Targeted Sales to Enthusiasts Turn the Off-Beat Into Big Bucks
Looking for the bestselling art books in America? Sniffing around the Ansel Adams shelves, perhaps? Nope, not there. Taking a peek at Taschen’s Fetish Girls? Nice try. According to numbers from Nielsen BookScan, you’d better swing by the cartoon section. Because the top art titles in the nation are a duo of how-to cartooning books called Anime Mania and Manga Mania, followed closely (at #4) by Drawing Cutting-Edge Comics. They’re all written by Christopher Hart. And they’re all published by Watson-Guptill.
The story of how this relatively low-key publishing house has cornered the art book market — indeed, grabbing five of the current top-ten art titles — is perhaps a tribute to the pop-culture prowess of Spider-Man. But it can easily be read, along with similar tales from many other mid-size houses, as a parable about the power of niche publishing: keeping close tabs on a targeted customer base; knowing how to reach those raging enthusiasts through multiple sales channels; and heaping up backlist titles that deliver till the cows come home. Whether it’s hardworking how-to tomes like Watson-Guptill’s Digital 3D Design, or Motorbooks’ must-have edition of Minneapolis-Moline Farm Tractors, it seems that in this time of generalized trade publishing anomie, one path to success is the blindingly obvious one: you perceive a need and you fill it.
Granted, some in publishing will bristle at the N-word. “The whole idea of niche publishers is one that doesn’t serve the industry well,” says Harriet Pierce, VP Marketing and Associate Publisher for Watson-Guptill, arguing that the term merely relegates many successful houses to the bottom of the book-review bin. Be that as it may, Pierce and company illustrate the elementary lesson of how focused editorial, delivered to a targeted consumer segment, quickly becomes money in the bank. On a recent week, for example, Manga Mania sold just under 1,000 copies, and total sales for the year-old volume have reached 100,000. Those numbers may underwhelm. But Watson-Guptill tends a whole line of licensed titles from DC Comics that have been “tremendously successful,” especially since they fit well with what the publisher informally calls its “how-to-make-a-buck books,” a genre Pierce notes is “a great driving force for book expenditures in any time.” Besides the cartooning line, a growth spike has hit the graphic design category, as hordes of college students brush up their web-design skills or pick up a few typography tricks. “Students need it as background for everything they’re doing these days,” says Pierce. “It all starts with a visual sense that needs to be trained.”
Can You Say ‘Cocooning’?
You don’t have to look far to find a number of other publishers practicing similar tactics — and reaping the rewards. “Lifestyle publishing right now is doing very, very well,” says Rich Smeby, VP General Manager of the Sunset Books Group, which has obviously been buoyed along on the cocooning trend. But Sunset works hard to keep close tabs on its hard-core customers, who have become the bedrock source of wisdom for its key publishing lines. Sunset makes the rounds at major trade shows, such as the blowout Northwest Flower and Garden Show, “which affords us the opportunity to press the flesh of our readers,” Smeby says. Scoff if you will, but all that flesh-pressing once turned up an apparently unslakable interest in garden trellises, and the resulting title, Trellises and Arbors, has now sold over a quarter million units. Likewise for Landscaping with Stone, another title inspired by consumer heavy-breathing. And market research doesn’t end there, as Sunset conducts surveys, deploys focus groups, and studies other indicators to suss out potential pockets of interest. Consequently, the publisher has been able to “slice and dice” the larger gardening and landscaping categories to open up vast and lucrative tracts of enthusiast terrain. The landmark Western Garden Book, for instance, is now being rolled out in editions for the northeast, south, and midwest, while a wildfire “exterior home decor” line has been built around titles such as Garden Decor. “We’re constantly in contact with our readers,” Smeby says. “If you’re not out there listening to them, you’re missing a huge opportunity.” At the same time, publishing into multiple distribution channels — such as the Home Depots of the world — offers a hedge against market volatility. “We like to feel that we’re somewhat insulated,” Smeby adds. “If the traditional book trade would be down, the home and garden channel would be up.”
