Tag Archives: niche publishing

3 Big Takeaways from Book Expo America 2013 for Independent Publishers

At the big book convention in New York, we saw old friends and made new ones against the backdrop of one of publishing’s biggest powwows. I also observed some very exciting things happening for the indie publishing community.

There were many more indie presses in attendance than has been the case for the last four years or so. At the IPG booth we had conversations with dozens of very promising publishers who have quite extensive and impressive publication lists. It is clear that an improving economy has brought forward a surge of entrepreneurial energy in the book business. The future is going to be a lot of fun.

The hall was alive with e-book and e-commerce solutions and propositions that are really beginning to make sense. The geeks now know enough about the actual business of books to go after some real problems and opportunities. For instance, a startup called Zola Books has developed a user-friendly way to deal with the issue of “showrooming”—the term we use to describe what happens when a customer at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore looks over the titles on display and then orders a print or e-book copy from a web retailer, often for a lower price. Zola Books gives a bookseller a well-earned piece of the action for its part in making such sales.

It is now clear that the e-book market will not be dominated by just a few huge web retailers. We were approached by 15 new ventures at the show, all offering very favorable terms for publishers and proposing innovative marketing strategies that could really work. By the end of this month, IPG’s e-books will be available through about 75 web retailers, and it’s great to see that many of the smaller ones are growing quickly. This means there will be plenty of healthy competition, no matter what the Department of Justice thinks have been the sins of the past.

These developments add up to a lot of promising opportunities for independent publishers.

IPG at BEA 2013

IPG at BEA 2013

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Vivian Maier & Independent Publishing

Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows | CityFiles PressTwo seemingly disparate parts of your life can sometimes collide with a bang. I have worked in the independent publishing business forever. A decade into that career, my wife and I employed a nanny named Vivian Maier to help raise our kids. Years later, Vivian (sadly, only after her death) has burst into prominence as a street photographer of genius, and a book of her startlingly evocative images, Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, has been published by CityFiles Press, one of IPG’s client indie presses. Her work is appearing in shows all around the world. In a recent starred review, Library Journal said:

[The authors] show that Vivian Maier was a great artist—not simply “the nanny photographer,” as some have called her. VERDICT This book will be greatly appreciated by anyone interested in art photography, 20th-century art, and American cultural history. Highly recommended.

Of course, people have been asking me what she was like as a person and what it was like to employ a genius nanny. Well, she was no Mary Poppins, if what you have in mind is Julie Andrews in the 1964 Disney movie. But she was a lot like the original character in P.L. Travers’s 1934 novel: eccentric, opinionated, peppery. When she came to work for my family in 1982, our kids were eight years, six years, and five months old. She was businesslike and usually competent, but our children knew she was much more interested in taking photographs than she was in them. She never took them for a walk without her Rollei twin-lens reflex camera hanging around her neck (during her life she took over 100,000 pictures). My Source: lens.blogs.nytimes.com: Vivian Maier Jeffrey Goldstein Collectionkids don’t remember her with any special affection, and I am afraid it is true that one time she wandered off somewhere during a walk and the kids had to get home by themselves.

Her terrific photographs of children shed light on her complicated attitude toward them. Some of her images show bright-eyed, confident-looking children, but something about the photo tells you that such confidence cannot last. More often, her images show anxious children in situations that look uncomfortable or dangerous. There is a fabulous shot of a woman standing outdoors behind a table; it takes a couple of beats before you notice the sad child sitting in the shadow under the table. Children made her uneasy. She was not afraid of them but she was certainly afraid for them—afraid for their safety, their chances for happiness in what she saw as a difficult and disappointing world. I think she wanted to stop time with her camera to keep them safe.

At one point, impressed with her intense picture taking, I asked Vivian to let me see some of her work. The half dozen prints she showed me were terrific. I asked her why in the world she had not made a career out of photography.Source: Vivian Maier, courtesy Jeffrey Goldstein Collection Vivian Maier, Highland Park, Ill. 1965. She knew of course that she was a gifted artist—the geniuses know who they are—but she could not get past her deep paranoia. She told me that if she had not kept her images secret, people would have stolen or misused them. In our age of flagrant internet exhibitionism, her reluctance now seems quite strange…and honorable. As a result of that secrecy, the world might never have seen Vivian’s incredible works—were it not for the sharp eye and dedication of one small independent publisher.

