Niche Publishing: A Well-Defined System for Producing Profits
by Gordon Burgett
When we in niche publishing claim that the smaller our market, the higher our profits (all virtually risk-free after a quick pretest), we suspect that other publishers think we are either spouting or smoking hocus-pocus. Selling for a lifetime to the same eager buyers may strike them as utterly incomprehensible—or blindly shortsighted.
But when niche publishing is carefully defined, with attention to its advantages and disadvantages, a puff of collegial understanding might emerge.
While niche publishing and conventional publishing differ hardly at all in the writing, editing, and production phases, the marketing could hardly be more different, especially when it comes to the when and the how. Conventional publishers seriously warm up their selling machine when a book is in the editing stage; niche publishers have finished their most important marketing before the book is even written.
In fact, niche publishers won’t research or write the book at all unless a big enough testing slice of their market has agreed beforehand that they want to buy that exact title at a very profitable price.
So let me expand on that, to tell why the marketing cart gleefully goes before the horse, discuss advantages and disadvantages of niche publishing, and share some brief how-to thoughts.
A quick qualifier: my wee publishing venture has made about two thirds of its money producing products (mostly books) for dentists and K–12 school administrators—my niches, although I know almost nothing from participating directly in either. (I find and guide passionate writers who do participate.) Most of the rest of our publishing income comes from books for freelance (mostly travel) writers and small (mostly niche) publishers.
Niche publishers stay well away from handling fiction or books written for “everybody,” kids, or genders. But when we see that there is a hot body of like souls who love or live by something they willingly share, that there are enough of them to form an association, that they want to be on the group mailing list, and that they aren’t unwilling (or, better, are eager) to read a book or attend a seminar to solve a common conundrum or flaming frustration, we recognize a niche waiting to line our publishing pockets.
A niche is a group with a collective bond proudly shared, like bus drivers, Giants fans, urologists, and maybe hat blockers. Conventional publishers: enter at your peril. We are territorial and are set up to serve groups like this in ways you could never be.
Why do we keep niche publishing? It’s much easier and faster to do; niche markets are usually much more profitable to sell to and service; and done right it’s almost risk-free because we test first (see “Don’t Invest Until You Test” in the January 2012 issue). Also, our buyers are much easier to find.
It’s hard to tell which is the greatest boon, that (1) a book can be inexpensively pretested (title, price, contents, and benefits) before either a word is written or a production cost has been incurred, or (2) one book can establish the author as an articulate expert and create the foundation from which a multibook, speaking, and consulting empire can be built. The author builds the empire; the publisher creates and sells the products. (Often, the publisher is also the author.)
Also, an author’s emergence is quicker and more obvious in a niche. Our authors become big fish fast in that proverbial small pond, here self-contained.
Other advantages are a built-in market easily identified and inexpensively alerted to the author’s presence and performance, easier back-of-the-room book and related product sales, quicker and more certain speech and seminar scheduling (with greater attendance), and more tightly focused conventions and gatherings for personal contact and selling—all beneficial if the book is good and warmly embraced.
Best of all, the publisher can receive half the expected gross income from a book in 30 or so days, and almost all of it in about 12 weeks. The net is often 50 percent of the gross.
And since niche publishers sell mostly by direct mail, the more first-rate spinoff products they can include in their mailed flyer (with several items usually offered as a “bundle”), the higher their return will be in the same length of time.
Niche publishers vary considerably in how they choose and use their authors, to mutual benefit. We, for example, are extremely selective. We expect that each book will be cutting-edge, needed, well written and resourced, and jargon-free. We seek authors who are well known and held in high regard in their field, are eager to speak at conferences and conventions, are able to do so well, and will handle the related back-of-the-room book sales.
Since they do their own programming, we will coach them on that and the speaking process (if coaching is needed). They keep what they earn from speaking (and pay any fees if they use agencies). We supply them with their own personal selling stock (at a 40 percent discount; they pay shipping). And we handle the rare all-attendees-get-a-book sales. This provides a steady income flow both for the authors and for us, keeps the authors’ names current and them visible, and makes the sale of subsequent related books (that we publish) much faster and easier.