That’s a familiar philosophy to the special-market mavens at Sterling, where Executive VP Charles Nurnberg confirms that a third of the publisher’s business is generated via special sales (mostly sold non-returnable) at crafts shops, garden stores, and the like, and where the unassuming wood-craft title New Router Handbook has breached the two-million-copy mark. And those sales are no fluke. Sterling takes a “cradle-to-grave” approach to category publication, blanketing all levels and all price points in any given subject. Then they take their list and sell, for instance, retail garden centers on the theory that these books essentially serve as a catalogue for additional products. That is, a store might not make as much money selling books as trowels, but the book makes a dandy, 128-page ad for all those implements of dire importance for the maintenance of the back forty that are readily available right down the aisle. Regarding other sales channels, Nurnberg emphasizes that (despite reports elsewhere) Sterling has little truck these days with the school and library market, and has no direct mail division. Sales to direct mail catalogues have increased, however, as niche retailers of all stripes have logged impressive sales gains, now that consumers have learned to hit up micro marketers for all their impulse-purchase needs. Sterling’s robust but targeted publishing lines, combined with its large distribution business of 17 publishers, have helped put it at the forefront of the lumber enthusiast and crossword maniac market. And here’s a factoid to file away under “Backlist”: 95% of Sterling titles are reprinted.
The Joy of Horsemanship
Penetrating those micro-niches can also prove fruitful for diversifying a customer base, according to Lee Miller, VP Sales for Globe Pequot. That lesson hit home during the post-9/11 flying jitters, which shook up Globe’s travel program and seemed to validate the publisher’s recent acquisitions in categories such as fly-fishing (Lyons Press) and outdoor recreation (Falcon). Miller notes that Lyons, which Globe purchased last year, has now been drilling down into the equestrian market, cracking open a whole world of dressage enthusiasts and saddle aficionados, and leading Globe to a distribution deal with the venerable horse bible Western Horseman. “We’re finding immediate credibility because of their name, and it helps us with some of the books we had already published in that field,” Miller says. For example, a year ago Lyons had published Buck (“Horse Whisperer”) Brannaman’s The Faraway Horses, and it was selling steadily. But hitching up with Western Horseman not only gave the publisher more standing in horsemanship circles, it also opened the door to tack shops and other horse venues. “As a medium-size publisher, it’s important to diversify our customer base,” Miller says. “Bookstores will always be our lead customers, but the more diversity we can find, the better off we are.”
And if you’re talking micro-niches, check out Schiffer Publishing, where the hot titles of the day are United States Army Shoulder Patches and The Collector’s Guide to Cloth Third Reich Military Headgear. Tina Skinner, Schiffer’s VP Sales and Marketing, notes that Internet sales have been something of a driver for the publisher’s high-end illustrated military titles, which are generally too off-the-wall for brick-and-mortar stores to touch. Besides selling off of Schiffer’s own site, the publisher has noticed a thriving after-market of sorts. “We’ve had individuals become major accounts for us simply by selling these titles on the Internet. Ebay has become a major vehicle for that. Sometimes they auction them off for more than retail value.”
Motorbooks also sells surprisingly well through BN.com, according to VP Sales and Marketing Mike Hejny, a feat that makes sense, given that arcane automotive manuals can be found on the web in seconds. Actually, however, one of Motorbooks’ all-time bestselling Internet titles is A Twist of the Wrist, a guide to extreme-performance motorcycle racing, which proves that you never know what enthusiast nerve you might hit. (Chess turned out to be a big online boon for Globe Pequot.) Motorbooks has now broken its site into different communities for tractors, cars, airplanes, and other earthly passions. “Online sales have been strong year over year, and this year’s no exception,” Hejny says. However, most publishers seem less than bullish about the e-future. “The Internet is certainly a factor in niche selling, but it is by no means the dominant factor, or even a substantial segment at the moment,” Charles Nurnberg says plainly. “The enthusiasts shop wherever they can find the best collection of books in their categories. In my estimation, they use the Internet as a resource guide, but still want to judge a book the old-fashioned way: by turning the pages and feeling the heft.” But you still gotta wonder. What does Dave Weich, Director of Content and Marketing at Powells.com, consider his hottest-selling category? “We have no trouble at all selling railroad books,” he says.