There have been momentous milestones passed and developments made in the world of publishing over the last few years.

Perhaps the most significant is that uniquely among world book markets, the UK has seen its export sales overtake the domestic. In 2020, 58% of UK publishing sales across all categories came from overseas markets (source: The Publishers Association 2020 Yearbook, the major annual statistical analysis of the UK industry, also referred to below). UK publishing exports more than does the US industry despite having a domestic market only 20% of the US size. Publishing exports are seen as a centre of excellence within Creative Industries UK, building on a long outward-looking tradition of market knowledge, commercial expertise, adaptability to local ways of doing business, and willingness to create new trading models.

The book industry is sometimes wrongly perceived as a minor sector: in fact the UK industry’s £3.7bn of exports in 2020 were far ahead of British meat exports at £2.0bn (source: Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2020), and Australian wine exports at £1.4bn (source: Wine Australia) in the same year, and even somewhat greater than 2019 exports of French Cognac at £3.1bn (source: Cognac).

Within the overall picture we are able to see many nuances and variations by sub-sector shown in The Publishers Association’s detailed data. The information contained there not only allows us to observe what is happening, but also to focus our international activity in accordance with a changing picture. Access to the Publishers Association Yearbook (free for Publishers Association members) forms an integral part of this guide.

Digital publishing in its various formats has also undergone change: digital export sales of adult fiction were 42% of the category total in 2020, though it should be noted that this includes an unspecified element of audiobook downloads, which taken as a whole showed a large increase of almost 40% in 2019 over the previous year. This marked rise in audiobook sales is paralleled by those in a significant range of other languages, notably European. Of consumer non-fiction and reference, on the other hand, digital sales represented only 14% of the total in 2020, showing how differently the various trade categories lend themselves to digital media. In the Children’s category, that percentage was 9%, up from 5% in 2016, though still the lowest of all sectors.

In the academic and educational fields the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-2021 has effected dramatic migrations to digital materials, brought about by non-attendance in person at schools, colleges and universities and the substitution of online classes. In the school category the pricing expectations within elements of this supply are unsustainable for the industry, and there will be some readjustment. In this context export sales of educational books were especially hard-hit. It remains to be seen where the balance of these models will settle. Aside from that, the educational sphere in particular is one where the market increasingly expects digital materials that will complement traditional print formats.

The internet has also transformed marketing, offering possibilities that did not previously exist to target a specific audience, be it for e.g. category fiction or trade-educational books. Ten years ago physical materials and mailings were still playing a noticeable part which has now largely been taken by emailing, customised websites and electronic sales kits.

This guide reflects those changes, offers advice on how to formulate realistic approaches and expectations, and sets out to make the process of engaging with international markets less daunting, less mysterious and more fruitful. If in certain particulars the contents apply more to the consumer sector, the fundamental principles and practice are relevant across all.