Thursday, September 14, 2006

Find Your Niche in the Market

It’s the challenge of every writer: to find their place in the market.  You have to experiment and figure out what you like to read and what you are drawn to write. For some people, it will be children’s books while others it will be novels and others nonfiction books. Still others will not write books but will write reams of magazine articles or newspaper articles.

If you read these entries, you’ve learned that each month I read a number of printed magazines. A few weeks ago, I spotted this article in Forbes, which has a circulation of around five million: Publish or Perish by Susan Adams. The subtitle also drew me to this article: A passion for out-of-print mysteries gave birth to a small press that might just make it. Publish or Perish is a common saying among academic professors who are required to write so many professional papers to maintain their status in the university. And what does that have to do with mysteries?

New York City bookseller Maggie Topkis was missing some of her favorite books because they had gone out of print. Learning about a machine to take out of print books and print a paperback in 17 minutes, she wondered if she could become a publisher. In about a year, she released 42 titles which included one hit (always important if you ware going to continue in publishing). Here’s her target market from Susan Adam’s excellent article: “Topkis puts out paperbacks only, with 11-point type (you're reading 9.7-point type) and generous margins. “The market for our books is definitely over 35,” says Topkis, who is 46. “They've got older eyes.” She sells mostly to nonchain stores; her list is packed with books she adores. “My stuff is pitched to women, and 60% to 70% of the line is British,” she says. “Prose-driven, intricately plotted stuff.” 

Notice how Topkins has defined her target. The old saying is true—if you aim at nothing you are sure to hit it. This bookseller understands the wisdom of marketing to a particular audience. You’d be surprised at the book proposals which I’ve seen from writers who claim their book is for everyone.  It’s simply not true.

If you study this article, you can see some of the economic considerations if you launch your own publishing imprint: “List price for Felony & Mayhem titles is $14.95, yielding an average $7.47 to the publisher. The variable cost of a volume averages $4.32. For a 300-page book with a press run of 1,200, she pays about $2.70 for digital printing. That cost drops significantly with runs of more than 2,000, because Topkis can use an offset printer. The remainder of the $4.32 goes for sales commissions, shipping, royalties (80 cents for a recycled title) and fulfillment fees. That leaves Topkis an average of $3.15 with which to cover fixed costs. For each title she pays $700 for the cover and $1,000 for editorial production. Topkis invested $1,200 in a Xerox DocuMate scanner that allows her to convert an out-of-print novel into a Word document that gets proofread, typeset and sent to her printer. She budgets $37,800 in salary and benefits for an assistant and pays $12,000 for twice-yearly catalogs. All told, fixed expenses come to about $250,000 a year. Topkis figures she can cover that by selling 80,000 books. Doable if she can add another small-scale hit like Garden.”

Now this article in Forbes with it’s large circulation is a huge boost to this mystery book business. One of the elements not included in this article is the distribution for these mysteries. Because Topkins has a dozen years as a bookseller, she’s hooked into the realities of the need to have a distributor and how to get her books into the proper chains.  Some of you could look at this article and say, “OK, I’ll become a publisher and get books out there.” It’s possible but just make sure you have a full picture before you take the plunge.

I applaud Maggie Topkis in that she spotted a niche in the marketplace which she could fill. It’s the same challenge for every writer.

1 Comment:

At 10:53 AM, Blogger R. K. Mortenson Left a note...

Interesting. Makes me think again of Chris Anderson's book THE LONG TAIL, which you posted on not long ago, about the endless "tail" of niche markets. Good to keep in mind for writing and marketing. I don't think I'd be up to the whole start-up publishing thing. Whew.


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