricular developments, maintain close connections at both editorial and sales levels with academics and academic authors, and develop text-book content accordingly in order to secure class adoptions and reading recommendations. This background had made the sector challenging to access for publishers outside the US; while the global pandemic of 2020-21 has accentuated the online migration of the material, meaning that business models are consequently under review and that the access challenge is made greater.
There remain HE opportunities to obtain recommendations on student reading-lists outside core texts, but the exploitation of these begins through a distributor/vendor partner who principally targets the library sector. Reviews in the relevant journals and periodicals can play a significant role in ensuring discoverability.
It is in Research and Reference that US market power finds full expression for UK publishers. This area too is undergoing significant online migration, with digital representing 56% of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM) book exports from the UK in 2020; though print still represented 64% of the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) category: the larger publishers in particular have established their own bespoke digital platforms, ‘bundling’ research publications across subject-areas and offering them either on subscription or on a ‘perpetual access’ basis (a model which seeks to replicate the perpetuity of a print purchase but presents understandable challenges to the digital supplier). As previously noted, most US academic libraries prefer or even insist upon the perpetual access model. For core online reference titles, particularly those that would be multi-volume in the print environment and are subject to regular updating, annual subscription is the basis. Where publishers create their own digital platforms, sales teams deal directly with libraries to offer product, which is increasingly sold in bundle form. (It should be noted that these publishers have had to invent new models for author- and editor- remuneration, given that it is the bundle that is purchased and not the individual product to which a more traditional royalty can be applied.)
Outside these bespoke platforms, the route to market is via library vendors of either print or digital materials, or both. Appendix A includes various companies in this category: research and meetings are advised in order to find the most suitable fit for a particular exporting publisher.
Accessing the educational market
As noted in the introduction, PA export statistics reveal that the school (or K12) sector is the most difficult of access for UK publishers, largely because each US state determines its own curricula: as in the HE sector, US educational publishers work closely with State education authorities to develop materials that support those curricula. For those readers wishing to make a deeper dive into the structure of the educational market in the USA and the way in which it operates.
As in other parts of the world, educational publishing in the USA is becoming increasingly multi-media, where online product complements print, alongside instructional materials for teachers using the programme.
Nevertheless, there remain opportunities for UK educational publishers, sometimes even in core subjects, where the appeal of a particular pedagogic approach may offer the chance to partner with a US publisher (as opposed to making stand-alone approaches), who may see the advantages of adapting an existing high-quality product and harnessing the expertise of its creators, rather than developing from scratch. The educational membership of the Association of American Publishers (listing in Appendix C Useful Links) is a useful starting-point for publishers seeking such a partner.
In addition, there may be opportunities in education’s immediate hinterland, especially areas such as literacy and professional development, where smaller as well as larger UK publishers have a reputation for excellence linked to internationally acknowledged UK expertise in the fields concerned. Here it is a matter of finding a route to market through a distributor. There are few distributors who specialise entirely in educational books, but both trade and academic distributors should be explored, since books in the subject-areas mentioned reach the hands of teachers and other decision-makers through bookshops and libraries.
From the moment we engage with the world’s largest book market, its vibrancy, energy and variety are unmissable. These qualities bring it into the top league of any publisher’s export strategy, and it is almost certain to repay the endeavour of researching, exploring and engaging with it, not only in commercial benefit but also in terms of excitement, satisfaction, and lasting business relationships. Those qualities also mean that it can be a daunting proposition both to those seeking entry for the first time (where to begin?), and to those with experience who are faced with new decisions. This report has described the market in its various sectors, offered some pointers towards evaluation and ways in, and invited the reader on a journey which will bring inevitable challenges, but is almost bound to be rewarding.