Is Niche the Key to Publishing Survival?

Marian SchembariBy Marian Schembari, Contributing Editor, Digital Book World

Harlequin. Hay House. Osprey. Chelsea Green.

Few people are unfamiliar with Harlequin and the success they’ve had in the romance genre, both in print and ebooks, but the other three publishers share one very important thing in common with them: an amazing handle on their respective niches.

Each was represented on the first day of breakout sessions at the 2010 Digital Book World Conference in the panel discussion “Getting Comfortable in the Niches: Reports from Publishers Working Their Verticals”, and there was an underlying theme in all of their presentations – niche equals sustainability.

“We had to become niche or else we wouldn’t have survived,” said Margo Baldwin, co-founder, President and Publisher of Chelsea Green. “To try to be a generalist as a small publisher is basically suicide.”

Create a Mission and Establish Authority

Not only is focusing on a specific niche beneficial in terms of selling books, it ultimately helps a publisher grow by establishing authority within their niche. Because niche publishers are focused on engaging with a targeted audience, they must concentrate on building a brand and a mission; they can’t just publish books.

Chelsea Green started off as a generalist, but they now publish books on “the politics and practice of sustainable living” and are firmly entrenched as a valued member of their community. Baldwin emphasized that it wasn’t only being niche that helped them grow, but realizing the importance of publishing with a mission – an overarching principal that pulls the company forward.

“We saw 7% growth over 2008 last year in an industry that is flat or down, so something (our community focus, newsletters, etc.) is paying off,” noted Baldwin.

Rebecca Smart, President and Managing Director of Osprey Publishing, the largest specialist military history publisher in the world, noted, “Why not do something that’s not even about content?”

Because their niche is such an enthusiastic one, their authors are “willing to do things for not much money.” Beyond their books, Osprey also partners with different organizations to provide services and products resulting in what she called a “shared risk”. Their partnership with Slitherine Software Ltd. saw them entering the gaming arena with Field of Glory,  the rules for which “are rapidly becoming the standard in ancient and medieval miniature wargaming.”

Reid Tracy, President and CEO of Hay House, noted that they have sold 50 million books: “50 million lives changed.” Thanks to their focus on the self-empowerment niche and a variety of non-book-related events, they boast an email database with over 1 million names; 700,000 listeners to every month; and 20,000 members of their Wisdom Community who pay $4/month for exclusive content, including access to the radioshow archives, as well as receiving discounts on books and events.

The examples offered by these publishers show that being a hyper-targeted brand is incredibly powerful. And you can’t really argue with the results.

Marian Schembari digs social media and books. Usually at the same time.

6 thoughts on “Is Niche the Key to Publishing Survival?

  1. Michael Smith

    Whether we say “niche” or “focus”, the term is one of three business models classically defined in marketing theory. The others being “differentiation” and “price” (or more specifically low price).

    Whenever I have worked with publishers I have been struck by the breadth of portfolio (particularly book publishers) and this is often to do with filling a pipeline to deliver a revenue stream. Whilst creating a vibrant and dynamic working atmosphere, such an approach also creates significant management problems.

    Specifically, a broad portfolio tends to create a broad marketing reach which makes it extremely difficult to focus limited sales and marketing resources effectively. Especially when for most publishers, the real margins on individual titles can be horrendously slender.

    Today online, customers are looking for focus on what matters to them, rather than, say, a publisher’s range. So it is an advantage to have a focused or niche businesss which makes for a logical and contiguous experience.

    Once reputation is created and a brand experience developed, issues such as effective and profitable pricing become easier. Because if value is evident, pricing becomes irrelevant.

    Unfortunately, many publishers remain trapped in the cash generation treadmill which means they have to continue to produce output in order to keep going. Without a strategic step back, this approach leads to a “blunderbus” approach of peppering the market in the hope for a return.

    While it is true that this method has worked for many years, we are now seeing the sign of it beginning to fail. The reason for this, I would argue, is because a reliance on the book trade – a generic and unfocused machine – has resulted in many publishers being out of touch with who actually reads their books.

    A focused business, with strong end-user knowledge and a good database will ultimately be a more robust business than that which has no focus and which ends up trying to compete on price to stay afloat. And who, at the end of the day, wants price buyers?

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