An Analysis of the Retail Sales of Academic Books in the UK

The following essay will analyse the academic publishing market in the UK. The analysis will incorporate and focus on data provided by Nielsen Bookscan in order to show the development of retail sales in the UK.  University College London

The academic publishing market

Academic publishing is an international market that offers a variety of products in specialist fields like Science, Technology, Medicine (STM), Humanities, Social Sciences (HSS), and other areas (Clark & Phillips, 2014). The core products are books and journals (digital and printed).The distinction between academic titles and others like textbooks or general non-fiction is that they are “produced by academics in the course of their research” (Smith, 2012, loc. 838/or 23%).

The core data source for this essay is Nielsen Bookscan. As stated on the Nielsen Book Research Processing Calendar, the tool gathers data of 90% of all retail book purchases in the UK. This can be confirmed with restrictions while looking at the overall market of 2013/2014 in figure 1. Bookscan delivered for 2014 93% of the UK physical book sales stated by the Publishers Association and for 2013 88%.


publishing market data

Figure 1: In millions, overall revenue and UK physical books revenue gathered by the Publishers Association (Publishers Association, 2015), compared with revenue delivered by Nielsen Bookscan; as of 2013 and 2014.


However, most book sales in academic publishing are generated through libraries or individuals and not through retailers (Clark & Phillips, 2014). Hence, the data derived from Nielsen Bookscan have to be handled cautiously as they are likely to only show a fraction of the academic publishing market.

Academic book publishing market

Clark & Phillips define academic books as “edited volumes, reference works, handbooks, conference proceedings, and academic monographs (original research) published in hardback and as ebooks at high prices and destined for the libraries mainly in the UK and US, …” (2014, loc. 2073/or 20%). The overall market size for these products[1] can be seen in value, volume, and number (all in k) of titles in figures 2 as stated by Nielsen. However, as the target group is libraries and Nielsen does not cover non-retail sales, these numbers might be far below the general 90% market coverage of Nielsen.


academic publishing volume

Figure 2a: In thousands, overall market value (revenue) of the last ten years; with the arithmetic mean.


academic publishing uk volume

Figure 2b: In thousands, overall market volume of the last ten years; with the arithmetic mean.


scholarly publishing market

Figure 2c: In thousands, overall market titles of the last ten years; with the arithmetic mean.


The charts clearly show that the market rose to a local peak in 2009, then went into recession the following five years with a recovery in 2015. However, the titles count declined only once and increased again in 2009 all through to 2015. A conclusion here is that less value was generated by an increasing number of titles. Hence, the actual selling price might have fallen in the recession, especially towards 2015.


publishing uk market price

Figure 3: The recommended retail price (grey) and the actual selling price (black) in comparison over the last six years; with percentage.


As can be seen in figure 3, a comparison of the prices of the top 1,000 titles of the analysed market supports the assumption. In the years from 2013 – 2015, while the titles climbed far over the mean, the actual selling price decreased. However, as the recommended retail price was even more reduced in this period, the difference (in other words the sales discount on average) rose.

Academic book publishing subject areas

The following charts show an analysis of the development of subjects in value and volume.


academic publishing revenue

Figure 4a: Development of subjects within the most sold 1,000 titles in value from 2005 to 2010, and 2015.


publishing volume

Figure 4b: Development of subjects within the most sold 1,000 titles in volume from 2005 to 2010, and 2015.


These charts clearly show the strong position of Management, Business, and Economics (MBE) titles and the declining share of Computing & IT (CIT) and Social Sciences (SS) titles. This development is supported by a view on the actual market share of each subject in the respective years.


academic publishing subject development

Figure 5: Market share of subjects within the most sold 1,000 titles in value (left) and volume from 2005 to 2010, and 2015.


The decline of the CIT and SS subject is also resembled in the market share. However, CIT decreased faster in value than in volume which might be an indicator for a price inflation in this subject.

Another irregularity reveals the subject Language & Linguistics (LL). It shows an increase in value with a decrease in volume over the first five years which presumably is a result of a rise of the ASP in this subject. Overall, the market development shows that a domination of MBE and SS increased to 2010 but diminished afterwards. Yet, the domination remains above 50% in both value and volume in 2015.

The scholarly journal publishing market

The information gathered from Nielsen Bookscan reveal useful insights into the academic market. However, it is only a fraction as no direct sales to libraries are included. Furthermore, with the inability to deliver all titles of a book due to data base restrictions of Nielsen, the data only show a maximum of the 5,000 most sold titles. But it is especially in the academic market important to look at the long tail as many books are only sold a few hundred times or even less.[2]

In addition, there is the market for scientific journals. This is arguably dominated by a few big conglomerates with many smaller publishers in specialised fields (Clark & Phillips, 2014; Smith, 2012). A problem in this part of the market is therefore that the leading companies operate worldwide and – in official statements[3] – only state revenues as per sales region[4] if not only as worldwide.

The major academic publishers

The most important journal publishers in terms of market share are RELX, SpringerNature, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis, Wolters Kluwer, and Sage (Larivière et al., 2015). The most important sector is conceivably STM with about $10 billion annual worldwide revenue in 2013. The EMEA share of this was 14% ($1.4 billion/£990 million) (STM, 2015).