We also pool the niche buyers’ and speaking attendees’ names and street and/or email addresses, to use for later product or speaking promotions.
Of course, we encourage our authors to write more books and to create offshoot or follow-up products. Most of our books are sold as bound paperbacks. A few were cloth. For dentists, we also used a three-ring binder format that included a CD. Now, all our books are also available in e-book formats. Originally those were paperback-faithful PDF downloads sold from our Web site (or the authors’). Today the K–12 books are also sold at CreateSpace, Kindle, Nook, Lightning Source, and Smashwords. (Digital sales account for about 10% of our niche income.)
Here’s a list of the widely diverse disadvantages:
• Niche publishers will never get books onto a bestseller list—except in their niche.
• Some authors decamp to create their own niche-publishing firms. Others won’t do public speaking.
• For about 20 days, until orders come in volume, niche publishers need a bucket of money to finance
the first printing and flyer mailing (it helps if the printer gives 30 days to pay, but the USPS wants
stamp cash immediately).
• Niche publishers sometimes bind themselves to a niche and to authors they eventually come to dislike.
As with marriage, it’s a whole lot wiser to court slowly. Niche publishing properly embedded is
much more than a book-by-book commitment. It can take several years to bloom and as long to
• Fulfillment takes a lot of time, mostly for one-book packaging and mailing.
• The whole process is sort of overwhelming in the beginning.
What Makes It Work?
Mostly, it’s the book topic that compels people in a niche to buy. A book that directly addresses the niche folks’ most pressing pain, their worst fears, their greatest hopes. A book that provokes an instant “Wow!” and goads buyers to tell their best friends to buy it—and, ideally, to propose that the relevant association they belong to invite the author to speak at a convention or meeting.
How many “Wow!” topics are waiting to be written about? Probably a dozen or two per niche at any one time.
Then it’s the price. Niche buyers will pay twice as much or more to get a book by mail that tells them how to eliminate fatal chicken lice, cure depression in CEOs, “green” a specific industry at low cost, or create their own customized standard operating procedures for a veterinary or osteopathic practice.
There is also something financially liberating about selling books directly; we keep and earn the intermediaries’ sizeable share.
Niche publishing also works because the process is straightforward and widely applicable:
• Find a leader/writer/speaker in a niche you care a lot about who wants to write a book right now.
• With that person, identify the 10 biggest problems that practitioners in that niche would pay $100
each, on the spot, to have resolved. Conduct a modest pretest about a book that will help them
solve one of those problems. As explained in “Don’t Invest Until You Test,” a successful pretest will
confirm that enough buyers would pay a certain amount for a book with a specific title, table of
contents, and promises. Then the writer writes the how-to, step-by-step book that meets the promises
of the pretest.
• Find authors to solve those other nine problems in books you will publish.
What makes an author such a willing and valuable ally for a niche publisher?
• a 10 percent royalty on gross receipts
• all speaking income related to the book
• a discount of about 40 percent on books the author buys to sell directly at workshops and
any other way
• a 50 percent commission on sales of your digital products that the author generates, and a
40 percent commission on these sales if the books have to be mailed
• a tool for building the author’s own empire, adding spinoff books, guides, workbooks, booklets,
classes, seminars, workshops, consulting, and more (with you publishing all the items to
appear in print).
The Process in Two Paragraphs
That is one rough sketch of how niche publishers think and operate. They start by quantifying a book’s appeal and potential sales. Then they create the book that will produce those sales. After that, they build outward from each book they publish, limiting scope and sales to its niche.
In addition, they mimic and use many of the best techniques and outlets favored by conventional publishers to earn an additional 10 to 20 percent through intermediaries such as wholesalers and retailers. And they read the Independent to see what the rest of you are up to, to use, of course, if it applies.
Gordon Burgett explains the entire niche publishing process, including pretesting, in Niche Publishing: Publish Profitably Every Time (nichepublishing.org) and at his blog (blog.gordonburgett.com), where he just concluded a 12-post series describing pretesting in greater detail. To learn more: gordonburgett.com.