CityFiles Press is almost as sui generis as Vivian was. The two gentlemen who run the press have been honing an uncompromising aesthetic appreciation of cityscapes and urban architecture for many years. They write and produce all of the books they publish—so far five beautiful titles. What a fine thing it is that the work of this highly idiosyncratic street photographer was discovered by people so well equipped to grasp and document her unique contribution. This is indie publishing at its best.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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What Does the Random House/Penguin Merger Mean for Independent Presses?

Of course it is early to speculate about the effects of this merger, but if we think about it as the latest step in a process that has been moving forward for the last decade or so, it will not seem very surprising.

A place to start is with the lead sentence in last week’s article in the New York Times:

The book publishing industry is starting to get smaller in order to get stronger.

This is the sort of press coverage that drives indie presses crazy. It perpetuates the utterly false notion that the Big Six publishers are all that counts in the book business. In fact, they account for only about 50% of bookstore sales. I think many assume their share is much larger.

If we accept the spurious notion that the Big Six publishers and the “book publishing industry” are the same thing, then it is true that the book publishing industry is “starting to get smaller;”  actually has been getting smaller for years. Unit sales for the Big Six as reported in point-of-sale data are 23% less now than they were in 2007; these numbers actually understate the decline, because the number and kinds of stores included in the point-of sale data have increased over time.

However, the sales of all the other publishers captured in the point-of-sale data have only declined 18% compared to 2007, or 5% less than the Big Six publishers’ sales have fallen. This, of course, means that the market share of the “others,” the non-Big Six publishers, has increased. But how about unit sales in absolute terms? Indie presses depend more on sales made outside of the book trade than big publishers do, and these sales, which go mostly unaccounted for in the available point-of-sale data, have grown much faster than sales inside the regular book trade. Gift stores, museum shops, and specialty stores in general are natural customers for the niche titles independent publishers mostly produce.

Such sales are very hard to track on a national basis, but at IPG, we have seen dramatic increases in sales to such non-standard book trade customers—in actuality, much greater increases than in the regular book trade. So it may be that sales of indie publishers have increased, not just in terms of market share, but also in terms of total units sold.

There are multiple reasons to explain the growth of the indies, but a main one is that the big houses can no longer make a financial success of midlist titles. Their overheads are too high to even think of publishing a book that might only sell 3-5,000 copies—but such titles are the bread and butter of small and medium sized houses, and book buyers, who really want special interest and niche titles. So much so that the number of publishable niches is proliferating right along with the explosion of interest groups we see reflected on the internet.

The Random House/Penguin merger is just the first step in the consolidation of the Big Six and I think that their share of the market will continue to decline. Of course “the suits” say otherwise. According to the New York Times article, one spokesperson stated:

The merger would not result in closing redundant imprints and less editorial independence. The idea of this company is to combine the small company culture and the small company feeling on the creative and content side with the richest and most enhanced access to services on the corporate side.

Right—except every one of the things that will not happen will happen, quickly, right after the merger is completed. Heads and imprints will roll right and left.

Indie publishers do not have to pretend they have a “small company culture” or “editorial independence.” They come by these desirable traits naturally. As the room at the top contracts, there will be more room in more markets for us.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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The 10th Habit of Successful Independent Publishers

“They have special access to the information needed to make their books content-rich—years of personal involvement in a subject area, a close relation to a special-interest publication, a means of identifying individuals especially qualified to write books for a particular niche—some special advantage or edge.”

In the last post about what makes a good publishing niche, I cited the example of The Piano Book, a very big, long-term publishing success, and noted that the author/publisher was one of the best known piano technicians in the country. He surely had, and has, special access to information about pianos, and this special access means that the content of his book is very strong and that he has contacts in the piano world that have helped him market to his niche.

A very different example of special access is Aviation Supplies & Academics, Inc., a company which for many years has published books for professional and amateur airplane pilots. Pilots need to master oceans of arcane technical information and must keep their various certifications up to date. This amounts to a solid and almost unassailable base for a niche publisher, and Aviation Supplies has made the most of it. Another publisher of this sort is the American Academy of Pediatrics. Needless to say, their child-rearing titles are taken very seriously, are widely reviewed, and sell very well.

But most new independent publishers do not have the benefit of access to deep systematic knowledge gathered over many years. A much more typical indie press success story is that of Amherst Media, Inc. A couple of decades ago a young author/publisher/photographer turned up at IPG with a well-written—albeit not yet polished—introductory title about how to use a 45 mm film camera, the hot new thing in photography at the time. What was his special edge? He had a good business going wholesaling photography books to camera stores. He knew what was available and what sold well. Hundreds of titles later, Amherst Media is the dominant publisher of how-to books for photographers, and of course, his company was fast and flexible enough to catch the digital camera revolution on the first hop.

