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.
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.