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Building a “Vertical” Fan Base

Been following deconstructions of the recent Book Expo America (BEA), and one conclusion agreed upon by everyone in the industry is that “the times they are a-changin’.” Most of these changes appear to be driven by two factors: 1.) The economy and 2.) Technology.

I read an interesting summation from Janet Grant, literary agent from Books & Such (who also happens to be my agent). In What Does the Future Hold? Janet distills a workshop she attended at BEA entitled “Product Centric Publishing in a Community Centric World” presented by Mike Shatzkin, which seems representative of many of these publishing trends. Among the points she makes (and, if you’re a writer, you should peruse her entire post), the one that most intrigued me was this:

Publishing widely to reach as broad an audience as possible will go away. In its place will be publishing “vertically”– reaching more deeply into a narrower audience.

Later, Janet goes on to summarize and expound on this “vertical publishing” concept:

The two key words to keep in mind as you eye the future are: “vertical” and “community.” You must understand yourself vertically and present yourself vertically (develop a web site designed to reach your community; collect emails from your community; create partnerships vertically). (emphasis mine)

So rather than trying to build a “broad audience,” you should “present yourself vertically,” identify your niche and dig in — develop friendships, support others’ efforts, familiarize yourself with the “language” of the community, and build a fellowship of readers / followers.

It makes a lot of sense, but it raises some questions about the nature of literary niches and niche marketing.

Does building a “vertical fan base” assume that there are more people in a niche than meets the eye, and that there’s more people in that niche than are really engaged? For instance, despite spec-fic (sci-fi / fantasy / paranormal / horror) comprising a big chunk of the mainstream market, the genre is woefully under-represented in Christian bookstores. Does this shortage of Christian speculative fiction imply that there really isn’t that big a fan base or that that niche has just not been fully tapped? Are there really less Christian spec-fic fans out there, or are there a lot of un-engaged Christian spec-fic fans? If you can reach “more deeply into a narrower audience,” doesn’t that mean the audience is really NOT that narrow, or that that “narrow audience” is not fully engaged? Am I making sense?

All said and done, I think this new model has less to do with niche marketing (which is more the traditional model), than building relationships / friendships / community within an already existing community of readers.

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Nicole June 5, 2009, 12:46 AM

    It makes more sense to me. Marketing can be more specific and perhaps the marketing teams can get a grasp on the specfic or men's fiction menus. Why not write to a niche where we're most comfortable and suits our styles? Writers are supposed to know their audiences, and, honestly, aren't most novels geared to fairly specific readers? I know I limit my reading to specific genres and write that way as well.
    Will the publishers do smaller print runs? Will they void the ridiculous policy of accepting and giving credit for books consumers buy and return and after reading them and deciding they don't like them?

  • Tim Ward May 22, 2012, 9:33 AM

    Hmmm, I might ask you about this in our podcast. I’m curious what you think about this now (just realized from Nicole’s comment that this was posted in 09′), such as whether you are trying to broaden your fanbase to incorporate non-Christians. I’m taking the broad approach of SF/F/and Horror readers because I write in all of them, and my stuff isn’t evangelical, but this also prevents me from being open about my faith on twitter and facebook. Some days I feel like my broad approach has left me on the outside of both communities.

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