Why you need the export experts

Peter Newsom
Opinion - Publishing Wednesday, 13th October 2010

To get the most out of export markets, call on the people who know them, writes Peter Newsom Does it matter if you publish a title in Australia three months after US release? Why are your books so expensive overseas? What's the impact of only doing a B-format paperback of a title? Why did that urgent order get sent by seafreight instead of airfreight? Anyone who has worked in export will recognise these everyday questions and issues. Getting your formats, pricing and timing right, and making sure that books are where they ought to be, are critical to growing sales, and you are never going to grow sales if you get everything else right and the books end up on the proverbial slow boat to China. That's an expensive mistake in terms of lost sales and unusable stock, yet one that happens too often.

Export knowledge needs to run right through your company, so that staff are properly trained and understand the implications of what they do. So, is there a role for someone with expertise to foster that knowledge? Well, who else is going to bring an understanding of the markets your company is dealing with? Export is not just one market after all. It is 26 in the EU alone, and can be well over 50 meaningful ones globally.
The big trade publishers have invested a lot in experts for their UK businesses, creating key account manager roles for their major domestic customers. These experts feed information into the wider company. This has not always been the case for international markets, yet what happens from Auckland to Zagreb has implications for publishers and is possibly even more important now, as, with stagnant sales in the home market, where else is there to look for growth?
Much has been made this year of ebooks and all things digital, yet these sales are still only a tiny fraction of publishers overall sales. While attention has been turned to new technology, international sales for UK publishers have remained very robust, particularly during the recent financial crisis, reaching £1.667 billion in 2009, a rise of 4.7% over 2008 (BIS Statistics based on HM Revenue and Customs data). The proportion of publishers international sales can vary from 20% to 40% of overall sales not to be taken lightly. And on particular titles that can be 50% , with the international sale often being critical to the book's success.
That's not to say that every market is performing well. The joy of working in export is that if one market hits a bad year that's not the end of the story. And although there have been tough times in some markets over the last couple of years, in the EU, which is UK publishing's biggest trading partner, Germany has continued to show excellent growth, while in the developing world, India is finally showing signs of becoming the major market it was long expected to be. Knowing how to get the best from each market is critical if time and effort is not going to be wasted. In other words you need expertise.
For the uninitiated, working in export is not just about having a good knowledge of geography. It is important to know that Australia and New Zealand are separate markets they have different territorial copyright law to start with and that what may appeal in metropolitan Melbourne may not appeal in more conservative Christchurch. Similarly Canada is not just a small adjunct to the huge US market (though its consumer pricing takes its lead from there), but a vibrant market that is more familiar with the UK and British cultural product than its bigger neighbour.
As mentioned already, understanding when and how the elements of a publisher's list will sell in any given market, what formats work, or how pricing can affect the sell-through, is not just useful to the export department, it should be something that informs the entire company, from the commissioning editor to the cover designer.
To answer those questions from the beginning:
  1. You would lose Australian copyright if you waited any longer than one month to release a book there after first publication elsewhere in the world. And first formats are the most important in Australia, so don t wait until the second format to get the cover right.
  2. Pricing is different everywhere, as transport charges, import duties and VAT (Value Added Tax), GST (Goods and Service Tax) or similar taxes are levied on books the world over. But the consumer is unlikely to be seduced by an over-priced book in any market.
  3. B-format paperbacks may be the format of choice in the UK now, but you won t get volume sales in South Africa, Canada or Europe as these markets still want A-formats, not least because, particularly in Europe, they fit into the racks and shelving produced locally for their domestic paperbacks.
Your export expert will have this detail at their fingertips.
But, over and above all of this, it is perhaps relationships in export that are most important, and irreplaceable. Partly this is to do with distance, it is certainly to do with trust, but it is also due to the longevity of both the companies and the people that UK publishers deal with overseas. For instance, Papyrus in Belgium is still being run by a very sprightly Edouard Levy after 42 years, Isabel Abulhoul is still aggressively expanding Magrudy in Dubai after 35 years, and the Li family still hold sway at Swindon Books in Hong Kong, which was founded in 1918. Those coming into export now may well form relationships with people they will still be seeing many years from now, in the same way that, after 30 years in export, I am still in touch with key buyers in cities as diverse as Paris, Hamburg, Limassol, Johannesburg, New Delhi, Singapore and Nairobi. Without such contacts, the roles I have held in export sales for various companies and the consultancy business that I now run (offering advice on all aspects of international sales), would not have been nearly so enjoyable or successful.
Peter Newsom is an international sales consultant. He was previously Export Sales Director at Headline, UK. He has a consultancy role at the Frankfurt Book Fair, helping UK companies explore new international opportunities during the event.
This article first appeared in BookBrunch and Publishers Weekly's FRANKFURT FAIR DEALER