6 Tips to Help Authors Reach Niche Audiences

Authors have heard the same things over and over again on how to market their books: you must be on social media, you must be a big fan of your genre, you must create a dedicated fan base, etc. And while that’s all solid advice, most of it is geared toward reaching a general readership. Depending on what you’re writing, there are many more opportunities to grow your readership and visibility. The following tips are ultimately meant for authors writing in niche genres—we’re talking knitting books, self-help books, cookbooks, fitness books, anything directed at a very specific market—but any author could find ways to implement this advice.

  1. Find Community
    This idea isn’t new, but authors of niche genres can take advantage of built-in communities interested in their topics. In other words, there is often a dedicated community with a shared interest in the topic as a whole, rather than just the book genre. For example, an author of a knitting book will find a huge knitting community in local knitting groups and yarn stores. Find your community and become an active member by attending and hosting events. A great resource to find your community is Meetup.com. Once you start attending community events, people will get to know you and want to support your work, especially because it will be something they’re interested in.
  2. Make the Most of Your Social Media
    Being active on social media is important. Just as you should find a community in person, you should also engage with related communities online. But don’t try to split your energy between every social media platform. Figure out which ones members of your target market use the most. Visual genres like travel, fitness, craft, and cooking will likely have more engagement on Instagram than on Twitter. Focus your energy on the platform that will allow you to best represent your work and to reach the widest audience.
  3. Host Events
    We’ve all heard about book signings. Although they can work to draw in readers, you could also find success (and make a little extra money) by hosting other types of events. You could, for example, host a workshop, retreat, or class. Not only will your fans pay to attend, but you may also get new readers to buy your book. All the niches discussed in this post are rife with possibilities to increase your visibility, connect with readers, and bolster your income.
  4. Focus on Small Influencers
    Now that the internet makes it easy to find a niche community, focusing on these small corners of the market is more and more profitable. According to a recent article on the Author Marketing Experts website, micro-influencers—or people with small but dedicated followings—have a lot of market power. So rather than trying to get your book reviewed by a big blogger, find a smaller one who fits your niche perfectly and has engaged fans. Once you start attending community events, people will get to know you and want to support your work, especially because it will be something they’re interested in.
  5. Cross-Promotion
    With niche publishing, there’s often more room for cross-promotion. Try partnering with a small business in your area, where you can offer a discount on your book and another product when the two are purchased together. Maybe you wrote a cookbook about baked goods, and a local tea shop wants to sell their new breakfast tea. You could create a gift set, selling your cookbook with their tea in their shop.
  6. Sell in Specialty Stores
    You’ll see niche books for sale all the time in specialty stores, like a museum gift shop, craft store, gallery, coffee shop, etc. Niche books often fit specialty stores perfectly, both because their topics are relevant to the stores and because they appeal to potential buyers who did not come into the store expecting to buy a book. That’s why selling in specialty stores can be very lucrative. Though publishers often get books into these stores, authors can help find and make those connections.

In many ways, marketing a niche book can be easier than marketing a book directed at a more general readership, especially when you know how to take advantage of the strengths of niche publishing. And authors play a central role in locating their communities and creating opportunities to get their books into the hands of readers. Remember that authors can often make more money by selling their books to people in their lives than by going through traditional retailers.

(Legitimate) Crowdfunded Publishing: Two Cases

Prior to attending PubWest this past February, if I heard anything about crowdfunding to publish a book, I thought “Gee, that sounds like a really illegitimate cop-out method of getting a book published.” It seemed just short of panhandling to your friends on Facebook for a vanity writing project. I figured the title of the PubWest session “Transformations on the Publishing Horizon: How Will Crowdfunding and Hybrid Authors Affect Publishing?” would be a criticism condemning the practice of publishing books via other people’s donations. How wrong I was.

The panel consisted of local author Laura Foster (author of Columbia Gorge Getaways and many other Portland and Oregon travel books); Suzanne Paschall, the ambassador of the National Crowdfunding Association of Canada; Avalon Radys, Director of Marketing and Publishing Operations at Inkshares; and Elly Blue, co-owner of Microcosm Publishing in Portland. It was quite the lineup. I left the session feeling very inspired and decided to look into the inner workings of Inkshares and Microcosm more deeply.

