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Don’t Invest Until You Test: How to Find Out How Much You’d Make with a Niche Book (Before It Gets Written)

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One of the huge benefits of niche publishing is that you can pretest to see if a book will sell (and roughly how many copies) before it exists.

I backed into niche publishing about 15 years ago, and now most of my 40 published books are niche based. One field, dentistry, earned us about $2,000,000. We’re hoping for the same in K–12 school administration.

First Steps

Prepare for your pretest by setting some tentative goals, such as:

• Through this book, position myself as an expert about something in a niche field that niche

members want to know and will pay to learn.

• Earn $100,000 income from the book, with half that as profit.

• Spend $750 or less to pretest the book.

• Get pretest results within about a month.

• (Optional) Begin to build an information and product empire from the expertise established

in the book.

Some preconditions are necessary for achieving these goals.

You must have chosen a niche field and know the topic your book will address, the people to whom


it will be directed, and what it will be about.

If you will be the publisher but not the author, you must have found and signed an author with

knowledge of the niche and topic, preferably one who has good speaking and teaching skills.

The book must meet a critical need or resolve a serious frustration (or something similar in gravity

and immediacy) for your niche, providing unique, applicable solutions or resolutions.

You must intend to avoid selling the book through bookstores or distributors (who will discount

away most of your profits) and instead sell most copies (perhaps 80 percent) by mail, in response to

your direct mail, selling the rest through association workshops and presentations, classes,

conferences, conventions, and social networking.

The fastest and surest way to make money in publishing is to put a much-wanted book directly in niche buyers’ hands. Even in this digital era, this still requires the use of direct mail marketing, which can be very expensive and, as a result, quite risky.

But almost all the risk disappears once you pretest. With enough positive responses to your test, you know roughly the percentage in your niche market that will buy at the price tested.

Why not do the pretest and the subsequent sales campaign by email? With spam rampant and people receiving dozens or hundreds of emails each day, the response is far too unreliable. If you pretest successfully by direct mail, that will work again! (Of course, you will boost your promotion digitally as well.)


Your pretest materials should be designed to let you know how people in your niche will respond to the book’s title, cover, promise(s), and cost, as well as how they will respond to you as the publisher and, if applicable, also to you as the author.

Here’s a quick list of expenses you might incur if you contact 500 potential buyers, probably in two test mailings (one of 300 plus a validation test of 200):

• mailing list: $0–$300 (you will use nth labels of a larger mailing list) 

• 500 printed one-sided flyers: $50

• 125 postcard-sized reply cards: $20

• 500 short greeting/explanation messages: $18

• 500 #10 business envelopes: $35

• 500 Avery labels, self-addressed: $30

• 500 44-cent stamps for envelopes: $220

• 500 29-cent stamps for postcards: $145

That comes to $713—or $513 if the list broker lets you test the list free and sends pressure-sensitive labels to you, probably on a promise of later use if the test is positive. (You can find details about the mailing list process at blog.gordonburgett.com/digital-publishing/get-a-free-mailing-list-for-your-niche-book-pre-test-920.html).

The most important element of the mailing is the one-sided flyer. It can be color, but black-and-white is acceptable. It must look professional, be accurate, and convince at least some of the people on your test list that they should buy the book it describes.

Bear in mind that 500 times a dime each to reproduce means $50 to print, but you may have to hire specialists to get clear, grammatically correct selling text and appealing, effective design and layout.

The reply cards are necessary, of course, for evaluating your potential windfall. Cut them from 8.5″× 11″ card stock with your message printed four-up on one side. Each sheet yields four postcards. Neatly apply postage stamps.

Stupid question: How do you cut so you don’t get sloppy edges and sizes? Very carefully, by using the ruler line on the cutter so you stay in the middle going both directions. Cut five sheets or so at a time. If it’s slightly crooked, only the recipient knows. If it’s sloppy, shame on you. Or the cutter needs sharpening.

Put your return address on each postcard on the stamped side, using Avery address labels—or print your address on that side of the card stock.

For the short greeting/explanation messages, each uses one third of an 8.5″× 11″ sheet of regular paper (the message is 11/3″× 8.5″). Simply position each message in the middle of its space when you prepare the master in your computer, run about 170 pages, and carefully cut out the messages by lining up the paper cutter and cutting about five sheets at a time.

The key element of the test—your informational flyer—should include all the key information the potential buyer needs to know to respond honestly, like the book’s title, its cost, its format, a small cover (if finished), an abbreviated table of contents, a list of benefits the buyer will receive, perhaps the author’s bio, and even a prerelease testimonial, if available.

