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The Allure of Niche Markets

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by Linda Carlson, IBPA Independent Staff Reporter —

Photo of Linda Carlson

Linda Carlson

Exploring the Perks of Targeting Specific Subsegments

Many of us publish titles that are of general interest. They’re the books that can be expected to have a broad audience, and they often sell well in neighborhood bookstores and chain booksellers. Other titles are written for a narrowly defined audience, and may sell best in specialty stores, through online catalogers, and at author events. A niche can represent any subset of the market, such as parents of preschoolers, Vietnam veterans, ethnic and regional history buffs, or those who suffer from a certain chronic medical condition. A niche can even be as specific as the author’s college alumni association.

In this article, we’ll look at niche markets and how publishers can reach them, either with titles originally created for a general audience, or for titles written to address specific needs. These niche markets are important for at least four reasons:

  • They increase the potential for book sales
  • They can generate continuing sales for backlist titles
  • Many niche customers buy on a nonreturnable basis
  • Some customers buy at cover price, and others may require only modest discounts

Almost every title has more than one market. A children’s picture book might be launched for the general market, and then promoted for “character education” to such secondary markets as school-supplies retailers and special-needs advocacy organizations. A stress-reduction how-to title can be marketed to those high-burnout professions such as pediatric intensive care and to caregivers for those with dementia; one IBPA author promotes her tension-busting guide in airport gift shops, for those apprehensive about flying. Even thrillers intended for the mass market can be promoted to such niche audiences as the geographic area of a novel’s setting and the media, libraries, and retailers in the author’s hometown.

In many cases, a publisher and author will identify the secondary, or niche markets, when a manuscript is being edited and designed, to ensure that the finished product meets the needs of buyers in specialty markets. For example, a picture book will be easier to sell into the school market if there’s a teacher guide available and if the publisher spells out how both the book and the teacher guide activities are aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Of course, for many titles, the niche market is the primary market. Sandra Assimotos McElwee, a self-publisher based out of Orange County, California, has three titles for the families, educators, and caregivers of those with Down syndrome. Susan Grant, owner of BellaVista Publishing in Port Ludlow, Washington, writes for throat-cancer patients, as well as their caregivers and health care professionals. Robert Neurath’s New York City-based Neurath Publishing has two titles on Jewish history. Atlanta’s Chris Lambrecht of Living Among Friends targets baby boomers. Paul C. Steffy is a Sedona, Arizona-based self-publisher trying to promote his latest novel to Vietnam veterans.

Tailoring your Promotional Strategy

Usually, it’s book promotion that publishers focus on when they try to reach audiences, and it can be a monumental task for such reasons as:

  • The very competitive marketplace, with hundreds of thousands of new titles vying for attention
  • The cost of promotion (in labor or dollars or both)
  • How fragmented some markets are
  • The intended audience may not buy books

Neurath is one of the small presses marketing on a budget. He promoted his first title, Bratislava Pressburg Pozsony: Jewish Secular Endeavors (1867-1938), with advertisements in the New York Review of Books and the Jewish Review of Books. Given the cost—several thousand dollars—that’s not affordable for his second, Newcomers’ Accomplishments: Jewish Immigrants from Upper Hungary/Slovakia (1806-1953), but Neurath did pay to have the title exhibited at the Frankfurt Book Fair last fall, and he’s sent 70 review copies to museums.

Although making personal connections with prospective reviewers and customers is recommended as an important promotional strategy, Neurath and McElwee are among those who warn that it’s labor-intensive and feedback is often limited or delayed. Contacting museums in Europe for his first title was a huge job, Neurath reports. McElwee used the National Down Syndrome Society’s list of affiliates to offer her books as fundraisers. “I received one offer for a speaking engagement and a few ‘thank-you’ emails. I was certain this email campaign had limited success until a conference last summer where four different affiliate presidents approached me to say they were providing one of my titles in all of their new parent baskets! And several others had ordered all three of my titles for their lending library.”

Ohio State University junior Megan Holstein, the author/publisher of Idea to App, poured hours into a blog, but says hers had little value in selling her introduction to apps. “The blog didn’t target the right people. Absolute beginners aren’t browsing the syndicated blogs.” People who did read the blog appeared to enjoy her posts, but didn’t desire the more detailed information in her book. Another issue: app novices didn’t recognize the need for what she was selling: “They don’t know enough to know that there is any refining of the apps that should be done.”

But Holstein believes that once an appropriate market is targeted, patience is important. “If your product is good, time is on your side.”

