I always keep my eyes open for a book that has a good niche market. I’m seeking those books that fill an unmet need and can be sold in venues where they face little competition from similar books, or at least minimal competition. As part of our submission requirements, we ask authors to help us identify niche markets. We want to know who the market or markets are for their books. We also ask authors for their suggestions on how to reach the markets they list. Recently, by querying the author, we found a title with a great niche market. The book is Battle at Alcatraz–A Desperate Attempt to Escape the Rock, by Ernie B. Lageson, Jr.
Behind the Scenes in Prison
First, in case you’re wondering, the book is a nonfiction account of the infamous escape attempt by four Alcatraz prisoners in 1946. They managed to break into the gun gallery, arm themselves, and take several guards hostage. But on that day, by a fluke, one of the guards broke his routine and failed to return a cell block key to the key cabinet. As a result, the prisoners’ escape attempt was thwarted. So, in order to eliminate all witnesses, the prisoners shot the guards, leaving them for dead. One of the guards, the father of the author, survived the shooting and passed on the story to his son, Ernie.
Acquiring the Book
I recall the day I read the author’s proposal for Battle at Alcatraz. He followed our submission guidelines carefully, and explained that he was reasonably sure the book could be sold in the bookstore on Alcatraz Island, now part of the Golden Gate National Parks Association. The 1.5 million tourists who visit the island each year make it one of the most popular tourist attractions in California.
Voila! There it was–a seemingly ripe niche market in the island bookstore. However, I wanted to confirm what the author had told me about the book selling there. So I called the store manager and told him about the book we were considering. The manager was enthusiastic about having a new book on Alcatraz, and he assured me that they would welcome such a book. He estimated that the store could sell 2,000 to 3,000 copies a year, depending on whether the author would be willing to make appearances to sign books.
At this point, I was encouraged. And the author, now a retired attorney who lives near San Francisco, was more than willing to do his part.
We acquired the book and moved swiftly to get it into print. The author turned in a well-written manuscript along with an excellent photo section. The cover we chose features a picture of Alcatraz Island (which appeals to tourists). The 300-page trade paperback retails for $16.95.
Stacked 38 Stories High
The bookstore manager’s projections were correct. Since the book came out in early 1999, the Alcatraz bookstore has ordered nearly 3,000 copies a year. During one of the author’s last visits to the island, the bookstore manager told him, “If all the copies of your book that we’ve sold to date were piled into one stack, that stack would be the height of a 38-story building.” More good news: The parks association sends a payment for books in a timely fashion, and they have never returned a book.
The Author Makes a Difference
It’s often been said that any book, whether published by a big publisher or small one, does best when the author is actively involved in promoting it. Ernie Lageson has been a publisher’s dream. Since the book came out, he has made weekly appearances at the island bookstore. Lageson routinely autographs 60 to 90 books a day when he’s there. In fact, if the author sells only 50 copies, he thinks he’s had a bad day. Lageson hasn’t had the displeasure of having a book-signing where no one showed up. He also gives mini-tours and speaks to visitors about the history of the island; as a boy of 13, he lived in the island’s civilian housing for two years during the time his dad was a guard.
Selling Outside Traditional Bookstores
As the story of Battle at Alcatraz shows, the sky is the limit on venues where you might sell books. Our press refuses to be pulled into a pattern in which we focus only on traditional bookstore sales because we know that can be a risky game for us small publishers. We all like the idea of having our books on store shelves from coast to coast. But most of us learn rather quickly that we don’t like returns. The reality is that returns from bookstores are commonly in the range of 30% to 40%.
Of course, most of our authors are intent on having their books in bookstores across the nation. However, many do not understand that getting the books on the shelves is relatively easy (they’re bought on consignment, after all). But getting them off the shelves is the challenge. This reality is lost on most authors (and I know, I’ve been an author too) who are sure that their book will defy the odds.
This book was available in major chain bookstores, and we seem to have had some spin-off sales as a result of sales on the island; still, bookstore sales paled in comparison.
As for the libraries, we enjoyed nice sales there as a result of a strong review in Library Journal.
We were fortunate to have Battle at Alcatraz come our way. We were even more fortunate to have an author close to the island who was willing and able to contribute his time to promoting the book. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned through the years about spotting books with potential niche markets so I could notice this one and have it make a significant contribution to the success of our publishing company.
Rod Colvin founded Addicus Books, Inc., in 1994. To date, the company has published 40 titles, including a growing line of consumer health books. Colvin, a former journalist, is also the author of three nonfiction books. You’ll find the company’s Web site at http://www.addicusbooks.com.