Writing as Obsession, Niche, Commercial or Next Big Thing

Passion for a subject is a great reason to write about it and all the reason you should need to launch a website. But if you see writing and publishing as a path to financial independence or a second income, it's important to consider how far you can go before you start the journey. New or planned publishing websites can be categorized by their potential into four loose groups, which I'm labeling: obsession, niche, commercial and the next big thing. Assigning your planned website and book to one of these four categories is tricky, and certainly doesn't guaranty that you'll fail or succeed in your goals, but should help you manage your expectations and investment.

Writing about your obsession serves an end unto itself, but if nobody shares that obsession, it's hard to see how you're going to draw readers. There may be rare, rare cases where your personal attributes or writing are just so superior to the run-of-the-mill that people would sign up in droves to read about your summer watching a snail move down your garden path. Maybe once a month somebody in the world hits it big for a day with the equivalent of snail TV out of the millions who try. If you search the web for the subject that you're writing about, and the most popular sites related to that subject don't show a dozen incoming links, it's the opposite of popular.

Niche subjects are those that draw enough interest to support a couple of titles on Amazon, but which don't draw tens of thousands of visitors a day as websites. A small niche site may draw a hundred or so visitors a day, and if the site is compelling and the subject is commercial, can help a publisher sell a couple books a day. But niche subjects are also tricky, as a topic that can draw serious traffic on a website may fail to convert into significant book sales due to the subject or reader demographics. Niche books work well when the subject is perceived as having depth, as being worthy of purchasing a book. But take a niche subject like airport parking options. It might work great as a website, drawing people from all over the country or the world checking the parking situation at their departure airport, but a very limited audience would be willing to buy a reference book on the subject.

Commercial websites for publishers are those that can draw enough visitors that they create their own business opportunity. If you have a very popular website, you can sell advertising, sell merchandise, even sell subscriptions to walled-off resources. You don't need to bring out a book to monetize your web publishing efforts, and in some cases, that book would have very little chance of selling. Any site that shows up in the top 10,000 on Alexa or Quantcast, or draws 10,000 visitors a day from Google, can usually be considered a commercial website.

If I knew how to create a website that would be the next big thing, I'd be working on that rather than sticking with this self publishing blog, which is more of an obsession than anything else. Creating a website that will draw hundreds of thousands of visitors a day has more to do with knowing people than with knowing the web. My suggestions about using the available tools to estimate the potential for a website just don't apply to the next big thing, which has no related sites until after it arrives and establishes itself. But that makes doing your homework all the more important, because if you dream is to create the next big thing, you aren't going to do it with something that a hundred other websites have already worked out.


Bryan Rosner said...

For me personally, the hardest thing about writing for a commercially sized audience is not the discipline to get out of my own obsessions, but instead the discipline to try to spend the time and energy necessary to actually figure out who / what / where the audiences are, what they want, how big they are, and what type of product there is demand (e.g. low competition) for.

To date I have been too lazy to do this process properly so instead I've just sticked to writing books in topics that I know so well, I don't need to do the research.

But if I were willing to do research I might be able to break into some new markets that I am otherwise not knowledgable enough to access.

Another thing preventing me from accessing those "other" markets is the fact that I am not an expert in them (hence I refer to them as "Other"). However I think this should get easier since I am publishing more books by other authors, not just me, so I can look for experts in those fields...once I do the research to know which experts to look for and what books will sell.

All the more reason for me to get off my chair an do some research!

Of course, when it comes down to it, I think the research is actually quite hard. In the end I wonder if the research is best done by those who are knowledgable enough to simply have "instinct" in the right areas...but then if you are going on instinct, is it really research?

Just some thoughts of a publisher trying not to die from growing pains.


Morris Rosenthal said...


I agree that research of any sort is something of a specialty, but you don't have to get it 100% right for it to be useful. I'm a big booster of Google Trends for that reason, in one place you can look at search phrases and website traffic from large enough sites, and quickly get a feel for things.

Not that if you are logged in to a Google account, like gmail, you get a little more information than if you aren't. It also helps to calibrate what you see doing research against the results for some "known", eith a website of your own or a field you are very familiar with in terms of popularity. Just remember that exact wording matters, pays to mess around a bit.


Jon Reed said...

Morris, I have read your stuff for years and I think this is one of your most important posts in terms of clarifying the types of markets that are worth going after.

I would add some more distinctions which you probably would have gotten into yourself with a longer piece.

1. Not all niches are created equal. For example, I think the most lucrative niches are either topics that large, well funded corporations will pay for (such as executive training and competitive data) or niches that cater to those wealthy consumers with lots of disposable income. Both these demographics would be much more inclined to pay even $100for a relevant book without blinking an eye.

2. Pick a niche that has an online market you can identify and target. Not every niches are easy to target online. I wrote a general humor book that had broad appeal but did not lend itself well to targeted Internet marketing.

3. Perhaps most importantly, pick a niche that you have some genuine fascination for or that stokes your imagination. It doesn't matter if it's the most marketable niche in the world, if you don't feel like publishing books on how to improve your golf swing and putting accuracy, no one can give you your life back later. After all, it's not just publishing a book, with Internet marketing, you're digging in for the long haul supporting that title.

4. Because you're in it for the long haul, it doesn't hurt to find a niche that you don't mind offering other kinds of services in, such as high-priced speaking engagements and our consulting gigs. Some publishers are determined to stay pure publishers, but I think you can buffer your business model with a niche that also affords consulting opportunities, which you can always turn down if you don't want.

Interestingly enough, the web site and companion book that most closely follows this advice, a web site and book centered on SAP consulting, is way more successful than any of my other publishing endeavors, so I think your advice, with these clarifications in mind, is spot on.

Great post!

- Jon Reed -