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Bookselling in the 21st Century

Part VI: Insulated Niches
An Introduction

by Craig Stark

#140 21 December 2009

August through November has been one of my best bookselling stretches ever - a nice surprise, frankly, given that events seem to be conspiring to send many businesses south. I don't have a ready explanation for this surge in sales, but what I can do is look back at exactly what those sales were and perhaps make some guesses on trends. And wouldn't it be nice if I discovered that there are a few bookselling niches that appear to be nicely insulated against the forces that have been eroding our marketplace in recent years?

In the coming weeks I'll be featuring potential candidates for some of these niches, but first I think it would be useful to discuss a few things in principle. Is it possible to evaluate your present inventory in the context of the evolution of the marketplace and, with this in hand, adopt a strategy for moving forward? In my opinion, yes, and if you're a reasonably good student of human nature, have a sense for demographics, etc. this will be a lot simpler than it sounds.

First, consider this question: What is the likelihood that a given book will be digitized in the near future?

Look at the money trail, and you'll have at least part of the answer. Is the book a best seller? A textbook? You can bet the farm that these will be (or have already been) digitized. But what about ... I don't know ... yearbooks? Is there money to be made via digitization here? Sure, there would certainly be some buyers for, say, a PDF of a ca. 1970 high school yearbook, but their numbers would be quite small, at best a few hundred (and likely much fewer). Would the payoff justify the effort? Seems doubtful.

There are other reasons for digitization, of course, than to make a few bucks. Speaking of yearbooks, there are a number of educational institutions, almost exclusively colleges, who have already digitized every yearbook they've ever published. These tend to be clunky and difficult to search, but they are up there. And of course many institutions are now offering newly published yearbooks in digitized formats.

Still, common sense suggests that the print yearbook market won't be going away anytime soon. Digitized high schools yearbooks, for example, are few and far between, not to mention woefully incomplete, likely because most high schools don't own complete libraries of their yearbooks, let alone have the resources to fund digitization projects.

Another question that's useful to ask: If a given book is digitized, what is the likelihood that there will still be a robust market for print copies?

Again, money plays into this some. In the case of textbooks, it's already apparent that digitized copies, at least generally, are offered at substantially lower prices than print copies. Given that students are often impoverished creatures and more often than not sell their print copies immediately after completing classes, one doesn't need a crystal ball to predict that the textbook print market will be going away quickly. There may still be at least some demand for print copies, but increased production costs will push prices for these higher yet.

Speaking of yearbooks again, experience has shown me that the most active sector of this market comprises 1950s to 1970s high school yearbooks. If you fall into this high school graduation age window and are looking for a replacement copy of your yearbook, what would be your preference if both print and digitized copies are available? I bet I know. This may be different twenty or thirty years from now, but for the time being, this is clearly an insulated niche.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: For in-depth information on buying and selling yearbooks, purchase issue #31 of the Gold Edition here.]

For each and every niche you currently exploit, you'll be wise to ask yourself these same two questions and proceed accordingly, either by liquidation (see the earlier article on this here) or intensified focus, depending. You'll also be wise to identify new niches - or investigate selling media in other formats.

I'll return next time with a discussion of another insulated niche.

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