Let’s say I envision a book that provides 55 marketing SOPs for chiropractors in an 8.5″× 11″ three-ring binder about 140 pages long, with all the SOPs also provided on an accompanying CD, to be downloaded at will and modified to match each chiropractor’s specific need, style, and desires. I must convey that information to the test recipient.

And let’s also say that I think, because of research I’ve done, that $149 will be an affordable price.

I need a fail-safe book title. Nothing on the flyer is more important. If the title doesn’t grab the buyer and state quickly and clearly what the book is and does, the test is usually doomed.

The title should be direct and benefit-laden, making it obvious why the reader needs the book. And a specific reference to the niche should be in it, usually first or last, so prospects know this book was written specifically for them. Thus, Standard Marketing Procedures for Chiropractors.

Add a subtitle if you think more information would help or if the title may raise questions. My firm recently published a book called Finding Middle Ground in K–12 Education, a title right on the button, but it doesn’t tell who would want it or why. So we added Balancing Best Practices and the Law. Bingo, the people most likely to buy it (school superintendents, principals, and education lawyers) instantly understand that it’s for them.

The title is the headline. Either it gets its readers to want to read more, or it gets them to toss your flyer.

Any time a title comes to mind, write it on a tentative list of possible titles, and set the list aside. You might gather 20 choices. After you design the book’s contents and identify the benefits it will bring, then find the best title (probably from that list).

You are testing the book before you invest any more time or money—and you can’t test a book without a title. So pay lots of attention to the title. There’s no sense changing it later unless the test bombs, when you’ll have to test it again. So, of all of the things being tested, the title is by far the most important.

The Flyer in Depth

The flyer is one page, one-sided, that answers all the questions a targeted reader is likely to ask. (You can add a line that says “Details” and then give your Web site address, but don’t rely on anybody noticing that link, much less acting on it. Presume that people will respond only to what is in front of their eyes.)

Your test flyer could be two-sided, but I advise against it. Many people won’t turn the page over, and many more don’t want to read (or even know) that much. Plus, it costs you more to print.

Remember when you compose the flyer that the test only tells you if the respondent will buy what you promise in it. They are saying yes or no to a book with the title and contents shown, at that price, that size, and fulfilling those promises. If you decide later that you want a different title or price or slant, you’ll have to conduct another test.

No room for gambling or false promises. I have only one side of an 8.5″× 11″ sheet of paper from which to determine if I should invest thousands of dollars and months of time!

The elements of the flyer are:

• the book title, prominently located

• copy about why the book’s contents are critically needed
now and any unique or distinctive features

(first of its kind, first in this easy-to-use format, cutting-edge information, author is a top expert,

and so on)

• a table of contents

• a book cover (sometimes)

• an author bio (seldom with a photo)

• a satisfaction-guaranteed box

• the critical details about the book format, price, size, number of pages, ISBN, date of availability, and

perhaps that “details” Web site URL

Here’s a flyer we’ve used.

Once the flyer is done, compose your message. Fitting neatly into #10 business envelope on top of the other materials in your mailing, the message is the first thing recipients will read after opening your test envelope. It tells why you are bothering them and what you want them to do.

Nothing fancy; black ink on white paper.

Our message to chiropractors says:

Dear Chiropractor:

Would you do us a huge 30-second favor? Read this note, skim the one-sided flyer enclosed, check the boxes on the postcard, and mail it back today?

Why? We need help! Dr. Ted V. Johnson, whom many of you know as a top chiropractor in the San Francisco area, has just written Standard Marketing Procedures for Chiropractors. We think it will delight and significantly help chiropractors nationwide, but we need a quick response from you and your colleagues to make it available soon in the best and most affordable format. So we are asking a select handful of top practitioners randomly chosen from across the U.S., hoping that they—you—will let us know your reaction to the book as proposed. How did you get so lucky to be in that wee number? Maybe brilliance! Maybe bad luck.

Your response is totally anonymous, but please know that we are grateful for your help.

Gordon Burgett

Publisher, Chiropractic Communication Unlimited [a name created for this mailing]

This is what our postcards look like:

I [ ] would

  [ ] would not 

be interested in reading a book specifically about drawing more patients to my chiropractic office—and retaining them.

I [ ] would

  [ ] would not buy Standard Marketing Practices for

Chiropractors for $149.

