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Affordable Market Research for Niche Publishers

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The best way to define your target market is narrowly and fully. The clearer you are about your topic and who the book is for, the easier it will be to do the selling. With the subject of gardening, for instance, you could choose any one of several intriguing directions by creating:

    • A guide for the after-work gardener
    • A children’s book for the young beginning gardener
    • A manual on gardening in your specific region of the country
    • An anthology of inspirational stories by gardeners of all ages and walks of life
    • A gardener’s cookbook
    • A book on gardening as therapy for the elderly
    • Etc., etc., etc.

Whatever focus you choose, your niche–that special corner of the market, that area of expertise and interest–must make your book and what you have to say stand out from its competition. There are lots of books on the shelves, for instance, on crafts. But if yours is specifically for busy working people who don’t have time to fashion Christmas tree decorations or Independence Day doodads (until you show them how), then that’s your niche–crafts for the constantly hectic. Similarly, a self-help guide on the power of positive thinking will have to compete with the scads of similar volumes already out there. You’ll need to discover a market niche that makes yours special. Is it positive thinking for the hopelessly pessimistic? Is it positive thinking for families to practice together? Or is it positive thinking for teachers?

Once you target your market and develop a special niche, do some research. Make sure that the market is large enough to support your publishing efforts and that you understand the people in it. There are all sorts of ways to go about this.


Send Them a Survey

One sure-fire way to ascertain the size and interest level of your target market is via direct-mail surveys. However, you won’t want to blanket the entire state of Mississippi or the San Francisco Bay area (or wherever you live) with questionnaires; this would be extremely expensive, as well as unproductive. Instead, you’ll narrow your focus to the particular potential readers you want to attract.

Let’s say your book is an alternative therapy title for people suffering from arthritis, for instance. In that case, you would send surveys to members of local, regional, and national arthritis support groups. If your book was about closing techniques for real-estate agents, you’d send your surveys to the members of various real-estate boards.

What if you belong to an association, organization, or e-mail list, and it just happens to be affiliated with your target market? Well, you’d likely have it made because of the built-in contacts. If it’s an association or organization, beg, borrow, or buy a directory from the main office. When working with an e-mail list, make sure that whatever you send won’t be considered spam.

If your market niche is relatively general, you might also start off with the members of your group or e-list. Your common bond will act as your proverbial foot in the door. If you don’t have any of these affiliations, try obtaining the roster of a church or a neighborhood association.

What should you ask? Your questions will relate to your own target market and written product. However, the sample survey below–which was designed for market research for a book on affordable housing for seniors–makes a starting point.

Sample Market Research Survey

    1. If you’re a senior citizen, what is your age?
    2. Are you living on a fixed income?
    3. Have you experienced difficulties finding affordable housing?
    4. If yes, what avenues have you explored and what were the results?
    5. Where are you living now (i.e., an apartment, house, condominium, etc.)?
    6. What do you pay for rent per month?

(a) $200 to $700 (b) $701 to $1,400 (c) $1,401 and up

  1. Is your rent subsidized by the government or another agency?
  2. Do your children or other relatives help to pay your rent?
  3. Would you be interested in a book that would guide you to find affordable housing?
  4. How much would you be willing to pay for such a book?
  5. What specific information or problems would you like to see addressed in relation to this topic?
  6. Have you read a book or pamphlet of this type in the past?
  7. If so, did you find it helpful? Why or why not?
  8. Please comment on the title Affordable Housing on a Fixed Income (love, like, dislike, or detest, and why):
  9. Please comment on the title Home Alone: Affordable Housing for Seniors (love, like, dislike, or detest, and why):

People are unlikely to return a mailed survey unless you give them an incentive. So get creative! Offer them a coupon for 10% off your book. This will provide you with a headstart on sales and also helps spread the word about your title.


