Book distribution boost in Middle East while European market recovers

Thu 7 Mar 2024
Posted by: Benjamin Roche

The UK is the world’s fourth largest exporter of books, and to mark World Book Day, that trade comes under the spotlight in today’s Daily Update.

We spoke to Billy Howorth of Gazelle Book Services, a UK book distributor, to learn more about trade in the sector.

European shift

“What makes book distribution unique,” Howorth says, “is that there’s such a wide variety of books out there that you never know what’s around the corner – what’s going to take off overnight.”

Working with publishers from across the world, Gazelle imports books to the UK – around 80% of its work – while also exporting to the EU and, increasingly, the Middle East. Nowadays, Howorth explains, much of that business is driven by TV publicity and TikTok.

Working with firms in Europe is more difficult than in the past, he said, although recent challenges show signs of easing.

“It has gotten easier, but unfortunately because of the amount of paperwork and the added costs in regards to transportation, shipping and postage, some of our traditional customers no longer buy from us.

“We’re always trying to look at different avenues and something we’ve seen grow is the use of freight forwarders – people ordering from lots of different companies, getting everything on one pallet and sending it across.”

Despite the increased barriers to trading since the UK left the EU and its Single Market, there are signs that trade in the sector is beginning to recover, Howorth suggested:

“It’s [still] a lot more difficult to trade in Europe than it used to be. The number of people we deal with has reduced, but it’s now growing again. I think people are now used to the expectations of the paperwork in regards to cost –that’s kind of settled down. But it isn’t an easy market to deal with.”

‘Scope for growth’

On the Middle East, he said there was increasing demand for English-language books and that freight forwarders were also important for exporting to the region. He also emphasised the power of strong relationships with buyers in this “very price-sensitive market”.

New challenges for trade in the sector include the ongoing Red Sea disruption, he said, following on from previous crises such as the Covid pandemic, but “there’s a keenness for working with the UK”, and there’s still “scope for growth” in the sector.

“The cost of shipping across the world is one thing. People are printing more locally, We’re finding an increase in publishers in places like Australia looking, for instance, at printing in somewhere like Eastern Europe to ship to the UK. There’s also a renaissance in UK printing, with publishers sourcing locally to us.

“There’s a mindset of asking: ‘Is it a good idea to be shipping halfway across the world when there are all these environmental considerations?’”

Turning to what he’d like to see change in the industry, Howorth welcomed any government support for the sector and suggested changes to customs could also help:

“Anything that can be done to reduce the amount of paperwork and time involved in shipping outside of the UK really just benefits everyone in the long term.”

Lost in translation

Some may be less than thrilled by the prospect of more UK exports in European markets, however.

Last year, UK publishers were accused of limiting the sale of locally-published books in Europe’s markets by exporting English language editions, rather than leaving room for domestic translators to publish their own.

Many in publishing fear that exported English language editions will disincentivise publishers abroad from purchasing rights to translate and publish their own English language editions – with knock-on effects for authors in the anglophone world.

Speaking to The Bookseller last year, literary agent Madeleine Milburn expressed concerns about how the trend could impact the industry internationally. She said:

“Some international publishers are reporting that an English language edition can account for 65%-80% of sales in some genres, and with fixed pricing there’s no way to compete with a heavily discounted export edition, even when published simultaneously.

“If this continues, international publishers could acquire fewer books in the English language which will bear huge consequences for the international rights market and our authors’ global presence.

“There’s a huge discrepancy between how an author is remunerated for their export sales compared to their sales of international editions, so we must also find a solution to protect our authors’ income.”