Other thoughts I want to share:

Would you mail this back today? Your help really is appreciated.

P.O. Box 845, Novato, CA 94948

We sometimes add boxes about format preferences, for instance: I would/would not buy [Title] at [specified price]; I would/would not prefer to buy this book in digital form for [lower specified price].


If you’re going to test a niche book, what you really need to know is whether the buyers will buy enough copies and pay enough per copy to make the time, energy, and money needed to produce and market the book worthwhile.

So this is where you test prices. I recommend testing three prices in the first mailing, and two prices in the second.

The best way to choose a price to test is to see what publishers in the niche are charging for similar books or like products, and then to figure out whether you will make enough profit with that price.

So, for example, if a similar product sells for $149, you want to earn $100,000 in sales to earn $50,000 in profit, and you have a niche buying universe of 54,000, your buy response at $149 must be 1.244 percent. And if you are going to pretest to 500, you then need 6.2 positive postcard replies to reach your goal.

[An aside. In the K–12 market, that “right price” might be $24.95. If you had the same-sized universe of 54,000, you would need 28 sales to pay the test cost, and your buy response would have to be about 7.45 percent. With tightly targeted mailings, responses often top 10 percent, so this is a real possibility.]

Will the buy response to your pretest in fact equal the number of sales you will make? It usually will if your book does what you promised in the flyer for the amount stated and there are no other variables, like a changed table of contents or a different author. But some buys take much longer to get than others.

So the questions you must ask yourself are:

• What kind of profit return must I receive to produce the book?

• What percentage of the sales price will be profit?

• What is the price buyers are most likely to pay?

• How many of them will pay that amount?

• What other income will this book generate that will lower my must-have profits solely from the book?

Guesstimate the absolute lowest price you can ask to receive enough profit. If it’s $105, use that, the $149 we mentioned, and $179 in the first mailing—that is, send about 100 test packets listing the price at $105, 100 listing $149, and 100 listing $179.

Respondents usually tell you through the postcards they mail back the buying ratio you can expect. The postcards usually return in 10 to 15 days. Let’s say that the response rate shows a 5 percent buy rate at $179, 7 percent at $149, and, oddly, another 5 percent at $105.

Do the same test again, but this time divide the remaining 200 address labels into two groups, and test them at $149 and $179. (You could even divide the group in thirds and test at $149, $179, and $199.)

Then it’s simply a matter of multiplying the response ratio times the total 54,000 universe times the respective price they are responding to, to get your book price.

Knowing When It’s a Go

All that remains is to establish the success or go-ahead level needed to justify creating and publishing the book and paying the hefty costs of direct mail promotion.

Take the total income you seek to earn ($100,000 in my example) and divide it by the test price of the item you are selling ($149 in that example). The result is 671, which means you need 671 buys at $149 each to earn $100,000 (actually, $99,979, but round numbers work at this level).

Our universe (in this case, chiropractors on our mailing list) is about 54,000. And we test-mailed 500. Dividing 500 by 54,000 yields 0.009259; which means our test group of 500 is 0.9259 percent of the testing universe of 54,000.

Then multiply the number of books you must sell to the universe of 54,000 to earn about $100,000 (i.e., 671) by the percentage of the universe the test group accounts for (i.e., 0.009269), and you see that you need more than six (6.212) positive replies from the 500 to earn about $100,000 from the full universe of 54,000.

So if you send the pretest and get seven affirmatives—or even (don’t jinx it by saying it out loud) 10—roll up your sleeves and get the book going!

But if nobody says Yes, then something’s not working. So you have new choices: Forget it, or change the idea or the title or the description of the contents or some other variable, and test again. Look hardest at the title and price.

Reprising the important question: Do the actual buying numbers correspond to what the tests say? Yep. About 80 percent of our first mailings alone have matched or topped the test number of “yes” replies. Some were 50 percent higher. (But with dentists it wasn’t immediate. They can take months to respond to their mail!)

Niche book pretests are a godsend. You win either way. If it’s a go, it’s almost riskless. And if it’s a no, thank God you didn’t put the house in hock on a dud!

Gordon Burgett explains the entire niche publishing process, including pretesting, in Niche Publishing: Publish Profitably Every Time (nichepublishing.org); and his blog (blog.gordonburgett.com) includes a series describing pretesting in greater detail. His free monthly newsletter (gordonburgett.com/free-reports) focuses mostly on empire building and ancillary (or open) publishing (see ancillarypublishing.com). To learn more: gordonburgett.com.

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