In a nutshell, here’s a breakdown of how Inkshares and Microcosm work. Inkshares is an audience-curated book publisher based in Oakland, California. Avalon Radys described the process thusly: “When interested in getting published through Inkshares an author comes to our site and launches a campaign to accept pre-order. If they reach the pre-order threshold of 750 copies we publish the book. Alternatively, we run contests with ‘imprints’ (brands like Legendary Entertainment) and publish the top three performing books in a contest dependent on the highest number of unique readers (not pre-orders).” One of their most popular titles, the marijuana cookbook Herb, had exceeded sales of 15,745 units in February 2017 since its pub date of November 2015. The success of each project weighs heavily on the author(s) having a strong, stable, and intact reputation as well as a social media presence and following. The subject of the book also needs to possess a strong niche following (conservation, cannabis culture, Trekkie culture, “weird sci-fi,” etc.). Check out more about Inkshares on their website.

Microcosm publishers Elly Blue and Joe Biel start crowdfunding campaigns for books and zines that possess a clear niche-following. In other words, the book has to fill a very special space on a very specific topic, or as Elly Blue put it, “It fits with a market that is the niche-ist niche that ever niched.” Since 2010, Microcosm has successfully used Kickstarter to raise over $100,000 for twenty-five books and zines. For Microcosm, crowdfunding is not a litmus test to decide whether a book is worthy of publication; each book is thoroughly researched prior to the crowdfunding process. Microcosm uses crowdfunding as a way to bolster a book’s audience and lighten production costs. For a complete list of their titles, visit Microcosm Publishing.

In addition to Kickstarter, the most frequently used crowdfunding platforms include Patreon, Indiegogo, FundRazr, Publaunch, Unbound, and Publishizer. Crowdfunded publishing or “authorpreneurship” is clearly changing the game of publishing for both publishers and writers.

10 Dos & Don’ts of Entrepreneurial Publishing

Savvy business practices are crucial to the success of an independent publisher. An estimated half of all entrepreneurial enterprises in the United States fail within the first five years, and only a third last ten years. If these statistics sound intimidating, fear not—here is a handy list of the ten best business practices in small-press publishing to guide you.

  1. DO start small. Entrepreneurs new to the publishing industry sometimes produce too many books in their first year and overstretch their resources. They then have to retrench the following year, which negatively affects their finances as well as customer and colleague confidence. The same principle applies to expanding too quickly.
  2. DO pick a good niche. Small presses can’t compete with the big companies in the mass market, so it’s best to carve out a market share by targeting a niche you already know well and can tap into easily. This is also a good way to build a brand and customer loyalty. Indie publishers that have successfully leveraged their niches include our own Ooligan Press, which focuses on books significant to the ethos of the Pacific Northwest; Copper Canyon Press, which specializes in poetry; and Forest Avenue Press, which is dedicated to high-quality literary fiction.
  3. DO choose your distributor wisely. Publishers can’t get their books onto store shelves without distributors and wholesalers, but if these companies go bankrupt, they often take their clients with them. Do your research before making a deal and be ready to go elsewhere if your distributor starts struggling.
  4. DO rely on your backlist. Whereas the big publishers can afford to constantly roll out new titles in hopes of saturating the market with a bestseller, small presses focus on books with long-term value that resonate with a passionate niche market. Backlist titles are the true bread and butter of indie presses—they can produce enough revenue years after initial publication to keep the company afloat and provide capital for new books.
  5. DO be professional. Maintain good relations with other publishing professionals. Communicate clearly and frequently with coworkers, contractors, and authors. Establish goodwill with media contacts. Even your books should exude professionalism—nobody is interested in books with shoddy editing or design.
  6. DON’T start without a good business plan. This should go without saying, but it seems to be a common mistake with rookies. You need to know exactly what needs to be done to get your business running and how you’re going to accomplish it before you ever fill out a form or spend a penny.
  7. DON’T file your publisher as a sole proprietorship. This lumps your business in with your personal finances, so if the venture takes a big hit, you may lose your house. Incorporating your publisher ensures that you survive no matter what happens to your business.
  8. DON’T do it for the money. If you’re hoping to get rich from selling lots of awesome books, you’re in the wrong business—publishing is a labor of love. You’ll likely need $100 thousand or more just to cover startup costs; afterward, to earn back the necessary cash to cover costs and roll out the next title, you have to spend the necessary cash to compensate the author, make the book, and convince enough people to buy it.
  9. DON’T underestimate the power of contracts. Rookies often try to write author contracts themselves and never even consider establishing contracts with employees and freelancers. The usual results: neither party knows what the other expects from them, and everybody gets shorted. Shell out for an attorney and use the standard industry contracts—it’ll save you time, money, and headaches in the long run.
  10. MARKETING, MARKETING, MARKETING. This is where most of the money in publishing goes, and for good reason: the most beautifully written and packaged books by the best authors do you no good whatsoever if you can’t convince people to buy them. Allow for the biggest marketing budgets you can, know your audience, and be creative.

