Business in the Niches

The Long Tail coverThis weekend I was reading my latest issue of Publisher’s Weekly. It’s a thick one and emphasizes the various children’s books to be released in the fall. In recent months, PW has started a column in the back of the magazine called Soapbox. I’ve referred to several of these articles and I often find something worthwhile and interesting. It happened again with an article from Chris Anderson called A Bookselling Tail. Anderson is the editor-in-chief of Wired (another publication that I read) and he has a new book from Hyperion, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. This new book is bouncing around toward the top of the bestselling books on Over the weekend, I added to the hoopla and ordered my copy. I know the book started as a Wired magazine article and I’m interested to see what I can learn from it. I’ve already referred to this area in an article from The New Yorker. I’ve also seen the book mentioned in other publications.

I want to point out a couple of paragraphs from the PW article (and you can read the entire article online): Anderson writes, “Here’s the reality of the book industry: in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies. Those blockbusters are a minute anomaly: only 10 books sold more than a million copies last year, and fewer than 500 sold more than 100,000.”

“So are all the rest of the books simply failed blockbusters? Of course not. As the book industry has known for decades, there’s virtue in niches—books that aren’t for everyone, but really thrill those they are for. The trick is finding a way to make a business in niches, rejoicing in the rare blockbuster if it comes, but not having to depend on it.”

Some book authors are going to find these statistics startling—then discouraging. Is it a dose of reality? I recommend you take this information but look at it critically. The statistics from Bookscan may be correct but do they present the total bookselling picture? No. Anderson is using the statistic to prove his point and didn’t intend to give you a full picture of where books are sold. It’s true the blockbuster bestseller is rare but not every book sale is recorded or recognized. For example, in a few weeks, I’m headed to the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference. I’m going to tuck a box or two of Book Proposals That Sell into my suitcase. Yes, I have other books that I could bring but I’ve learned through hard experience that during a writer’s conference, people purchase how-to books about writing—and little else. I’m finding the niche for this book but the sales are outside of the bookstore and will never show up on something like Bookscan. In fact, according to author Brian Jud, more than half of the books sold are sold outside of the bookstore. It’s why Jud put together this excellent book, Beyond the Bookstore.

Not every book takes off in the first few months which it is introduced into the marketplace. In fact, many books don’t take off initially. A book is only “new” for a short period of time. Some publications only want to talk about new books. Also the majority of the publisher promotion work will happen in the first few months, then the publisher will be forced to leave your book and hope it sells on the backlist because they have to move on and promote even newer titles. There are many books which take off after they are published. Recently at the trade show in Denver, I sat beside an author whose book took time to take off. It’s only in the last few months, Joanna Weaver’s book, Having A Mary Heart in a Martha World has started appearing on the bestseller lists. If you check, this book released in hardcover in 2000 and just recently began selling to the volume where it appears on the bestseller list. According to Joanna, it was word of mouth (something every publisher hopes for but doesn’t control). It was the buzz. Authors can continue to stir the buzz months after this initial push to get the book into the market. As authors, we are the ones with the greatest passion for our book and it’s success. Admittedly it takes ongoing effort.

For a minute, celebrate with me this review on Amazon for my Book Proposals That Sell:

SUCCESS!, July 23, 2006

Reviewer: Beth K. Vogt (Colorado Springs, CO USA)

Terry Whalin’s book was my guide when I wrote my first book proposal. My copy of Book Proposals That Sell is dog-eared, underlined and marked with multicolored sticky notes. And–just like the title promises–my book proposal SOLD. My first book will be published by Revell in 2007. I referred to Whalin’s book again and again as I polished my proposal. Whalin’s expertise helped me write a strong proposal, one that I was confident in submitting to my editor. I’m working on my next book proposal and, once again, Book Proposals That Sell will be my main reference.”

Beth’s story is exactly the result I dreamed about when I wrote this book. I know in a small way this book is helping writer improve the quality of what they are sending into the marketplace. Believe me as an acquisitions editor, I know firsthand authors need this type of help.

My application from this material is two fold: First, every book idea and proposal and book has a particular niche and audience. We need to be aware of this niche. Then second, the author needs to continually stir the waters to help people know about the book and it’s availability—and that effort happens long after the initial release period. So what is your niche and how can you take some concrete steps to reach it today?

5 Responses to “Business in the Niches”

  1. Cindy Thomson Says:

    Thanks for your post today. Just what I needed.

    At least I can say that my book has sold more than the average!

    I’m still stirring! 🙂

    And congrats to Beth and to you!

  2. Jerome Says:

    Terry, are the Bookscan numbers just brick & mortar sales or do they include on-line stores also?

  3. Terry Whalin Says:


    Bookscan compiles numbers from online and brick and mortar sales. Here’s a couple of links with some more background:
    article one
    article two

    Before you think I have all wisdom in this area (I don’t). I just went to Google and typed in the words “how Bookscan compiles numbers” and instantly found these two links.


  4. Deborah Raney Says:

    Great news about that review, Terry!

  5. R. K. Mortenson Says:

    I saw Anderson’s THE LONG TAIL at B & N over the weekend and picked it up. About 1/3 through it (it’s fairly short) and I find it fascinating. I was encouraged by the stats in two ways. First, my books are actually selling exceedingly well, all things considered. Second, I have yet to tap into a number of niches where they could take off even more.

    Now I’ve got to check out BEYOND THE BOOKSTORE. Love this stuff. Thanks for your blog. And congratulations on a great review and for helping another writer achieve success with their dream!

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