UK Publishing 2020 – Transformation, Innovation, and Diversification

When Maverick published The Impact of Covid-19 on the UK Publishing Industry in July 2020, it was evident that publishers were facing specific and emerging challenges within their sector. The extent of those challenges was largely unknown and difficult to forecast. Bound by the uncertainty of a global pandemic, UK publishers embraced digital publishing. They strived to embed digital technology and tools to ensure their readers, customers, and stakeholders continued to have access to content in an online world of consumer reading, learning, and research. One year later, we have a complete picture of 2020, and, with a few exceptions, the UK publishing industry fared extremely well in the face of massive disruption

A Record Year

Citing the Publishers Association’s recent short-form report Publishing in 2020, it contextualises the UK publishing sector challenges and outcomes during a year of business transformation, and innovation. It provides summary statistics and analysis for the consumer, education, and academic sectors.

According to the Publishers Association Yearbook 2019, 2019 was UK publishing’s biggest ever, with a total sales revenue of £6.3bn. Last year’s headline figure is notable as proof of publishing’s resilience, as the UK publishing industry grew by 2% in 2020 with total sales income of £6.4bn. UK home market revenue grew by 4% and in a reversal of fortune from 2019, export sales revenue remained unchanged. While these figures are encouraging, smaller publishers have struggled, particularly in the education sector.

Consumer and Educational: A tale of Two Sectors

With bookshops and libraries closed for long periods, readers’ quests for a good book and audio experience remained unabated. As Maverick reported last July, trade publishers moved book launches online, and authors have engaged since with audiences in virtual literary events. Publishers of fiction have enjoyed strong sales – up 16% year-on-year to £688m. Looking back on 2020 and paraphrasing from a recent interview on BBC Radio 4, David Shelley, CEO, Hachette UK and newly elected President of the Publishers Association remarked that crime, as a genre, does pay. Overall, while print sales (£3.4bn) declined by 7%, digital sales were up by 12% to £3bn.

During the course of Maverick’s research, talking to senior education publishing leaders last year, it was clear that an increase in digital revenue would not compensate for print revenue shortfall. Print and digital consumer publishing income has remained robust (up 7% to £2.1bn), but that is certainly not the case for the education publishing sector, hit by the challenges of remote learning and home schooling. Despite the best efforts of education publishers to produce high quality learning resources and support for pupils and teachers through lockdowns, total education publishing income declined by 21% to £528m. Export revenue dramatically declined by 28% to £351m with Spain, Mexico and Saudi Arabia, the top three export territories, all down in 2020.

Academic Sector – A Tale of Two Formats

Equally committed, academic publishers rallied to support students, lecturers and researchers offering free access and extended licences to peer-reviewed Covid-19 related content for the duration of 2020. Providing consultancy to its clients, Maverick has advised and reported on the importance of quality editorial output, competitive turnaround times, and adapting workflow processes to fast-track timely research in an increasingly virtual work and online learning environment. It is not unsurprising then to learn that digital journal income increased by 8% in 2020 to £2.1bn as the global thirst for quality scientific and medical research and global health solutions continue.

Overall academic journals income (£2.3bn) was up 6% last year. Mirroring the drop in print performance of other reported sectors, academic book sales declined 5% to £1bn. Print books contributed £681m (down 13%) while digital book sales contributed £369m, significantly, 16% up on 2019. Overall, reported academic publishing sector sales rose to £3.3bn, 2% up on 2019 of which export market sales contributed £2.4bn and home market sales remained unchanged at £906m. Sales rose in the US and Germany, the UK’s top two export countries, but sales to China, a market of importance to UK STM publishers, declined. The loss of academic book print publishing income may not be surprising. Striking a prescient chord, Andrew Robinson, Director of Higher Education EMEA, Cengage Learning and Chair of Higher and Further Education Publishers Council, states “there has been a revolution in digital learning which may well be here to stay, and publishers remain on hand to help students, teachers and librarians embrace this new way of learning.”

Digital Transformation, the Future

Undeniably, the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation and the adoption of technology to enable digital content delivery. In a survey conducted by the Independent Publishers’ Guild (IPG) of its independent academic and scholarly publishers, 71% reported a decline in print sales as 51% claimed an increase in digital sales. Technology in publishing has become more ingrained. Working with clients prepared to evolve and invest, Maverick has supported the research, identification and implementation of appropriate technology tools from project management and tracking to data and analytics, and content management tools. Cost-efficient technology that enables speed-to-market are critical to establish competitive advantage, but not at the expense of editorial quality and reputation. Cost, lack of time and confidence in technology are reported factors in the application of proficient technology. Lack of legacy and new system interoperability is also cited as a factor, resulting in publishers resorting to manual workarounds.

Steering a course of business transformation, publishers are looking to each other, their membership trade associations and/or third parties. It is clear from our consultancy experience and research that publishers have initiated greater collaboration and strategic partnering. There are numerous supply chain partners who serve beyond the publishing industry that may likely offer solutions and capability that can move publishers forward. It is this creativity, innovation and diversification that will ensure publishing will emerge stronger in the long term. The global publishing landscape will continue to be vitally important for UK publishing and certainly no less significant. Let’s see what 2021 delivers.

Maverick’s team of publishing associates can work with you to develop a digital strategy and implement a plan for digital transformation. Contact us to schedule a free consultation.

By Jeremy Brinton, Senior Associate

Over three decades of experience in publishing and book retail, Jeremy has gained an intimate understanding of publishers’ changing business needs. Informed by his senior and leadership roles in the UK and overseas, and responsive to market challenges, he has extensive experience in business development, account management, process optimisation, and project management.