Nailing Your Niche*
Definition of niche: A French word meaning “a situation or activity suited to a person’s interests, ability, or nature.”
“Nail your niche and own it.” — Dan Poynter
In the old days of publishing, before digital, before the Internet, before Amazon, before Google, and before Kindle, big publishers didn’t want to touch books on small topics because most didn’t sell . Publishing them just didn’t pay off. Authors of books in niche areas were more likely to find homes with academic or university presses or with little publishers with no money for publicity or marketing. The readers of these books often had to find out about them through obscure newsletters, specialty bookstores, or by word-of-mouth from other folks interested in the same subjects.
I went that route myself “back in the day” when I was researching my book called Jolted Sober: Getting to the Moment of Clarity in the Recovery of Addiction. I became a long-distance member of the Alister Hardy Research Centre in the U.K. (Oxford) in order to receive their snail-mailed newsletter which contained information of interest to me for my book. They were studying spontaneous healings and religious experiences. My book contained numerous stories about sudden “Aha!” moments of clarity in the addiction recovery. What they were researching was right up my alley. Today, niche publications like this one are easy to find. In fact, I Googled the Centre to see if it still exists — and it does, but with a new name. Now it’s the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre.
What all this means for you is that, as an author, you no longer have to be afraid that your topic or specialty is too narrowly focused (i.e. “too nichy”) to write about. There are people out there looking for what you have to say. And while it’s unlikely that you’ll get a contract with a mainstream publisher where “No Niches Need Apply,” you may be accepted by a small press or you can self-publish on Amazon’s CreateSpace for free. You’ll find some buyers. Or they’ll find you. And they’ll be thrilled.
Tofu Takes Off
Here’s one of my favorite stories about writing a book for a niche market: For many years I’ve been running a free drop-in writers group at a bookstore in Woodland Hills, California. It is sponsored by the Independent Writers of Southern California (iwosc.org). One of our regular members, Lisa, told us how years earlier she’d accidentally stumbled upon an idea for a niche book while waiting in the check-out line at a local market. In her shopping cart she had a couple of packages of tofu. “How do you cook that stuff?” the woman behind her in line asked her. “Tofu is so tasteless.” Because Lisa really knows her tofu, she answered, “”It picks up the flavor of what you cook it in.” The woman was intrigued: “I didn’t know that.” Lisa shared a few recipes with her; the woman was delighted.
This little conversation triggered an “Aha!” moment in Lisa’s brain. She went home and put together a cookbook on tofu, which included family cooking stories and, on each page, she placed a thought-provoking quote. She had copies made and sold them to friends, family and neighbors. She got requests for more. She had additional copies printed, this time bound with a plastic spiral. She took some of these to a local health food store. They bought a few, sold them, and ordered more. Then they ordered even more. By the end of the year the health food store had sold a total of 250 of Lisa’s tofu cookbook.
The following year, Lisa branched out to other health food stores and even a few pharmacies and it was the same story. They bought books, sold out, and ordered more. Next, Lisa bought her own spiral machine and printed copies at home for less money, and started doing a little local advertising. This resulted in a total of 5,000 cookbook sales, a decent number– even if it had been a traditionally published book. But it was a lot of work! Had self-publishing on Amazon’s CreateSpace been available at the time Lisa started this project, who knows how many sales she’d have made as the result of people typing “cooking tofu” into their search engines!
While it may still be possible to put everything that’s known about cooking tofu inside a single book, the body of knowledge in other fields is too vast for that. If you are, say, a mental health professional and want to write a book on your specialty, you are probably going to have to “niche it down” so it’s not too broad and so it doesn’t repeat what’s already been done. In other words, you can’t just write “about alcoholism.” However, a book on alcoholism and the elderly is another story. By “niching it down,” you’ll be appealing to a few specific audiences, such as physicians, mental health professionals working with this population, and family members. Try to think of another audience or two.
Here are just some of the subjects therapists have picked as specialties. Any one of them could be developed into a book: Abuse, addiction, adoption, aging, anger management, ADHD, animal assisted therapy, anxiety, art therapy, Aspergers, autism, biofeedback, bipolar disorder, children/adolescents/teens, Christian counseling, cognitive behavioral, couples, creativity, depression, divorce and custody, eating disorders, employee assistance (EAP), gay / lesbian/transgender issues, HIV/AIDS, Jungian analysis, Gestalt, grief recovery, learning disabilities, life coaching, meditation, mental illness, men’s issues, metaphysics, military culture, neuroscience, online counseling, parenting, phobias, play therapy, postpartum, private practice marketing, psychoanalysis, relationships, religious counseling, retirement counseling, rockstar therapy (yes, really!), short-term therapy, sex therapy, singles, sleep disorders, special needs – and hundreds more!
