British Book Exports currently make up 43% of the industry’s sales by value. The steady rise of English as the language of international communication, of business, and of education 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, particularly where aspirational parents see the English language as a route to success for their children.

Especially in Europe, readers who have a high level of English like to read creative literature in the original; and they sometimes prefer a translation into English to one into their own language, believing it to be of better quality.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the appearance of a translation of an English-language creative work into a foreign language mostly creates increased sales of the original in that territory, because of enhanced awareness and discoverability.

Although book exporting has long been a centre of excellence and expertise within the UK’s creative industries (our domestic book market is roughly one fifth the size of the US’, and yet in most years we export rather more books than the US does), breaking into export markets, understanding how it all works and how to go about it, can seem quite a challenge.

So our aim here is to take the mystery out of it, to explain its workings, and offer tips on how to get started. As well as that, we want to help you create realistic expectations through increased market knowledge.

Even if your business is still too small to present an attractive proposition to overseas sellers, we’ll show how you can make the most of the opportunities offered by UK-based wholesalers and online retailers who export books round the globe.

We include surveys of key markets, indicate which are important for your business and how to go about accessing them, with listings of relevant companies. There’s also a glossary of specialist terms, defining words that appear in italics in the text.

We remind ourselves often that the UK publishing industry is very varied, and comprises trade (or consumer) publishing, children’s, educational, English Language Teaching, academic, professional, reference and learned journals.

Within the academic, reference and journals sectors there is a marked difference between the Humanities and Social Sciences on the one hand and Scientific, Technical and Medical (STM) Publishing on the other.

This variety is reflected in the differing importance of export markets between the sectors: a market or region can be of high importance to, say, trade publishing, but much less significant for the academic sector, and vice versa. The Toolkit seeks to clarify these differences of ranking.

Even within a sector some subjects, genres and themes travel more readily than others, and penetrate some markets more successfully than other markets. It’s important gradually to build up knowledge of this kind, so that effort is efficiently directed at areas where it will bring results. There are three main ways to sell your books outside the UK market:

1. Distributors in the overseas territory

These companies may either be associates of publishers based in the UK, US or elsewhere; or local, independent operations. In some cases, locally-based publishers add a distribution arm to their operations, so that they sell lists other than their own to add to their critical mass and defray some of their operating costs.

They take books into stock whether on a buy-and-sell or a consignment basis (see glossary) to sell, market and distribute into their territory. Typically they supply the local book trade including any online customers, but their customers may also include non-book outlets such as gift stores.

If their business is educational material, they may also sell to schools or colleges, and to specialist suppliers to those sectors. The terms of trade between the supplying publisher and a distributor of this kind will be set out in a distribution contract, though if a publisher has a representation agreement making them a client of another UK publisher, those terms will be covered in the contracts that publisher has with its distributors: it’s good to be informed about those terms and their implications.

When selecting a distributor, the first questions to ask are:

  • How well does this distributor’s existing lists fit with mine? Are they so different that my market access may be reduced? Or are they so close that there might be a conflict of interest?


  • How influential a player is this distributor in the local market? Too small to gain effective access to all the sales channels I need? Or so large that my list will be given little individual attention, and just added to a conveyor belt?


In relation to both these questions, a balance is what is needed, and often a compromise will be required.

The final question is:

  • What are this distributor’s terms of trade? Can I make this part of my business profitable?


Here, you must be ready to give higher discounts than to your UK customers. But it’s also important to remember that returns rates (depending on agreed terms) can be much lower than in the domestic market; and mostly that applies to marketing costs too. So in assessing profitability, it’s important to include those factors.

Another vital factor to include in your business evaluation is the potential positive impact of exports on the profitability of your home sales: despite the cost-reductions achieved by technological developments such as ‘short run digital printing’, printing remains essentially a business yielding economies of scale.

Publishers that successfully exploit their exporting potential can build longer print runs, and thus reduce their unit costs, increasing the profitability of their business overall. It can therefore be good business to accept lower gross margins in certain areas for the sake of the bigger picture, always providing that financial stewardship is rigorous.

2. Sales representatives, or agents

Sometimes the relationship a principal has with a distributor is a direct one, handled by a member of the publisher’s staff (this can be typical of an agreement where a distributor has exclusivity in a particular country or region). In other cases the UK publisher representing other client publishers will handle that relationship.

The larger publishers have sales representatives on their staff, who travel to a designated territory and sell to their customers, whether wholesalers, retailers or institutions (such as libraries, schools and colleges). They are responsible for the frontline relationship with those customers, and are supported by office-based administrators and by clerical staff based at the company which fulfils their warehousing and distribution requirements in the UK.

Smaller publishers whose sales do not justify having representatives of their own either come to an arrangement whereby they become a client of another publisher, or they appoint freelance representatives who travel, and sell a range of publishers’ lists. In these cases the selling publisher or freelance representative receives a percentage of the sales value achieved, or commission, as specified in a signed contract.

3. Exporting wholesalers and online retailers

In order to be of interest to an overseas distributor, to a UK publisher that takes on clients, or to a freelance representative, a publisher’s list needs to offer a quantum of turnover (or the prospect of it) from lists that are saleable in the territory concerned, or sometimes a niche element to complement an existing portfolio, which will make the arrangement worthwhile.

This can be a challenge to start-ups and smaller publishers. In such cases, exporting wholesalers and online retailers within the home market offer an opportunity to reach overseas markets. Success depends on the optimising of metadata (see the section below on Gearing up for Export) and the developing of relationships with those home-market customers.