I have been a niche marketer all my adult life. For me, niche filling and creativity go hand in hand.
In college, I created the only rock and roll band with multiple horns on the Indiana University campus. In the 1980s, I created a society orchestra with a sound similar to “Big Bad Voodoo Daddy,” before they ever came on the scene and played all the formal dances at Ft. Leavenworth and later on the Bavarian Fest Circuit out of Munich, Germany for three years. From 1987 to 1997, I became the go-to- author for military self-defense and personal security books. Now, my wife and I are doing it again at our bookstore, The Book Barn, and with my publishing company, Spear’s Mint Editions Publishing. For me, finding a niche and filling it is as natural as breathing. I have always had an instinct for it. I’m not rich, but I’ve had a lot of fun along the way. I would like to use my store and writing/publishing efforts over the past ten years or so to explain what and how we do what we do.
Heads Up—Look Around
It’s important to be aware—sensitive to patterns in life and the day-to-day routines. What do people like, want, and need? Are they being satisfied? Are any fads becoming trends (a genuine turning point)? What excites and interests you and the people you service? Listen to what people say. Watch the news. Talk; get opinions. Watch and experience life. Here is how all that works:
The American Girls product line came out. What a great idea—hooking American history to female characters representing different periods and producing common formats to each one. We decided that was a good idea and began to organize events around single characters at a time. Instead of holding tea and doll admiration parties, we created a full context experience. We would pick a character and invite customers with girls 6-11 years old for an hour-long experience. I would quickly explain the historical period for the chosen character. I would play and sing a couple of songs from that time and culture. We would play a game from that time. Then came a short craft or art project centered on the time, after which we served a typical snack from the time. The little girls loved it and the parents could be heard commenting in the background, “I didn’t know that.” These events helped us receive a win in a national level competition amongst many other Independent bookstores.
Leavenworth was the first city in Kansas and has a rich historical background. We have always had a good regional selection of books. In 2000, I decided to add music to that by creating a CD album of ten songs—5 were original songs I wrote to tell fun stories about our area and 5 were traditional folk songs that had connectivity to our area. It has sold slowly but steadily ever since.
Next we noticed we had no attractive book below $15 for the tourists about our community. There were some excellent histories, but they were hardbacks in the $50 to $60 price range. They were fine for interested locals, but not for casual tourist shoppers. I asked several area historians if they would be interested in writing such a book ,and they weren’t. So, I took it on and spent six months researching and writing in 2005 to produce Leavenworth: First City of Kansas. This book won three marketing awards for its cover and interior design and has sold steadily with lots of favorable feedback. Four area museums and several gift shops sell it and the CD, as well as our store.
Don’t Be Surprised if You Earn A Reputation As A Reliable Resource—That’s What You Want to Happen
An interesting phenomenon has occurred. People are now introducing me as an area historian. My choosing to expand my storytelling programs into the next higher level called historical performing, where I become the famous Leavenworth favorite son, William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody. I tell his stories in the first person, as if I really was him. I try to make him come alive for the listeners. Now, my college degrees are in music and business. I’ve had one American history course and four music history courses in my time. That does not make me a professional historian; however, the research I have done to put together credible projects and events provide me with enough knowledge to be interesting.
Now I am taking this Leavenworth/Midwestern history niche and adding something something that has been missing—a body of literature that provides a clear picture of pop culture of our area’s frontier times. My last post was a review of a wonderful book that explained how to find and re-publish public domain materials. What a Godsend that was! I have been able to locate a number of nonfiction and fiction books of the 1800s to early 1900s that opens wonderful windows of the exciting era. How much have I had to invest? Mostly my time and skills and very little money. I have downloaded text or htm files, pasted them into Word format, and then used InDesign to lay out the books with an old-timey look. The covers are simple black ink printed on colored card stock.
Now I have a unique offering in our niche. Could competitors do this? It’s doubtful; it’s too skill dependent and too small of a market segment for the big box stores, and there are no Indy stores in the area with the ability to pull it off. This is the ultimate example of “Long-Tail” marketing—find little niches that need filling but are too small for the big guys. Next week I will have ten copies of each of these digitally printed to provide enough for the store and to show the other outlets. See what I mean about not having to make a large investment. I will then use just in time inventory control to drive future print runs. Since I don’t have to use middlemen for these books, I can afford the higher pod costs. So, what are these long-lost tomes that will catapult our store’s image several notches upward? They are a good mix of nonfiction and fiction and an amalgamation of the two:
The Prairie Traveler— In 1859 an Army Captain who spent 25 years guiding settlers across the plains safely write the ultimate how-to book on doing this. He addresses the animals you’d need and why, the equipment, the supplies, and the skills. He also provides the day by day mileposts along all the major trails. This is an absolutely fascinating book, even providing information on the major Indian tribes you might encounter and what to expect.
Twin Hells— Leavenworth has a prison industry—7 of them in the area. This 1800s book was written by a man who founded one of our banks and was also president of an insurance company in Atchison. Political competitors managed to railroad him into an 18-month sentence on a trumped up fraud charge to the Kansas State Penitentiary, working in its very dangerous coal mine. After serving his time, he is hired as an investigator of Missouri’s penitentiary, which he finds to be just as bad. He takes his notes in shorthand so the guards won’t know what he’s writing about. There will be a lot of interest in this book in our unique community.
Adventures of Buffalo Bill From Boyhood to Manhood— Deeds of Daring, Scenes of Thrilling Peril, and Romantic Incidents in the Early Life of W.F. Cody, the Monarch of Bordermen. By Colonel Prentiss Ingraham, who was a master of pulp fiction. The subtitle is straight off the book’s title page. Buffalo Bill is of huge interest here.
There are several, but I think you’ll get the idea by these illustrations.
Emerging Pop Book Trends
Next, I noticed that novels of “place” had become popular. Setting is important to people. My wife also noticed the trend of adults buying Young Adult books for their own reading pleasure because they want entertaining, easy and quick to read books. That combination of factors is what prompted me to write and publish a series of five simple mysteries set in Leavenworth with easy-to-recognize settings and arch-typical Leavenworth characters. People love them.
Niche-Filling Creates Credibility and Trust
Notice all these projects and events are supportive of our community. We continue to raise the public’s awareness of our store and ourselves as a trustworthy source of information and entertainment based on the community past and present. This brings in more foot traffic of people interested in the niche and all our other offerings. They simply cannot get this kind of support at a major chain. We know the area; we know our books; we know the authors (many of them personally), and we know how to fit it all together with an additional service of fast, reliable special ordering of book not on our shelves. By approaching our niche from several different directions with different product types. I hope this gives you an idea of the mind set that you should find useful in this essential marketing attitude in today’s marketplace.