This essay is part of the 2015 Big Ideas Issue. Find the complete list of Big Ideas essays here.
Verticalization has been the siren song of book publishing for at least a decade, with good reason. There are large, natural communities of readers that lend themselves to verticalization. Romance, Christian publishing, YA fandom, technical manuals. These are large enough and contain enough readers who read either exclusively or predominantly within these areas that they can support vertical infrastructure (branding, online communities, etc.) without forgoing other opportunities. (Readers of technical manuals might read thrillers, but you don’t need to sell them any thrillers to have a business; they buy enough technical books.)
But what about other readers? Their habits are not so neat. I had an “aha” moment at the Book Camp “unconference” a few years ago when someone in a position to know revealed that people who read Fifty Shades of Grey did not then go onto read other erotic fiction, as a verticalization theory might predict. Instead, they read The Hunger Games, the other much-talked about series at the time. There is no vertical that contains these two.
Even a few years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine how publishers might efficiently reach this majority of readers whose tastes are (at least) as idiosyncratic as this. With the rise of data come what I call “dynamic” verticals provide an answer. The analogy here is programmatic advertising, which has completely disaggregated online ad inventory. Instead of paying for a placement on a media property -- and paying a premium -- programmatic advertisers reach the exact same users for a fraction of the cost via smaller, increasingly targeted placements. Similarly, a sufficiently advanced CRM should allow marketers to identify likely readers for any book, via sub-genres within existing verticals or outside traditional verticalization entirely -- by discovering readers who, say, read titles that reach a certain level of cultural popularity, as in the example above. And if they also read thrillers? No problem: They’ll show up in that segment, too.
Among publishing pundits, this sort of targeting has taken a backseat to verticalization -- to which it can be a great compliment—but only because the technology, until recently, seemed out of reach. But as publishers invest more in director-to-consumer marketing strategies, these behind-the-scenes verticals -- invisible to the customer -- will become more common. Online media has already been trending this way, as Gawker Media -- a federation of verticalized brands -- gives way to the single-brand, departmentalized approaches of The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. And, needless to say, almost all the retail emails we receive -- whether they’re for clothes or books -- are sent to us, not as members of branded interest communities, but as members of fluid, dynamic verticals. The technology is there, and it has a place in the future of publishing.