Fuelled from the periphery

Publishers look to emerging markets, including South Africa, while the UK and US markets hibernate through the recession, write Chris Tryhorn and Richard Wray

In China, inspirational business books such as Who Moved My Cheese? and family health titles compete with the latest blockbusters; in India, classics from Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton vie for shelf-space with homegrown authors and the penned advice of billionaire IT entrepreneurs; while in South Africa, the boarding school antics of John “Spud” Milton have captured readers’ imaginations and created a Harry Potter-like craze.

Across the world, the appetite for English language books is booming and publishers struggling under the weight of the recession in their core markets of the United States and United Kingdom are increasingly turning their sights overseas.

Random House, for instance, has announced that the record-breaking first print run of 6.5-million copies of The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, will include over half a million for overseas territories including India and South Africa, an unprecedented number for a new fiction title.

Publishers from across the globe gathered at the London Book Fair last week to discuss how to exploit this growing opportunity. The fair had a distinctly Indian flavour, with heavyweight authors such as Vikram Seth and Amartya Sen among the 48 writers appearing, but delegations from China, Russia, Africa and the Arab world were also there to meet about 16 000 publishers who showcased their catalogues to the rest of the world.

A combination of the recession, which has pared back consumer spending, and a longer-term demographic change brought about by a fall-off in population, is hitting book sales in the US and Britain. Both markets are still the largest for English language publishers, but growth has stalled.

The US market was worth about $24.3-billion in 2008 while sales in Britain were about £3-billion.
Last year, book sales by volume in the US dropped 6% on 2007, although in value terms the drop was 2.5%. In Britain the volume of books was down 4% and value down 6%.

In contrast, overseas English language markets are booming. India is the world’s third largest English language book market and has been growing at about 10% a year for several years. Research by UK Trade & Investment (UKT&I), which is using the Book Fair to encourage British publishers to export more, and the Publishers Association estimates that the market was worth about £1.25-billion in 2007, with publishers estimating that about half that amount was English language.

The Chinese market was worth about £7-billion in 2007—with almost a quarter of a million titles producing a total print run of 6.3-billion copies—but its English-language market is small by comparison with India and UK exports to the country run at about £10-million.

The South African book market was worth about £260-million in 2007, with three-quarters of those sales going to English language books, and has doubled in value in four years, while the enormous ex-pat community has helped fuel growth in the book market in the United Arab Emirates, with UKT&I estimating that book exports have doubled in the past six years.

Tastes differ across these markets, according to publishers. In China “books about earning money and making a family healthier just sell forever”, according to Jo Lusby, general manager of Penguin in the country.

The publisher has also done well with Elizabeth Gilbert’s account of the spiritual gap year she took to recover from her divorce, entitled Eat, Pray, Love.

Who Moved My Cheese?, the motivational book by Spencer Johnson which celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, is one of China’s all-time best-selling translated titles with several million sold to date. Film tie-ins also help sales, with Penguin’s The Kite Runner receiving a boost from its recent film adaptation, while former Fed chairperson Alan Greenspan’s book The Age of Turbulence has been a surprise hit. Many English books in China are used as educational tools, with people using them to improve their skills in a language which is now spoken by more than 300-million people in China.

In South Africa the market has experienced something of a publishing sensation in recent years with the boarding school antics of Spud and his gang—the Crazy Eight—helping to expand the book reading populace. The first tome has already sold well more than 125 000 copies since its publication four years ago and while that may not sound like much there are only about 800 000 general book buyers in the country’s population of just less than 50-million people.

But with its booming population, of whom 350-million speak English, it is no surprise that most of the publishers at the London Book Fair are turning their attention, eagerly, to India.

“India is an incredible growth market at the moment,” says Alistair Burtenshaw, the exhibition director of the London Book Fair. “It provides fascinating business opportunities in almost all sectors, and that’s absolutely the case in publishing.”

The trade show coincides with a growing push by Western publishing companies to ramp up their operations on the subcontinent. Later this month Hachette is joining the ranks of Penguin, HarperCollins and Random House by publishing its first new book in India—My Friend Sancho by Amit Varma.

English language publishing in India stretches back to the days of the Raj, and the likes of Macmillan and Longman have had a presence as educational publishers since the 19th century. For many decades, Western publishers exported their books to India for distribution by local companies, while domestic operators also produced books in English. But the arrival of Penguin in 1987 marked a decisive change, establishing a berth in India for a major international publishing house for the first time.

Others followed: HarperCollins set up a joint venture in the 1990s and is now in partnership with the India Today group, then after ownership rules changed earlier this decade Random House and Hachette both set up fully owned operations.

With 180 English titles published a year—and some in Hindi, Marathi and Urdu too—Penguin retains first mover advantage. It has also outsourced 130 jobs at its Dorling Kindersley division to India, where Eyewitness travel guides are now produced.

“We’re far and away the leading English language publisher in India,” says Penguin chief executive John Makinson. “It’s a more competitive environment than it was but we have a tremendous head start.”

Publishers are also noticing a new mainstream literary culture that has transformed book-reading from the preserve of an educated elite into a cerebral leisure activity for India’s emerging chattering classes.

“It’s not that people have suddenly got interested in books and reading, it’s that the nature of the interest is coming more to resemble the nature of the interest you might see at Cheltenham, Oxford or Hay-on-Wye book festivals,” says Simon Littlewood, the international director at Random House.

“There’s a curiosity about authors and the authorial process, building on an established bedrock of literacy and literary interest.”

Spud—Learning to Fly is published by Penguin Books South Africa on June 10

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