Hello Central

Another way to reach potential customers is through telephone surveys. These are basically the same as direct mail or e-mail list surveys–with one important difference. Know that people don’t always react kindly to unsolicited calls because of all the telemarketers and their poorly timed appeals. Unless you’ve got thick skin, it can be difficult to make cold calls to people you don’t know in order to pick their brains.

However, if you call as a member of an organization, your call won’t seem quite as unsolicited. Say that you (or your sibling, spouse, or child) belong to the Upper Peninsula Chapter of the Antique Car Restoration Society, or the Michigan Educators Society–whatever it is.


Added Benefits

You’ll get at least a couple of secret bonuses when you use market research surveys.

For one thing, your respondents can help you create the book! After asking what specific elements they’d like to see, you’ll know some of what to include. Of course, you have to be selective. If one person out of a hundred wants to read about growing deadly nightshade in your gardening manual, you could probably safely leave that topic out. But if 95 people out of that same hundred ask for info on growing tomatoes in a shade garden, you can assume most readers will genuinely be interested in this.

Also, you can use the survey information you gather in your promotional materials later. How? With lines like “Shade Tree Gardening answers the questions America’s home gardeners are asking!” Or “Shade Tree Gardening is the book America’s home gardeners helped design!”


Statistics on Tap

Besides going directly to your prospective readers for your market research, you’ll also want cool, calculated statistics. For that book on alternative therapies, you’d want to know facts like the number of arthritis sufferers in the U.S. For a regional title on coastal home design, you may need to know how many people build second homes on the Florida Gulf Coast.

Answers to such questions will help you determine just how many prospective readers you can expect. You need to judge whether that number is large enough for the project to be lucrative. Where do you get all this statistical stuff? Try the following sources.


Library Look-Up

Ask your local reference librarian–a person well worth making friends with! Explain what you need to know and why (examples: how many florists, bed-and-breakfast inns, or adults with Alzheimer’s in the United States). A good librarian will steer you to lots of demographic statistics; more facts and figures than you might imagine could possibly exist.


Get on the Net

You’ll find the answers to all sorts of fascinating questions on the Internet. For starters, check in with the U.S. Department of Commerce (www.doc.gov) and the U.S. Census Bureau (www.census.gov). You can zero in on the stats from all those millennium census surveys. Or click on any number of general and specialized search engines–from Yahoo to Google to InfoJump–and get the scoop from millions of articles, publications, and websites that relate to your area of interest.


Try the Target

Sometimes the best place to go for info on a target market is the market itself. If your market is crafters, for instance, you could contact the National Craft Association and the Association of Crafts and Creative Industries for counts of their members. Or, to find out the number of dog breeders, you’d talk to the folks at state and regional breeding societies.


Check Out the Competition

While you’re doing your market research, don’t forget to check out what sort of competition your book will face. Specifically, you want to look at these key questions:

  • How many books are already out there on this subject?
  • What are their strengths and weaknesses compared with the book you’re planning to do?
  • What will set your book apart from the crowd?

This part of your market research is fun. It entails spending lots of time at bookstores. Libraries aren’t the best places because most of their volumes will be several–or several dozen–years old. So start perusing the shelves of the bookstores. Look at any book that could conceivably match yours and see how it stacks up in terms of the key questions above. You’ll want to know what other publishers’ market research has shown to be viable in bookstores today. Also watch for clues about what readers will be seeing in the future that could compete with your book.

The fact that there are no books like yours on the shelves can be a plus–or a minus. If you find a dozen titles on financial investments, that doesn’t necessarily mean the market is saturated. It could just mean that people are eager readers on that topic. If you can’t find even one volume about cockroach farming, that’s probably a valuable clue. Perhaps there’s no viable audience for the subject or that market has yet to be tapped.


This article is adapted from Entrepreneur magazine’s Startup series book, “Start Your Own Self-Publishing Business” by Terry and Rob Adams. The book is available at all major bookstores and online retailers. For more info, visit www.smallbizbooks.com.

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