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Selecting a Publisher: Areas of Expertise

This is the first of several posts I plan to make on how an author might go about selecting a publisher. I’ll try to pull from my experience not only as a former author but also my current job as a publisher. Additionally, I’ll do my best to speak fairly, without a bias to my employer.

Every publisher is currently waging a war for shelf space. They’re fighting with competing publishers and competing topics: A topic area that’s not performing will see its shelf space reduced in favor of one that’s showing growth. Although a publisher venturing into a new area can sometimes be successful, my advice is to go with one of the existing leaders in that segment.

It’s pretty obvious why you’d want to sign with a publisher who has a great reputation with readers in that topical space, but what about the buyers at each of the major bookstore chains? (The buyers are the ones who decide how many copies go on the shelf, which ones get promoted, etc.) Can the publisher’s reputation in a particular topic area make a difference to them? Absolutely. If a publisher is a leader in one area, they’re highly likely to have a strong working relationship with the bookstore buyers for that topic. That’s critical. After all, buyers are extremely busy people and it’s hard for some of the smaller players to even get significant face time with an account.

You might be tempted to go with a smaller player, figuring that your book will be an important experiment for them as they look to expand into new areas. Good luck. I’d be skeptical until that publisher provides specifics on how they intend to gain share in this new area. How certain are they of getting a meeting with the buyer for that topic at each of the key accounts? What sort of steps are they going to take to compete with the leaders?

The leaders in each area are used to doing a variety of promotions to help maintain their leadership position. Every book doesn’t get promoted, of course, but you’re more likely to ride the coattails of a broad promotion with a leader than you are with someone else. There are exceptions, of course, but I’d insist on promotional details before buying into the promises of someone other than one of the top 2 or 3 publishers in the segment.

OK, you’re dealing with a publisher who claims to be a “leader” in that area. How can they back that up? Do they have data they can share with you? If not, how do their claims come across in the store? What percentage of the shelf space do they have on that topic? Are they doing any promotions? If they’re not doing one now, when was their last promotion?

Don’t forget about the online accounts. What sort of relationship do they have with them? How actively are they promoting online? Amazon and some of the others offer bestseller lists by topic area. How does this publisher fare on those lists? What are some of their top titles and what’s the overall ranking (Amazon, B&N, etc.) for those titles? Can they really be a “leader” if they’re not on the bestseller lists, their “top titles” have low rankings, etc.? Probably not.

I respect a publisher who knows their limits and avoids trying to be everything to everyone. Even the largest conglomerates have certain topic areas they don’t experiment in. That’s a good thing, considering the importance of building and maintaining a strong reputation in the minds of readers and buyers alike.

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