An entrepreneur can never discount luck as a factor—sometimes a publisher grows or fails due to things beyond the owner’s control, like the economy or fickle trends. Most small-press owners cite timing as the biggest wild card in the business. But for the most part, the success of a publishing venture is up to you—so keep this list of dos and don’ts above your desk and go forth and publish.

For other tips on guiding a small press startup to success, check out these articles:

“Better Than Fall Back: The Small Press Option” on Jane Friedman’s blog

“The State of the Small Press in Portland” by Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press

“Why Small Publishers Fail” on Writer Beware

“Why Do Publishers Plan to Fail?” on SmallPressWorld.com

Keeping an Open Mind About Working in Niche Publishing

Generally, when Ooligan student editors think about traipsing off into the nebulous Real World to find the editing career that the publishing program has prepared them for, they imagine working in the realm of fiction or literary nonfiction publishing. In part, this is probably because this is what Ooligan prepares us for the most. Though we discuss niche and nonfiction publishing at length, we primarily publish fiction and literary nonfiction, and our professors speak from the perspective of fiction and literary nonfiction publishers, given that they tend to work at local literary presses like Hawthorne or Tin House. It’s probably also partly because this is what we want. In a perfect world, every literary connoisseur would get to edit the next Great American Novel. However, I’ve found myself in the perhaps not-so-unique position of working at a niche nonfiction publishing house since the beginning of this school year, and usually the first comment I get when I describe the work I do there is, “Wow. That sounds really boring.” Or, alternatively, “That sounds absolutely soul-crushing.

Harsh.

I work as an editorial assistant for a publishing house called Trial Guides in a quarter-long-internship-turned-year-long-something-else. Trial Guides is a tiny press staffed by fewer than fifteen people. They typically put out no more than ten products a year, they distribute their own merchandise, and they publish for the very specific demographic of plaintiff trial attorneys on the go. And guess what? Working there? It’s not horrible. My soul is still intact. I haven’t died of boredom yet, and I don’t really foresee doing so in the near future. On the contrary: though the editing work is something that I might have had trouble visualizing myself doing before, it’s something that is uniquely challenging in a way that Ooligan hadn’t necessarily prepared me for.

There’s something intuitive about editing fiction for those who actively consume it. Though copyediting is a little bit of a black-and-white process based in grammar styles and rules of consistency, we pull from our preconceptions about the shape of a story in order to edit a novel’s content. When I’m working on a manuscript for Trial Guides, editing developmentally is a completely different animal. I don’t necessarily sit around reading law books for fun, and it’s difficult to put myself in the shoes of a consumer who I’m not. It’s fun to take on a different perspective. It’s liberating to assume the point of view of an objective outsider. Additionally, a lot of thought goes into considering the acquisition of a title—a lot of agonizingly scrutinous market research. A lot of thought has to go into the way that materials are organized, into the way that people consume information, and into the way that people will be using our material as a text or a reference book. It’s fascinating to tear apart a reference book and force it to make sense. And you know what? If anything, copyediting is more fun when you’re not editing for style. Prioritizing clarity above all other things legitimizes all the gleeful ways we can rip things up and reassemble them to be more succinct and more useful.

Even though I might eventually like to be working with high literature or graphic novels or smutty romance or sci-fi dreck, I think there’s something awesome about niche publishing—textbooks, educational materials, dense materials for academics, difficult materials for specialized markets—and the way that it forces us outside of our comfort zone. I’ll tell anyone that I really adore doing the things I’m doing now, even though I wouldn’t necessarily have expected to a few years ago either. I think that it would do Oolies well to keep open hearts and minds about pursuing careers with publishing houses like Trial Guides. There’s something to be said for working in the industry doing what you want to be doing, even if you’re not exactly where you want to be yet. And hey, maybe in the future Oolies can push for classes about things like nonfiction and reference publishing or indexing so that students can confront the things that sound scary, soul-crushing, or dull early on and learn that they’re not so bad after all.