As a part of this, UK universities spent in 2014 £93,766,870.11 on journal subscription for journals of the publishers Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, Taylor & Francis, Sage, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Nature Publishing Group, Royal Society of Chemistry, Institute of Physics Publishing (Lawson et al., 2015), with £18,237,555 only for Elsevier journals (Gowers, 2014). Look & Sparks (2010) saw the overall number of UK HEIs annual spending on journals between £113 million and £121 million even before 2010. That gives an image of the market value of journals in the UK.

Open Access in the academic publishing market

Withal, the transactional revenue for Open Access (OA) publications should be added to the figures above. These are for example article processing fees or publication service fees – in effect, costs that the author or the author’s funder has to bear and are therefore a growing stream of revenue (as stated throughout the mentioned annual reports). A report by Simba Information saw the revenues for STM OA journals at $242.2 million (£170.36 million) (Esposito, 2014). However, this figure cannot be added up to a market total as the percentages are unclear.[5]

Conclusively, the different sectors that accumulate to the overall academic publishing market show the diversity of the market. With the major revenues being generated without retailers (or with a different system of intermediaries like consortia (e.g. Burgundy) or system providers (e.g. SWETS until 2014)), and intransparent amounts and global spreads of subscription revenues, the overall market is very opaque. It furthermore is not useful to combine the book and journal business to analyse one overall market. The mechanisms of the two markets vary too much so that combining the different revenues to one number would barely be meaningful.

However, an in-depth analysis can reveal very insightful facts about the market. Further studies could look at particular fields of the market or find explanations to certain facts; for instance, why the journal business allows higher gross margins than many other industries as Larivière et al. point out (2015).

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Reference List

Esposito, J. (2012) Sizing the Market for Patron-driven Acquisitions (PDA) [Online], The Scholarly Kitchen. Available at http:// / 2012/ 05/ 08/ sizing-the-market-for-patron-driven-acquisitions-pda/ (Accessed 21 January 2016).

Esposito, J. (2014) The Size of the Open Access Market [Online], The Scholarly Kitchen. Available at http:// / 2014/ 10/ 29/ the-size-of-the-open-access-market/ (Accessed 21 January 2016).

Fox, J. (2016) Academic Publishing Is All About Status [Online]. Available at http:// / articles/ 2016-01-05/ academic-publishing-is-all-about-status?platform=hootsuite (Accessed 16 January 2016).

Gowers, T. (2014) Elsevier journals — some facts [Online], Gowers’s Weblog. Available at https:// / 2014/ 04/ 24/ elsevier-journals-some-facts/ (Accessed 21 January 2016).

Informa (2013) Bringing knowledge to life | Annual Report 2012.

John Wiley & Sons (2015) ANNUAL REPORT | JOHN WILEY & SONS, INC.: For the fiscal year ended: April 30, 2015.

Larivière, V., Haustein, S. and Mongeon, P. (2015) ‘The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era’, PloS one, vol. 10, no. 6, pp. e0127502.

Lawson, S., Meghreblian, B. and Brook, M. (2015) Journal subscription costs – FOIs to UK universities [Online]. Available at https:// / articles/ Journal_subscription_costs_FOIs_to_UK_universities/ 1186832 (Accessed 17 January 2016).

Look, H. and Sparks, S. (2010) The value of UK HEIs contribution to the publishing process: Summary report, Rightscom Ltd | JISC Collections [Online]. Available at https:// / Global/ report%20on%20HEIs%20non-cash%20contribution%20to%20the%20journal%20publishing%20process%20final.pdf (Accessed 21 January 2016).

Publishers Association (2015) The UK Book Publishing Industry in Statistics 2014 [Online]. Available at http:// / easysiteweb/ getresource.axd?assetid=18811&type=0&servicetype=1 (Accessed 17 January 2016).

RELX (2015) Annual Reports and Financial Statements 2014 | RELX Group.

Springer (2013) Springer Science+Business Media | General Overview and Financial Performance 2012.

STM (2015) STM Report 2015 Final 2015-02-20 | International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers [Online]. Available at http:// / 2015_02_20_STM_Report_2015.pdf (Accessed 21 January 2016).


[1] Including Adult Non-Fiction Specialist, excluding all textbooks, study guides, or user guides as well as particular titles for which the definition does not apply, e.g. general software guides as trade titles (like: how to use Windows or Word guides)

[2] Supporting data to illustrate this fact can be derived from Nielsen: In 2015, the overall adult fiction market had a volume of 52,007,835 sold copies and 224,134 individual titles, whereas the academic market had a volume of 6,481,985 sold copies and 229,672 individual titles, and the non-fiction non-academic market a volume of 65,658,042 sold copies with 728,909 individual titles. This leads to a ratio (sold copies per title) of 232 for the overall adult fiction market, 28 for the academic market, and 90 for the non-fiction non-academic market. However, this is only data to illustrate the mentioned fact; it does not represent the actual ratio as for this, one would have to deploy a more advanced statistical regresssion for several years in a row.

[3] See for this the annual reports as referenced: Springer, 2013; Informa, 2013; RELX, 2015; John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

[4] Sales regions might be the Americas, EMEA (Europe, Middle-East, and Africa), or Asia-Pacific.

[5] To be precise, a service like patron-driven acquisition would have to be taken into account for a market analysis, too. However, for this service are only rough estimates available, with an annual market volume of about $20 million (£14.7 million) (Esposito, 2012).



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