Among the chief observations made at this morning’s panel on the “special relationship” between U.S. and British consumer book markets were that the British are at least three years behind Americans in adapting e-books, and that American readers are much more interested in romance while British readers skew more heavily toward literary fiction. “We’re more literary but less romantic,” said Steve Bohme, research director of BML, which conducts a Books & Consumers survey in the U.K. Kelly Gallagher, v-p of publisher services at Pub Track/Bowker, which compiles similar data in the U.S., explained American readers’ penchant for romance as “reading to get away from it all.”

In front of a packed house in the Cromwell Room at Earls Court, Bohme and Gallagher spent an hour explaining data from their respective countries. They revealed that men are less important to the book market in the U.S. in 2008 (making 35% of purchases by volume) than they are in Britain (making 42% of purchases). However, both markets rely on older buyers, with buyers aged over 42 accounting for two-thirds of book purchases in both countries last year.

In terms of what readers are buying, mystery and romance accounted for much larger shares of fiction purchases in the U.S. in 2008 (a combined 57%) than in Britain (31%), where “general popular and literary fiction” as well as adventure/thrillers were more popular. Gallagher’s conclusion to the findings is that the American market is very much driven by sales of front list and bestseller list titles. In nonfiction, religion is a prominent player in the U.S. market, but much less so in Britain—although Bohme referred to a different sort of religion, one of the “cult of celebrity,” driving nonfiction book sales: one in five nonfiction books purchased in the U.K. are biography, and celebrity bios are especially popular, he noted.

Looking at where consumers buy books reveals yet more differences between the markets: in the U.S., the Internet now accounts for 23% of book purchases, while in the U.K. online retailers only claim 14% of the market. Gallagher predicted it would take about three years for the U.K. to catch up to the U.S.—which is also the same amount of time it is estimated that e-books will begin gaining traction in the U.K. Currently, e-books account for 1.5% of the U.S. book market, while their sales figures are not even tracked yet in the U.K.

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