and New Niches
by Curt Matthews
To begin at the beginning, what exactly is a publishing niche?
It is one of the “20 Habits of Successful Independent Publishers” (as mentioned in my article with that title, available via ibpa-online.org), and defining it negatively, even if that is not flattering to the ambitions of independent publishers, will be helpful here.
A niche is a potential market or audience not big enough to attract the attention of a large publisher. Because of their high overheads, large publishers are usually not interested in titles whose likely sales might be less than 15,000 copies, or even 25,000. Titles that do not achieve these numbers will be failures for large publishers.
Independent presses, on the other hand, can come out on top with sales of only 5,000 copies (or less when the audience is tightly targeted and will pay a hefty price), so long as the author advance is low, the production costs are reasonable, and the print run is correct. This gap between 5,000 and 15,000 copies leaves independent publishers with a world of potential titles that can be published profitably. In my opinion, a great many of the highest-quality titles, however you want to define quality, are found in this gap. A negative definition thus becomes more nearly positive when it comes to independent publishing.
A directly positive definition of a publishing niche credits it with two basic characteristics.
1. A niche has a big enough group of potential buyers with a strong, already established interest in its topic. The “strong, already established interest” is critical because it means the job of the independent publisher is to inform these already interested buyers that a book intended for them exists. It is far harder, and much more expensive, to convince buyers that they should be interested in a book that doesn’t seem intended for anybody in particular. This much more difficult job should be left to publishers with large publicity budgets.
2. The already interested buyers can be reached accurately and inexpensively.
These two parts are closely related. A niche that is ready for a book will have evolved some structure—an association or club, blogs, chat groups, specialized Websites, Facebook and Twitter action—through which group awareness is created. This is the kind of structure publishers can tap into quite efficiently and at little cost.
A title that perfectly demonstrates the two characteristics of a strong niche is The Piano Book: Buying and Owning a New or Used Piano. First published about 25 years ago and distributed from the start by IPG, this book has sold between 3,000 and 6,000 copies every year and continues to do so. The potential audience, while not large, is highly motivated (pianos are expensive) and self-replenishing. And piano owners or potential owners are networked though music teachers, piano dealers, technicians, and many other kinds of groups, most of which have some sort of presence on the Internet.
Note, however, that good niches have to be defended. The Piano Book had the initial advantage of being written by one of the best piano technicians in the country, but the author/publisher has also kept the book current through multiple editions, and resisted the temptation to raise the price to an unreasonable level. In short, this book has filled its niche so completely that no competitor has dared to take it on.
Moreover, this niche publisher found a way to expand his niche with a yearly price guide supplement. Piano buyers want current information about the prices of new and used pianos. These prices are volatile, so the supplement is very welcome in the market. And of course, the e-book format is perfect for it.
But beware. Pseudoniches and other marketing traps lie in wait for unwary independent presses.
The pseudoniche is one that might look like a winner for an independent publisher but will probably not support good sales because it does not offer the advantages of a true niche.
We all know that it would be suicidal for an indie press to publish another French cooking title. But how about a book on Northern French cooking? Or Northern French fish cooking? Isn’t that a “niche-y” enough subject to be unattractive to a big publisher but still wide enough to provide a viable market for a small one? Perhaps the subject is still too broad. How about “Low-Fat Northern French Fish Cooking”?
The trouble with this line of thought is that it conflates the complicated idea of a true niche with the way-too-simple notion of mere narrowness. A big subject sliced finer and finer might keep the big houses away, but it will not necessarily offer anything like the preexisting, structured, and engaged niche audience needed to support a successful indie title.
That said, dividing a strong category into ever finer subcategories is a time-honored and often effective strategy for independent publishers. Part of the trouble with the French cooking example above is that French cooking as a category has lost most of its sizzle. There surely was a time when very fine subdivisions of French cooking made viable titles for small presses. That time is over.
Here, however, is a current example of the slice-it-very-fine strategy that does work. Chicago Review Press has done well with a series of titles devoted to very specific kinds of movies. The newest one, The Slasher Movie Book, is selling even better than expected.
Another tricky strategy that sometimes works entails combining two strong but seemingly unrelated subject areas into one, thus creating a new and theoretically very powerful niche. Suppose we were to combine the ever-popular subject of romance with the ubiquitous hobby of bird watching. Let’s call it Romantic Bird Watching. Could this be made to fly? Maybe not.
But how about combining doing good with taking a vacation? On its face, this is not an easy pairing. Isn’t doing good the last thing you want to have on your mind when you’re on vacation? However, Chicago Review Press’s title Volunteer Vacations is in its 11th edition and has sold more than 150,000 copies.
The difference between the romantic bird watching concept and the volunteer vacations concept is that wonderful do-good vacation opportunities exist (think building nature trails for the Sierra Club, excavating dinosaur fossils, helping Haitians rebuild their homes, and so on). As for birder romance . . .
Then there is the strategy of taking an established subject area up-market. The market for children’s books is ferociously competitive, of course, but publishers can carve out profitable niches within that market. Twenty years or so ago, Chicago Review Press started a series of activity books based on the idea that kids are smarter than the education establishment thinks they are. Many educators and parents believe that children should never encounter an unfamiliar word or concept in a book. Our notion was that children should always encounter unfamiliar words and concepts in the books they read.
Out of this up-market niche have come dozens of successful books for children nine years old and older, including Frank Lloyd Wright for Kids, The Civil Rights Movement for Kids, World War II for Kids, and, just out, Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids. The content in these titles presents refreshing challenges to underestimated youngsters eager to understand the world at large around them, and breaks from the typical mold of children’s books.
Finally, publishers may want to consider the concept of the down-market niche. The wild success of Fifty Shades of Grey may indicate that erotica is now just a down-market niche within the category of fiction. Indie publishers, however, should probably leave this new niche alone. The big houses are already all over it.
Curt Matthews is CEO of Independent Publishers Group, which was the first independent press distributor and is now the second largest, and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of both Chicago Review Press and IPG. He has served as a member of the IBPA board and as its president, and he blogs at gonepublishing.wordpress.com.