Publishing in verticals

Every time I read about the launch of a new generalist trade publishing imprint, in which an editor can seemingly publish whatever takes his or her fancy, I worry for those involved.

This approach implies a business model in which a retailer will devote space to each carefully crafted work. But physical retail space is in decline, and despite a large amount of work by online retailers and social reading platforms the best alternative we have to the bookshop browsing experience is Amazon’s recommendation algorithm (which recommends other box sets if you buy a box set). Can this approach really work effectively for each of the millions of books published every year?

Until a few years ago, it didn’t matter whether you were a reader of literary fiction or a lover of gardening manuals, the bookshop was where you went to buy books. Thus the “trade” grew, and with it the myth that there is a “book market”. The consumer publishing industry as we know it evolved around a format, not around a market. The migration to online purchasing of print books, and then to e-books, means that the buying of books is now about processes of search and recommendation, rather than browse and display, and this leads to a focus on specific interest areas and trusted authorities. If you publish for a wide range of interests, promotion of each individual book is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive.

This is why publishing thought-leaders such as Mike Shatzkin have, for a number of years, advocated a move to organising around “verticals”; that is to say creating imprints for specific genres/subjects/markets. Osprey Group grew out of this approach, beginning as an imprint focused on military history (Osprey) and expanding into other verticals including British history and nostalgia (Shire), science fiction and fantasy (Angry Robot), and now mind, body and spirit (Watkins).

When this approach works, the publisher constructs a space in which there can be a symbiotic relationship between author, publisher and reader. The publisher’s brand attracts authors, who support and promote themselves, one another and the brand (for example, we recently had 19 authors attend an SF convention, using their own Twitter hashtag to promote one another and Angry Robot). This attracts readers, who make repeat purchases, and these readers in turn attract more authors. This symbiotic relationship extends to rights protection: we have evidence in more than one of the niche markets we serve that customer loyalty acts as a brake on piracy.

Marketing evolves from promotion of individual titles to promotion of the publisher’s brand. Yes, it is still important to promote a small number of “break out” books that act as brand builders to attract those at the outer reaches of an enthusiast market, but most books don’t require an individual marketing budget. With a branded collection of books in a vertical you can reach customers via retailers that sell other products in the same areas of interest. And if you have a brand and a loyal customer base you can sell direct to consumers. As engagement increases, you can ask customers what they want and create it for them (and this may extend beyond books, even beyond content).

This approach to publishing is not a silver bullet. Authenticity is crucial; those who commission and promote books or content need to be people who are truly part of the community for which they are publishing, but must balance that with broad commercial awareness. Even then, building a brand in a vertical takes time, patience and hard work. But we believe it will secure our future in a world in which we cannot rely on large book retailers and where margins will not allow for lavish promotion of every single book.

Rebecca Smart is chief executive of Osprey Publishing