It’s been a hellish sort of week so I’m a little behind with my feeds, but tonight I finished the last two instalments of Sara Loyd’s outstanding essay A book publisher’s manifesto for the 21st century.

However, Part V of the manifesto touched on something I’ve been thinking a lot about the last little while – deep niches, an idea espoused by Michael Jensen in his Journal of Electronic Publishing article The Deep Niche. This is the notion that, at any given moment in time, the collective audience demand for a book or subject may represent quite a viable market for a publisher, yet that audience is constantly dynamically shifting. The point is to be the resource for a particular genre or subject when people are interested in finding it. This shifts the focus of publishing from the book as product, to the book as solution to consumer problem. Jensen says:

Traditionally, a book is published, and it’s marketed while it’s “fresh.” Publishers historically think of a six-month to three-year life cycle for a new publication. Bookstores generally return books to the publisher within six months, because of the premium on shelf space, and libraries rarely purchase “backlist.” Publishers implicitly presume that the “life cycle” of interest in a publication is constrained by these realities, and is driven by our promotions and the book’s new presence in the marketplace.

But things are different in the always-on Web. I may stumble upon a reference to a 2002 blog entry that fits my current enthusiasm. It links to a 1998 publication that exactly fits my interest. I sample it, and then I purchase it, independent of space ads, reviews, or other press promotion. If I’m in the midst of an enthusiasm, the search engines become my map to information, which may lead me to knowledge.

As Sara Loyd pointed out in Part V of her essay, this would suggest the opportunity for publishers is around vertical niches of content:

In this context publishers would focus value around subject or genre expertise and intimate, direct market knowledge, providing editorial and marketing functions beyond the merely ‘technical’. In this scenario publishers would need to move back further into the territory of filter and editorial consultant and to re-focus energies on their (oft forsaken) role as career nurturers for authors (a space currently shared at least by agents in the trade space). They would also need to develop brands around subject or genre niches so that their platforms are able to gain traction over those developed by competitors and to become far, far better at direct sales and marketing.

I’m encouraged to look around the marketplace and see that this is already starting to happen. eHarlequin have been in this space for a while now, building up a robust social network around their titles and authors and establishing themselves as the online go-to site for romance readers. Given my own reading tastes, I’m also personally hopping from toe to toe waiting for the new Tor site to be launched, which editor Patrick Neilsen Hayden describes thus:

We know that the site will use a blog-like architecture to present an ongoing stream of news, opinion, and observation from various Tor people, myself included, about the SF and fantasy events of the day—and about perhaps less-current things that are nonetheless of interest to SF and fantasy readers, such as medieval siege engines, the Van Allen Belt, hoisin sauce, XKCD, and the novels of Georgette Heyer. We know that there will be non-Tor bloggers also posting to the “front page”; in fact we’ve already recruited several in order to ensure coverage of particular niche areas. (Some of these individuals will be familiar to Making Light readers—wave hello, Bruce Baugh—and we haven’t finished recruiting, either.) We know that the site will also feature new original fiction on a regular basis, illustrated under the supervision of art director Irene Gallo, and that these original stories—free of DRM, offered as part of the blog feed and also Available For Your Convenience in a variety of other formats—will have their own associated open comment threads, just like everything else on the blog. We know that there will be lightweight “social networking” features for registered users, including the ability to form mutual-interest groups through tagging and the ability to create journals and/or discussions of their own. Most of all, we know that the real point of the exercise isn’t to create yet another blog, but rather, a place and a context for the lively, ongoing, wide-ranging, and profoundly self-organizing discussions that have characterized the science fiction subculture since its earliest days.

Patrick and the team at Tor clearly get it. I guess it’s natural that genre publishers would be first to recognise and capitalise on the opportunities inherent in deep niches. I also expect academic publishers will see the benefits pretty quickly. But given the right digital platforms and information architecture, there’s no reason that every publisher couldn’t be racking up additional long tail sales through deep niches. However what it will require is a shift in their thinking about their backlist that I haven’t seen much evidence of so far. It will require an openness to search, and probably also a more direct relationship with the consumer market than publishers are used to having. Genre publishers get it. I’m excited to see who else will.