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UK versus US readers

26 October 2009

A recent study from Book Marketing Limited, which runs the Books & Consumers survey, and Bowker, which runs the US equivalent, PubTrack, has highlighted some interesting differences between British and American readers.

A higher percentage of the British than of the US population bought books in 2008. Fifty-seven per cent of British consumers bought one or more books last year, whereas only 50% of Americans did.

Romance and mystery (or crime) fiction was a more important part of the US fiction market (57%, by comparison with 31% in Britain). This shows that Americans are reading more genre fiction than British readers.

Men accounted for only 29% of the US fiction market, a surprisingly low figure, but 40% of the British fiction market. This is partly because men are generally reckoned not to buy romance, which is almost totally a female market, and accounts for big sales in the US, but also probably indicates that more American women buy mysteries. It also seems to suggest that male American readers are more focused on non-fiction than their UK counterparts.

Kelly Gallagher, Vice President of Publisher Services for Bowker, pointed out: 'In addition to the noteworthy differences, there are also interesting similarities, such as the data indicating that both markets are reliant on older buyers, with adults over the age of 42 accounting for two-thirds of all book purchases in both the US and Great Britain.'

There are however big differences in the bookselling environment. Price discounting has been nothing like as ferocious in the US as in the UK, where recent loss-leading sales of the latest Dan Brown book by some supermarkets and Internet booksellers have received much adverse comment. There is however currently a price war developing between and

The Internet is the primary channel for book sales in the US, whereas retail bookshop chains are still ahead in Britain. This may however be just a matter of timing, as Internet sales are still increasing rapidly as a proportion of all book sales in the UK. This may not happen though, as the UK, being a small, relatively densely populated country, does provide book buyers with easier access to bookselling outlets of one kind or another.

It's good to be able to report that on both sides of the Atlantic independent booksellers seem to be standing their ground. It's been tough for them during the recession and many have closed, but it is heartening to see new shops opening up. The survivors have managed to keep going by cultivating a loyal customer base, with events in the stores, a focus on local books, cafes and often strong additional business through the internet and local schools or colleges.

One other significant difference in the market is that books are much hotter news in the UK than they are in the US, with considerable feature space devoted to them in the press, on radio and TV. The recent BBC Poetry Season, which caused a spike in poetry sales, would be unthinkable in the States. This strong media focus has a significant impact on book sales - long may it last!