Predictive Book Analytics

by Drew Lazzara
Let me start by saying that, when it comes to the application of advanced analytics to publishing, I am not the man for the job. I have just begun to stick my toe into these statistical waters, and while my hunger for knowledge is rapacious, my understanding of the topic is extremely broad and conversational at best. I’m asking for a little patience from the stat wonks and a little feedback from the rest of you.
I’m positive that, like all businesses, publishers employ all manner of data. Sales figures, cost analyses, market trends; I’m sure it’s a veritable kaleidoscope of numbers used to deftly strategize and plot the future. Yet it strikes me that all this information seems put to use largely to maximize what publishers do rather than to prescribe ways to adapt to a changed landscape.
Those changes are the well-documented scourge of publishing. Ebooks, print-on-demand, and the primacy of Amazon all undercut some of the key services that the publishing industry provides authors and readers. The industry response to this pressure has been disappointing and largely non-innovative. At this stage in the game, big publishing is not competing on its own terms. And it’s losing.
Tilting the playing field back again requires new modes of thought, and that is the purview of advanced statistical analsyis. Publishers make their acquisition decisions largely on their ability to conceptualize a manuscript’s success: its resemblence to top sellers in their catalog, their familiarity with marketing a certain type of book, the visibility of the author. But these assessments are ultimately just gut feelings, and so much of a book’s success comes down to luck.
But when it is possible to know so much exact information about the reading habits and buying patterns of the public, why rely on luck and guts? In an already low-margin industry, why take any more chances than necessary? The culling and analyzing of data might make it possible for publishers’ “gut feelings” to be guided more precisely, informing acquisitions and giving the buying public exactly what they want almost all of the time. This would guide print run decisions, eliminate overhead, and reduce returns. It would also engender brand loyalty, a concept that is pretty much non-existent in big publishing.
The problem, of course, is that it’s not as simple as I make it sound. For starters, you can’t just snap your fingers and produce comprehensive consumer data. And you really can’t even begin the project if readers aren’t largely complicit. Amazon has perhaps the most advanced consumer database in the world, but the culling of this information requires not only the constant development of data-mining tools, but also that customers shop from them in the first place. Publishers would love for every purchase to be made directly on their own website; it would yield greater margins for everyone involved. But even without advanced metrics, it is anecdotally clear that people don’t buy books that way.
So the quest for information, and thus the quest for smarter, more targeted content decisions, starts with a concerted effort to drive traffic to non-Amazon digital retail spaces. The development of publishers as their own primary retailers starts with the de-conglomeration of publishing. For the biggest publishers, that doesn’t mean untethering decades of mergers; it means allowing imprints to operate with more editorial and brand independence. Go visit the Random House website. Can you tell me anything distinguishing about any of it’s dozens of imprints? I didn’t think so. By creating distinct niches (even if–for now–those niches are still defined by gut feelings), you create a customer base that turns to you for something specific. And one that will tell you exactly what they want. It’s something that small publishers are already doing.
Another way to cull data is to incentivize visits to your publishing site. Amazon does this through its Associates Program, which allows anyone with a webpage to add an Amazon link and share in a percentage of any sales to which that link directly contributes. Such partnerships cost practically nothing to implement, add prestige to the partner site, and drive traffic to your own. These partnerships also create their own customer network, allowing publishers to better understand the kinds of sites that most interest their consumers and thus better target them in the products they offer.
As I said, my understanding of statistics and their predicitive possibilty is limited. I’ve just tried to think out loud here about some fairly broad and obvious ways to make our industry more robust. I leave it to people much smarter than myself to hatch new plans for the collection and application of data in the name of invigorating the business of books. I have faith in them.
In the meantime, I’d like to a bit of less-scientific data mining myself. In the comments section, please leave your thoughts on this piece and tell us what brought you here. Are you a regular reader? Have you ever purchased one of Ooligan’s titles?  What kinds of things do you like to read? Where do you buy books? I promise we won’t use this information for nefarious purposes. We just want to make publishing better, starting with Ooligan Press.