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What’s In a Niche?

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by Curt Matthews, IPG/Chicago Review Press

Photo of Curt Matthews

Curt Matthews

Of course we all know now that as independent publishers we should exploit niches and practice niche marketing of our books. But what exactly is a niche, and how can you tell a good niche from a bad one?

A useful place to start is with a negative definition. A niche is a potential market or audience that is not big enough to attract the interest of a large publisher. Large publishers, because of their high overheads, are not interested in publishing titles where a sale of less than 15,000 copies (and this number seems to be on its way to 25,000 copies) cannot be confidently projected.

For most independent presses, a sale of 5,000 copies can be a reasonable proposition. This gap between 5,000 and 15,000 copies leaves us with a world of potential titles that we can publish profitably. It also, in my opinion, includes an increasing share of books that are worth publishing from any point of view, no matter how elevated.

A negative definition of a niche, however, just identifies areas that an independent press might want to avoid. A positive definition is needed to identify opportunities especially suited to our capacities. A good positive definition of a niche, I think, has two essential parts. The first part is that there is a large enough (but not too large or the big publishers will jump in) group of potential buyers with a strong, already established interest in the topic of the book.

The “strong, already established interest” is crucial because it means that our job as publishers is simply to inform these already interested buyers that a book intended for them exists, rather than convincing uninterested buyers that they should be interested — a much more difficult job best left to publishers with large publicity budgets.

The second part is that these already interested buyers can be identified and reached accurately and inexpensively. Actually these two parts are closely related. A niche market that is ready for a book will almost certainly already have evolved some structure — a newsletter or two; an association, club, or society; a small magazine, chat group, or website — that gives easy marketing access to the target audience.

An example of a virtually perfect niche book is The Piano Book: Buying & Owning a New or Used Piano. First published ten years ago, it has sold 4-6,000 copies through the book trade, and a similar number outside the book trade, every year. The potential audience, while not huge, is highly motivated (pianos are expensive) and self-replenishing. And this audience can be reached efficiently through numerous specialized music publications and organizations. Many copies are sold through the publisher/author’s website because piano manufacturers, tuners, and technicians have their own websites and are happy to link up with the author’s page.

How nichey can a good niche be? Consider Collecting Pez, a history of the candy that comes in those little plastic dispensers. The book also includes a price guide on the collectable dispensers themselves. Collecting Pez is 344 pages and sells for $39.95 in paperback. In the year since its publication, it has sold almost 2,000 copies through the trade and over 3,000 direct to consumers. I would never buy this book and have never in my life met anybody who would. The publisher, however, knew that there was a ripple of interest in Pez memorabilia and enough buyers ready to part with $39.95 to support a book. I believe that for every book that fails because its niche is too narrow, hundreds fail because the target market is too broad.

The Piano book and the Pez book have their niches to themselves and will probably continue to enjoy this enviable status. They are very well-done, and they offer as much or more information on their topics as could conceivably be needed.

Sometimes, however, it is necessary to defend a niche. For example, in 1987 my company published Volunteer Vacations, which is a guide to programs offered by various worthy organizations (they were happy to help us publicize the book) that allow participants to have a good time while doing short-term, socially valuable “vacation” projects. The season after publication, we had two competitors. Our response to this competition was to publish a new edition with many more pages but at the same price. The book is now in its fifth edition, has almost 500 pages, and once again has its niche to itself. (Yes, the price went up a bit when the competition disappeared, but that’s the American Way.)

Then there are what I consider to be pseudo-niches. These offer a potential audience of the right size, but they lack the structure of a true niche. We all know that it would probably be suicidal to publish another book on French Cooking, or even Northern French Cooking, or perhaps even Northern French Fish Cooking. But how about Low-Fat Northern French Fish Cooking? Dividing a strong category into ever finer subcategories is a time-honored strategy and often works for independent presses, but such subcategories do not provide the marketing opportunities of the true niche.

Another strategy that sometimes works is to combine two strong and heavily exploited categories into one, thus creating a fresh niche. Let’s imagine the Low-Fat Angel Cookbook. The trouble here (actually there may be a number of problems with this book idea) is that the low-fat market and the angel market are both very diffuse and unstructured. The pseudo-niche we have created will not offer the targeted, inexpensive marketing possibilities of a true niche.

And, finally, when publishing any type of book, you must ask yourself, “Where would a bookstore shelve this title?”

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