That’s certainly been the case at Seattle’s Parenting Press, where several titles intended for a general audience have found new success in such specialty markets as school bilingual instructors and special-needs catalogers, even more than a decade after launch. Publisher Carolyn Threadgill attributes much of the renewed interest in a 2004 publication, the Self-Calming Cards, a card deck in both Spanish and English, to sales efforts by a new distributor, IPG, the second-largest distributor of Spanish-language materials in the United States A picture book published in 2000, The Way I Feel, has always sold well in general interest bookstores, and it continues to be the company’s most popular title due in part to sales to autism programs.

Maintaining a Marketing Mindset

Parenting books are among the titles that often have both general and niche markets. Some titles, however, have narrowly defined audiences, such as Alina Adams’s how-to guide, Getting Into NYC Kindergarten. It has one primary market: the parents of New York City preschool-age children, for whom the kindergarten search and admissions process can take 18 months. Published as an e-book so that it’s easy to update, the book has no distribution in bookstores, toy stores, or baby boutiques; self-publisher Adams promotes the guide primarily with free presentations at preschools and to parent groups, sometimes as many as three a week. She arranges the presentations by cold-calling contacts she’s found through her own research. “I also partner with Bright Kids, a company that prepares four-year-olds for the private school admissions exams; its staff invited me to join it at some of the company’s in-school presentations.” Adams estimates that a third of her workshop attendees have bought copies since publication in April 2015.

While publishers usually assume much of the responsibility of book marketing—regardless of the audience—authors must help identify niche markets, reminds Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of The Frugal Book Promoter and publisher at HowToDoItFrugally Publishing in Glendale, California. The concept of target marketing may not be new to nonfiction authors, she says, “but it’s often neglected by fiction writers, especially when it comes to anything beyond their genre—which isn’t a niche at all.” Authors need to re-read their finished manuscripts with marketing in mind, Howard-Johnson recommends. One idea that several IBPA members have suggested: market fiction in the communities where the story is set, or to the professional or business community mentioned. In Seattle, where Mary Daheim’s bed-and-breakfast mystery series is set, members of the Seattle Bed and Breakfast Association often receive copies of Daheim’s latest novel. Minneapolis writer David Lebedoff is promoting his thriller Buzz to media and retailers in the northern Minnesota counties where the novel is set.

When a niche market is defined, it’s important to understand how that market wants to obtain the kind of information that’s in your book. Even more important: is that niche truly a market? An author and publisher may perceive that people in a niche need a certain title, but as Megan Holstein discovered, those people may not get their information from books, and if they do, they may read library copies or buy used books.

Identifying Prospects and Decision Makers

A related challenge is determining which institutions and agencies buy books for their clients, patients, and patrons. Public libraries are an obvious market; in the United States, they spend an estimated $1.3 billion annually on books alone. School libraries, hospital resource centers, academic libraries, corporate libraries, college placement centers, employment counseling offices, and the parent bookshelves in preschools are other examples of potential library customers. When I published job-search guides, I had several customers who purchased copies for those they served: executive search firms, church job-search programs, the state unemployment offices, and the human resources offices of corporations and a military base that were closing locations.

Identifying possible special markets can be done with the help of authors, interns, and even with surveys of those who receive advance reading copies (ARCs). Many publishers ask aspiring authors to submit questionnaires with their proposals, and these questionnaires often call for a list of professional and trade associations and other groups through which the proposed title could be marketed. Interns can research special-interest blogs and periodicals. When ARCs are sent out, publishers also include a questionnaire regarding who the reader believes the book will be of interest to.

When publishers focus on a niche market, they also must determine how the purchase decision is made: by the user or by an administrator? At Judson Press in Valley Force, Pennsylvania, where titles are as specialized as The Pastoral Caregiver’s Casebook, marketing director Linda Johnson-LeBlanc contacts church administrative assistants because she knows they often determine what book publicity is forwarded to pastors. If you’re targeting large library systems, it’s important to know whether branch personnel can influence purchases, or whether all decisions are made on the basis of reviews in national library publications. Obtaining this information can be as simple as checking a prospect’s website for its purchasing guidelines or telephoning the prospect and asking how purchases are made. (At least at libraries, few author/publishers make this effort: the latest Library Journal report of e-book usage shows that librarians are almost never approached by patrons who have self-published a book and want the library to buy a copy.)

