Understanding Australian Publishing statistics with Robin Derricourt


After eleven years compiling the Australian Publishing Industry Report, also known as the Benchmark Survey, this year sees Robin Derricourt step down from compiling these insights.

We caught up with him to see what we could learn from his deep knowledge of data behind the Australian publishing industry, as well as his own background in publishing.

Working in publishing

Originally an archaeologist, Robin got started in publishing as a commissioning editor, first at Longman and then Cambridge University Press in the UK and Australia. He went on to become CEO of UNSW Press/New South for 13 years until 2010 when he departed to focus on consulting and his own writing. Robin received the George Robertson award for service to the publishing industry in 2008.

During his career he had the opportunity to be involved across various areas of publishing such as general trade for adults and children, reference books, educational textbooks at school and university level, academic publishing, as well as trade magazines and journals. 

This has given him great insights into the entire breadth of publishing, and Robin says it’s been a rewarding career, made especially so by the people involved: 

‘I have been fortunate in working in the two most fascinating and rewarding careers possible: first for some years as an archaeologist, then as a publisher.

The people and the ideas behind them have kept me in publishing over the years. That means both the wonderful authors I have worked with, and the wonderful people in the book industry. Publishing is very fortunate in the talented and committed people it attracts to its many roles.’ 

The Industry Report and Benchmark Survey

The Benchmark Survey invites publishers to submit data on their trading results, as well as staffing and other expenses. Compiling and combining this confidential data allows publishers to compare themselves against the market, as well as seeing how the market changes over time.

The Industry Report presents this consolidated data from contributors, and distinguishes between Trade, Schools Educational and Tertiary Education publishers. Each contributing publisher also gets an individual spreadsheet that sets their own figures against this combined market data. 

Of the importance of these reports, Robin says his key takeaway has been in the value of having such an annual market overview, saying:

‘It takes some effort to supply the data, though not as much as some may think, but the rewards are real. Knowledge is strength: awareness of overall financial patterns and trends provides a good guideline to any publisher large or small.’

Even before compiling these reports himself, Robin witnessed the value of all this data firsthand, particularly when he first came to Australia:

‘When I moved from the UK in 1986 to set up a publishing programme in Australia it was very useful to get an overview of the nature and pattern of the Australian industry. I think every publisher – large, medium or small – benefits from knowing what the industry as a whole looks like, contributing their own figures so that they can benchmark them against the total. If knowledge is strength, then ignorance is a definite impediment to success.’

While the survey and report have changed over the years, this year marked the 22nd annual report with Robin compiling half of these. This has given him an incredible overarching view of Australian publishing during a time of great change. 

Robin says it’s the wider trends that have been most interesting over that time:

‘The quite different trajectories of trade publishing, tertiary publishing and schools publishing over the last 11 years are cause for thought, though there is even more variety between publishers within each sector. 

And while materials other than the printed book have been playing an ever-important part in tertiary education, it is striking that the physical book has continued to thrive in the trade sector – both adult, and even more in children’s books – despite what was once predicted as a threat from ebooks.’

Some of these environmental changes have meant the survey and report have changed over time, with the introduction of separate analysis for children’s and adult books in trade through to tracking ebook revenue, which can be difficult to trace when payments might be made overseas.

Robin remembers the time when the survey was run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, with over 250 contributors, and wishes that there was similar engagement with the survey in the current form:

‘It would be good if a far larger proportion of the book publishing industry could contribute to annual statistics and access them for their own use. It remains my view that basic statistics serve to guide both established businesses and newer entrants, informing not only the publishers and their staff, but also serving the industry in discussions with other stakeholders.’

While Robin will now step away from the survey after eleven years, he has made sure this valuable data record and service will continue seamlessly in the future. He has helped recruit David Martin, former finance director at Allen and Unwin, who has kindly agreed to take over the reins. To learn more about the survey and participation, get in touch with the APA Office.