If you are not big, at least you can be fast.

How about fiction? Do you need to be a critic to publish it? Or an author? You don’t need such credentials to publish genre fiction. Tachyon Publications, a very highly regarded publisher of science fiction titles, came out of an early and deep appreciation for literature of this kind. The publisher has simply read everything in this genre, knows the authors and their publishing histories, and has for many years attended the conferences and interacted with the groups that support science fiction and fantasy writing. Science fiction aficionados support their habit with an intensity that is unique in the world of books. A publisher who earns their trust can have solid success.

The really tough nut for independent publishers to crack is literary fiction. For the most part the presses that can stay alive with literary fiction (poetry too) do so with the help of foundation grants. If they can cover 60% of their costs with book sales, they feel they are doing very well. Early in my career the Japan Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts each supported one of my titles. This publishing model did not turn out to be my cup of tea: I spent much more time applying for the grants and creating the follow-up paperwork than I spent publishing the books. But I am full or admiration for the indie publishers who have the patience to do this hard and valuable work.

So, special access to many different kinds of knowledge can serve as the foundation for a successful indie publishing program: real information about an industry, a subject area, a genre, will suffice, but indie publishers really must know what they are doing in some particular niche or niches. They must publish books that build a bridge between some area of expertise they have mastered and the audience that wants that expertise. An abstract desire to be a publisher, however, without such specialized knowledge is unlikely to lead to a successful career in the independent book business.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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Finding Your Publishing Niche

I defined the attributes of a good publishing niche in part one of this post. In this second part I am going to explore the idea of the “pseudo-niche,” the publishing possibility 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. I will also discuss some examples of how new niches can be discovered.

We all know that it would be suicidal for an indie press to publish another book on French Cooking; 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 does not necessarily offer anything like the pre-existing, structured, and engaged niche audience needed to support a successful indie title.

That said, dividing a strong category into ever finer sub-categories 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 is to combine 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 the idea of doing good with the notion of taking a vacation? On the 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 over 150,000 copies. The difference between the Romantic Bird Watching concept and Volunteer Vacations is that there really are wonderful do-good vacation opportunities: building nature trails for the Sierra Club 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 of course ferociously competitive, but it is possible to carve out niches within that market. Twenty years or so ago Chicago Review Press started a series of activity books for kids based on the idea that kids are smarter than the education establishment thinks they are. Many educators and parents think that children should never encounter an unfamiliar word or concept in a book. Our notion was that a child 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 and older with titles such as 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 within 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
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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What’s in a Niche?

In a previous post, I cited the second habit of successful independent publishers as: “They focus on a niche, but they are always looking for new, or better yet, related ones, because they know that the half-life of a particular niche may only be about 2.5 years or less.” To begin at the beginning though, what exactly is a publishing niche?

A negative definition, even if it 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 not interested in titles where the likely sale might be less than 15,000 copies, or even 25,000 now. 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 a sale of only 5,000 copies, 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, fall into this gap. A negative definition thus becomes much more positive when it comes to independent publishing.

A directly positive definition of a publishing niche has two basic characteristics. The first part is that the niche includes a big enough group of potential buyers with a strong, already established interest in the topic of your title. The “strong, already established interest” is critical because it means the job of the independent publisher is simply 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 to have an audience. This much more difficult job should be left to publishers with large publicity budgets.

The second essential characteristic of a good niche is that these already interested buyers can be reached accurately and inexpensively. Actually, 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 or Twitter action—i.e., means through which group awareness is created. This kind of structure can be tapped into quite efficiently and at little cost.

A title which perfectly demonstrates the two characteristics of a strong niche is The Piano Book: Buying & Owning a New or Used Piano. First published about 25 years ago and distributed from the start by IPG, this title has sold between three and six thousand 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 together 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 he has resisted the temptation to raise the price to an unreasonable level. This book has filled its niche so completely that no competitor has dared to take it on.

Moreover, this niche publisher has found a way to expand his niche. Piano buyers want current information about the prices of new and used pianos. These prices are volatile, so a yearly price guide supplement is very welcome in the market. And of course, the eBook format is perfect for this supplement.

The second part of this post will discuss pseudo-niches and other marketing traps for unwary independent presses.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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