There are a few short cuts. Ideally a publisher and author have customer lists or opt-in lists with high response rates or thousands of followers who respond—rather than simply read—social media posts. At the International Space Business Council in Bethesda, Maryland, Scott Sacknoff mailed postcards to 3,500 previous customers, and immediately generated twice the mailing’s cost in profit from pre-sales of Quest: The History of Spaceflight. Alina Adams, before publishing her kindergarten guide, attracted 6,000 followers to the Twitter account for her Figure Skating Mystery series when she arranged for champion figure skater Dick Buttons to tweet about the Sochi Olympics for her feed.

Sometimes a publisher acquires a recently updated prospect list from a firm that serves an almost identical market. MaryAnn Kohl of Bellingham, Washinton’s Bright Ring Publishing, contributes to blogs on children’s art, especially those read by preschool and primary grade teachers. And she sends an email newsletter each month that’s packed with art activity ideas. In business since 1985, she has more than two million copies of her books in print. At Passporter Press, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the focus is Disney theme parks and cruises, Dave and Jennifer Marx have built their message board community to 70,000 members, their e-newsletter subscription list to 50,000, and they now have 10,000 subscribers to the weekly podcasts initiated in 2010.

The publisher or author without a niche-specific contact database must build one. “There are no marketing directories available for this. Not if you want to do it right,” insists Tom Morkes of Insurgent Publishing in Castle Pines, Colorado.

Existing lists do provide a good start. As discussed in the article, “How to Use Associations for Book Marketing and Sales,” in the September 2014 issue of Independent, use regional newspaper and broadcast station association member directories to determine which media to contact in an author’s original and current home towns, and the communities mentioned in a book. Local blogs and such special-interest media as parenting, LGBTQ, and religious magazines—both regional and national—are easy to find, too. Some publishers have had terrific results from contacting a tiny media subset, the syndicated advice columnists: when Naperville Illinois-based Sourcebooks’s The Complete Dream Book was recommended in the “Ask Amy” column, sales for this backlist title quintupled the next week. And follow the example of publishers like Sandra Assimotos McElwee, who used the National Down Syndrome Society contacts for her initial marketing, and Susan Grant, who works with the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance for contacts to promote her book, A Caregiver’s Guide to Throat Cancer.

Mine Media Contacts

Large-circulation publications and major broadcast programs review few titles, and seldom any from small presses, so special-interest media can be a good option for publicity. Check the websites of appropriate professional association chapters for newsletter editors who might review a title or interview the author. A quick online search will bring up contacts for the author’s college, sorority, fraternity, and graduate school alumni association newsletters, websites, and the chapters in the author’s hometown. And both publisher and author can identify and join appropriate LinkedIn and Facebook groups.

What’s more challenging is the research to find blogs and online publications that both reach a desirable audience and will review the title, interview the author, or publish something written by (or ghostwritten for) the author. After identifying audiences that are actively discussing your topic, evaluate the tone of the publication. At Parenting Press, a student intern used an online directory of blogs to find those that discussed parenting, and then checked each one for the quality of the content, eliminating those with obscenity-laced rants or a focus on giveaways. Ray Bard, whose Austin-based Bard Press is launching Fired UP Selling: Awesome Success Quotes to Inspire, Energize, Win! this year, combined the contact list he’s been building for the last couple of years with Top Sales World’s list of 50 important sales blogs.

Potential Payoff

Niche markets work especially well for titles that are not inventoried by retailers because of topic, format, or price. Austin, Texas-based Octane Press’s Red Tractors 1958-2013, a history of International Harvester and Case IH tractor models, now has more than 20,000 copies in print in three editions priced between $50 and $400. David Fried, an Austin self-publisher, has sold more than 1,100 copies of his two gay romance novels after his performances at Renaissance fairs. At 28 and 40 pages, they’re too slim for a title on the spine, so bookstores are unlikely to carry them. In San Diego, California, DawnSign—founded in 1979 to serve the deaf and hearing impaired—has all of its orginal titles still in print, many of them selling direct to university-level bookstores, school districts, libraries, and deaf service organizations.

Although selling books through such traditional channels as independent and chain bookstores and the major online retailers sounds easier than identifying and pitching to niche customers, developing specialty markets can pay off for years for publishers—in sales volume of both front and backlist titles and in profit per copy sold.

Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes from Seattle, where she works with small businesses on marketing. Besides the job-search guides she self-published for a dozen years, she has been published by University of Washington Press, John Wiley, Harvard Business School, and Prentice Hall. Her series on publishing and printing terms that appeared in the Independent between September 2012 and November 2013 served as the basis for IBPA’s new publication, The Language of Publishing: An A-to-Z Glossary of Book Publishing Terms.

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