The Micro-niching of American Publishing: Why virtual promotion makes sense

by | Jul 13, 2006 | Book Marketing Basics

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I came to learn about print-on-demand well before it was even a blip on the New York publishing scene. Back in 1998 a company called: Fat Brain was cranking out mostly academic, technie type books through a system called print-on-demand. The application itself was stunning. You could publish a book and print only one copy of it if you wanted to. That meant no more runs of thousands of books and less risk for publishing. It also meant a dynamic change in publishing, one that would soon become seismic shift and change the face of New York publishing forever. Soon this method of printing exploded into the print-on-demand industry and new publishers, harnessing this technology, came from far and wide to take advantage of this trend and before long, the print-on-demand industry was in full swing. The application was initially snubbed by most in publishing and written off as “garbage”, soon publishers went back to the work of rejecting most of the submissions they received and accepting only a select few, sometimes as little as one percent of everything submitted to them. At about this time a writer from, let’s say, Los Angeles, decides to take his dream of seeing his book published and make it a reality. He submits it to one of the print-on-demand publishers and soon, he’s got twenty copies of his completed novel in his hand. It’s a sci-fi thriller with a futuristic “this could actually happen” bent, it’s a good book by his standards but certainly not by a New York publishing standards. The cover could have been better, the story tighter. Still, our author is proud of his work and starts emailing a few of his favorite sci-fi sites. Requests for the book start coming in and soon, he’s sold his first twenty copies within a week of contacting these sites. He’s proud of himself and leaves his Internet push for a while to start writing his second book. When he checks his email again he finds his box filled with requests for more copies. Soon, he’s selling fifty and then one hundred copies of this book. Still not enough to make a New York publisher care but he’s happy, his book has found an audience and it’s selling. He’s a happy author.

Somewhere in Nebraska a mother of three just got copies of her book on meditating during pregnancy. A former nurse, then mediation and yoga instructor she’s put together a plan for easing new mothers through labor by creating specialized mediation techniques they can use during pregnancy. She’s taught it at her yoga class on special nights for soon-to-be moms and soon women are telling other women and she’s teaching to packed classes several times a month. When her book arrives, her web site is already up and has been taking advanced orders for some time. Her first shipment of five hundred books goes out the door almost as soon as it arrives. No New York publisher would have even considered this book, being as specialized as it is and the author, fairly obscure would have never had the credentials, according to these publishers, to carry  book like this. But in a world of consumer created products and media, there are few barriers to entry and hence niches upon niches upon niches are born. It’s what Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine calls “The Long Tail” target=”_blank”>The Long Tail” (his book released in 2006 is a must read). He asserts that the niches are lengthening the economic tail and that the astounding rate by which consumers are creating their own product, either through music, movies or books, is creating a world of a million niches, all of which have moved us away from our world which up until about the 1980’s was built on blockbusters, gold records and bestseller lists. It’s not gone away, purports Chris, it’s just sharing the stage for the first time in history, with a millions of other markets. The key to niches is accessibility. The print-on-demand example I gave, which is just one of several, helped shift the dynamic on which our economic structure was built and thereby, lifted the curtain on all the niches that were there all along, only no one could find them. Do you think that no had these ideas before the age of Print-on-demand, iTunes and Amazon? Sure they did, but accessibility was an issue that’s now been solved. By first lowering the barrier to entry and then giving these books and products a home on the Net where anyone can find them at any time of the day or night.

The bestseller list is a great example of how this dynamic is changing publishing., one of the print-on-demand giants released a report recently that indicated that life expectancy of a bestseller has dropped considerably. In the 1950’s Advise and Consent by Allen Drury spent fifty seven weeks on the bestseller list, if that book were released now, it might only spend three weeks there. Why? Because there are more books and many more niches that are driving this market into a shifting state. Now that publishing is no longer controlled by New York alone, it’s now in the hands of anyone who wants to publish and consequently, the niche books tend to sell better and over a longer period of time than their mass market counter parts do.

Now that the curtain has been lifted and we can see how the man behind it does his job, we can do it too and, thanks to Jeff Bezos, and the insight of other online retailers, we now have a way to sell our creations. But here’s the rub: you’ve got to find an audience. Niches are great as long as they find a home and that’s where the Internet comes in. The Net allows authors to now connect with their niche groups, even if they’ve written in a genre as broad as, let’s say, mystery, the groups are still out there on the Net, just waiting to be found. As this long tail continues to grow and expand with the various niches, the Net will become a much more significant way to sell a book than ever before.

