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Writing for a Niche Market

About a year ago I stoutly declared to a novelist friend that I was not a writer, really, because I made so little of my income from my books. That is no longer true; they are right now bringing in about a third to a half of my actual income after expenses. I made this radical change by establishing a method for generating income from book sales. I recently gave a talk about it, titled “Writing for a Niche Market”, at Arkadia Bookshop. At the beginning of my talks I usually invite the audience to interject with questions at any point, so we ended up discussing all sorts of things (like the excellence of Scrivener, how it’s sleazy to advertise your stuff in the comments on someone else’s blog, and many other topics). But it struck me that the core content might make a good blog post, not least as I used Keynote, for the first time, to create spiffy slides to illustrate my points.

The point of the talk was to show how it is possible to make a significant contribution to your income by writing, even when your core readership is tiny. I started by identifying my niche in the context of non-fiction as a whole:

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Martial arts books account for about 0.04% of the total non-fiction titles. Let’s compare that to some other genres: Vampires, Paranormal Romance, and Vampires with Paranormal Romance.

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There are nearly 50,000 books with vampires in them; nearly 30,000 paranormal romance titles. And 7.633 titles with both. So if you like reading about falling in love with vampires, and could read two such books every week, then you have 70 years of reading material already out there for you!

So martial arts are a teeny-tiny fraction of the book market. But it gets worse. I don’t write about all martial arts; I specialise in Medieval and Renaissance Italian Swordsmanship:

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Which is such a nichey little niche that this Venn diagram is not to scale; it just illustrates the point.

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But here’s the kicker: the market is very small, which means that there is very little competition for it. Yes, folks, if you’re after books about how to swing longswords in a medieval Italian manner, there are very, very few books out there. And given that each one can take years to write, the appetite of the happy few who are interested is hard to sate. They can read them faster than we can write them. That is not true of an author trying to break into the vampire romance market.

So here is my main point: it can be a huge advantage to specialise in a small niche. Because my readership is very clearly defined, I can write books that would leave most of the world cold, but will light my particular readership on fire.

With so few of them around though, it is necessary to be able to make contact with as many of them as possible. The internet is the key factor here: thanks to its good offices, us weirdo Italian-historical-swordsmanship aficionados can find each other, and, together, make a market. Here are the key parts of the process:

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Free content, such as blog posts, youtube clips, and articles, gathers interest, and weeds out readers who are not interested. In a perfect world, you acquire the email addresses of everyone who likes your stuff, either through them subscribing to your blog or your channel, or through asking them for it in return for otherwise free but unavailable material (I very recently figured out how to do this on my website Selz account). You also make sure that every book that they buy connects them to the others; with links, or references. Most readers want more books, and if they like the one they just read, they want more by that author. Which is why it’s a really good idea to write more than one book! And when the next one comes out, you have a means to let the people who are most likely to want to know about it (your current readership), know.

So, we have a book, and a potential readership of *gasp* maybe a couple of thousand people, spread out worldwide. How can a writer make any kind of a living writing books that will sell so few copies? J.K.Rowling is not impressed. Neither is Stephen King. But hell, I don’t need to sell a million copies, if I can make a reasonable sum on each copy sold. Enter the self-publishing machine.

Let’s start with crowdfunding. I’ve written about it elsewhere, but here’s a thought:

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See that figure on the right? 13,510€? That is from about 400 sales. Now, it’s not all income:

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After Indiegogo’s cut, and Paypal fees, and the Wiktenauer donation, and paying for layout, and printing and shipping all those books, I am left with 38% of the money (so, about 5,133€; not bad, but not actually great for the hundreds of hours the book has taken to write and edit); but that was from only about 400 sales, and I have a new book on the market. Something that, if all goes well, will be bringing in royalties for decades. Oddly enough, since I republished the The Swordsman’s Companion in 2013, it has been bringing in a significant chunk of cash every month; and this new longsword book does not seem to have cannibalised any of its sales; in fact, it seems to be driving more sales. Huzzah!

There are more things to consider, of course. Print versus ebooks, for example.

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In the wider world, ebooks account for 61% of all book sales, but only 30 % of actual earnings. This is because they have to be priced so low. In the modern world though, there is no need to choose; it is so cheap to produce both that it is simply bad business to ignore the preferences of even a minority of readers. You want it on your kobo, your kindle, your actual bookshelf? You got it.

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For me, in terms of revenue, it breaks down like this:

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I only print through one supplier these days, Lightning Source, and you can buy my books at any bookshop, online or bricks and mortar (though you’ll have to order them if your local bookshop doesn’t stock them).

There are exclusive deals around, such as Amazon’s author tools (publishing exclusively on Kindle for a higher royalty, and their CreateSpace which allows you to create books that only they will sell), but I wouldn’t touch them with a stick, for this simple reason: it is very risky business to have only one outlet for the books. It leaves you very vulnerable to changes of any kind (such as Amazon policy changes). You can get my self-published books wherever books are sold, and in any format you want. If any one of those channels gets blocked (eg Barnes and Noble decide that they think swords are too dangerous and ban all sword books), I’ll take a hit, but not a fatal one. Sure, if Amazon goes belly up, I’ll take a bigger hit, but only until other print book delivery systems take up the slack.

This is why I love Lightning Source: they distribute everywhere, and they have the best rates in the market. Compare production costs for paperbacks and hardbacks:

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This means that when I sell a paperback for 25€, which is a fair price for the content (and there is so little competition in the form of other books on the subject that people are happy to pay it), I am actually making about 20€ if it’s direct sales, and about half that if it’s wholesale. (You set the wholesale discount where you want it; I give 40%, which is about standard. Many publishers give 50%). And if Lightning Source go under, I have all the files, and more importantly, the rights, to find another print on demand service.

So, I can make a significant contribution to my income from very small sales, by making a decent amount of money on every sale. Let’s put some figures on that: here’s the data from Lightning Source, for paperbacks sold in US dollars (so, not UK, Germany, or elsewhere, and not Kindle sales or similar), of The Swordsman’s Companion, and The Duellist’s Companion.

MTD is Month to Date, YTD is Year to Date.


So you can see that by selling 582 copies of the Swordsman’s Companion, this year (January to September), I have made 6,367 dollars. That’s my top-selling book this year, in my best market. But it’s not my only book, or the only market. And so, while I’m not out buying Ferraris just yet, I will be getting the last bits of my armour done. And I can justify the time it takes to write the next book!

Further reading: these three books were all very helpful to me in taking the work I’d done and figuring out how to get paid for it:

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And (affiliate!) links to each:

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur-How to Publish a Book

How To Market A Book

Write. Publish. Repeat. (The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success)

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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