Start thinking about how you might give your special topic that special twist to make it different and unique. That’s how you get literary agents interested in representing you, publishers interesting in publishing you, and readers interested in buying you, whether it’s a traditionally or self-published book. Readers don’t care. They just want the information. The trick is to jump on a niche when it is still fairly new so, as the late publishing guru Dan Poynter said, you “own” it.
Finding a Home for The Therapist Writer
When I first came up with the idea for The Therapist Writer, I wrote a standard book proposal and started sending it out to literary agents. I kept getting back the same response: “It’s too nichy.” The agents didn’t think there were enough mental health professionals who wanted to write who’d be interested in buying a book on the subject. In fact, well-known literary agent Michael Larsen from San Francisco even phoned me to tell me this, and added that if I’d expand the focus from therapists to include other professions, he might consider it. That was tempting, but it wasn’t the book I wanted to write or felt capable of writing. I know my “tribe,” my fellow mental health professionals, very well, but I don’t know about other professional “tribes,” so I didn’t think I’d sound like I knew what I was talking about. I said no.
That’s when I realized I didn’t have a clue how big my market was. How many mental health professionals are there are in this country, anyhow, and how many of them want to write a book? I consulted the Occupational Outlook Handbook and came up with 750,000 mental health professionals, so I figured that if I could sell The Therapist Writer to just 1% of these therapists, that would end up being 7,500 books. I also realized that while this figure might make me happy, it wouldn’t make me rich, and it wouldn’t impress a mainstream publisher.
I gave up on the idea of traditional publishing and self-published through Lightning Source (after first becoming a publisher — their rule at the time), and once the paper version was up on Amazon, I published it as a Kindle E-book.
Doc, What’s Your Line?
The conversation with agent Larsen made me really clear on the fact that I didn’t want to give up my niche audience (mental health professionals who want to write) and write for all writers. There were already plenty of books on writing and publishing for the general public. I also felt it was a plus that I was a licensed psychotherapist because I had chapters in the book on special issues that therapist-writers face, such as the important issue of patient confidentiality: How can a therapist write about a client’s case without getting sued? I talk in the book about “the art of disguise” in writing about others, which means a lot more than just changing names.
I now understood that by “niching down” my book I was probably limiting my readership and profits, but that’s just one of the many decisions an author must make. I also knew that when I started marketing my book, I’d have a chance to point out the benefits in the book for all writers, not just therapist writers. One big marketing shift I had to make was to treat therapist-writers as therapists, not writers. Most therapists don’t want to be writers, which is why they haven’t bought books on writing, and why they know less about the writing business than the average bear. They just want to keep on being therapists who have written a book. My book, I point out in my marketing, understands this and works with it so the therapists can reach their publishing goals in spite of their discomfort. The therapists who do want to be writers (and there are some!) already act like writers, and have read books and know about publishing trends. They are ripe and ready to press on.
The majority of the time, in marketing to therapists, I stress therapy careers, not writing careers. I list the perks for therapists in being “the author of ” a book. It means instant credibility; being seen as an “expert in the field.” They might even become the “go-to” shrink for colleagues to refer to for specific psychological issues, like one therapist I know whose self-published book on his personal bipolar struggle has made him the therapist that other therapists think of as a referral resource. When I’d speak at therapy-related events and meetings, I’d take the same approach. I’d talk to the audience as “therapists,” not “writers,” and stress the career perks of getting published.
Becoming Niche Savvy
It’s important to know why your niche audience wants your book. For my niche audience, my book is business, not pleasure. Some therapists want to publish in order to have a carton of books in the trunk of their car to sell when they give talks or give workshops, or to have on hand for clients, clients’ families, and colleagues. Nothing more. They hate marketing.
I learned how to market The Therapist Writer (and I’m still learning) and how deal with a niche audience on the job, mostly by correcting mistakes — such as starting out with no idea of the size, or whereabouts, of my audience! Next time out, I’ll know.
I didn’t get rich or famous marketing my book, but I learned a bunch and I got this award for my efforts. Cool experience. And the award is pretty, isn’t it?
Below, FYI, is a video clip of my award acceptance remarks:
*Copyright 2015 Sylvia Cary, LMFT. Portions of this blog post are taken from the chapter on “Nailing Your Niche” in The Therapist Writer.