There’s a story that circulated in the industry about a book called Touching the Void. This book, published in 1998, was a harrowing account of near-death in the Peruvian Andes. The book got great reviews, but never managed to hit its stride. Then another book about a mountain climbing tragedy: Into Thin Air became a huge hit and suddenly, Touching the Void started selling again. Soon, Touching the Void was outselling Into Thin Air and the publisher decided to go back and reprint this book which spent fourteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. How did this happen? Internet word of mouth. People who read Into Thin Air recommended the other title at sites like and other online booksellers and soon, they buyers were getting both. They key here is that without this channel, no one would have been able to recommend Touching the Void except maybe to a few friends over coffee. But the Net gave fans of this book access to it and the ability to share their views.

Probably the most important piece of this is the Net is a cluster of chatter, they key is to find the chatter that belongs to you, to find your tribe and get them interested in your book because, after all, it’s what they were interested in in the first place.

I came to the idea of the Virtual Author TourT once when I was on a plane with nothing to read. The publishing world was becoming quite “noisy” with all the new books being published and written and the advent of self-publishing and print-on-demand was filling that channel and creating a bottleneck. Reviewers were reviewing less and less, print space in newspapers was shrinking because of all of these books bring printed and all of them vying for the attention of the media and certainly, shelf space was harder to come by than a good seat on an airplane. I was worried that our authors were getting the losing end of this wonderful publishing revolution and starting to drown in the success of print-on-demand. The double edged sword they faced was a low barrier to publishing meant everyone could publish and they did. On average five hundred books are published each day in this country, the bad news is that five hundred books are published each day in this country. That’s when it hit me. We have always done Internet promotion but it was always a minor piece of our campaigns. I felt it was time that we did a little roll switching. Perhaps the Internet needed to be the star of the show and traditional media, its understudy. As I began to noodle some ideas on my note pad I realized that I’d hit on something. At that point there were a few sprinkling of companies that offered Internet promotion but nothing like what I was going to attempt to do. I envision a “Tour” on the Net, just like you’d tour the country only you never had to leave your house. The Tour would connect readers with the books they loved and circumvent traditional media and bookstores altogether. And the most amazing piece of this was that unlike a mention in a newspaper that would soon end up in someone’s recycle bin, an impression on someone’s web site would stay up for as long as the site remained on the Net. The power and permanency of this could and, consequently, the significance it could have on a campaign, could not be overstated. For someone whose entire life has been devoted to traditional PR, this was a huge gamble. If I did this and it worked, it would effectively mean that the strategies our company was built on might become meaningless. It might also mean that the seismic shift that was being felt in New York publishing, was about to rock the offices of Author Marketing Experts, Inc. as well.

As I continued to develop this and research it, I realized I needed to test this first and why not on myself? What I found was astounding. First it not only worked, it worked so well that we became flooded with new business and book sales, second, I found that people started telling me “I see your name everywhere” meaning that every time they visited a site on publishing or book marketing there was a piece of me there, a remnant of the “Tour” I’d taken my company on. I realized then we were ready to take this into the consumer market. We tested a few books with great success and then came Cookin’ for Love, a novel by Sharon Boorstin. In June of 2005 it was featured in a full-page spread in More Magazine. The piece they did on Sharon and the book was great but the problem was it didn’t really blip on the sales screen. I will typically monitor’s sales ranking to see when it jumps, that’s often an indicator of a story that’s appeared or some other publicity for the author. We had just started her Virtual Author TourT and the requests were flooding in for her book. We targeted the boomer women market since given the book’s topic that was the obvious choice. In July of 2005 the book was languishing somewhere in the high 500,000’s on Amazon, at about that time we got six bloggers to review the book and they all did so within four days of each other. The booked jumped to 18,000 sales ranking on Aamzon and then to 13,000 where it stayed for nearly a week. Not bad for a self-published book and certainly not bad for a book that New York publishers had turned down because they felt the main characters in Cookin’ for Love were, at the age of fifty, too old to be interesting. The book has since been optioned for a movie.

In less than a year, our Internet Publicity has seen incredible growth, so much so that we now have an entire division dedicated to Internet Publicity and as far as programs and authors go, has eclipsed anything we’ve ever done in terms of success to the author. What’s happened now is that traditional media is paying attention to these bloggers and these Internet campaigns so much so that a recent Columbia study found that 76% of media now finds their experts online. This means that if you’re not online, you might be missing out on a boatload of publicity.


  1. john

    Great article. Question: Do you have a link to that Columbia Univ study?

    • Penny Sansevieri

      Hi John – thanks for checking! I’ve gone back and linked to it in the text, but you can also find the link here.

      • John

        Excellent. Thank you!


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