The Importance of Finding Your Niche: A Q&A with publishing veteran Richard E. Abel
Richard E. Abel is a publishing renaissance man. From establishing publishing companies and owning his own bookstore to founding a book marketing and distribution company and writing his own works, Abel has had his hand in nearly every area of publishing. At age 83, time has not put a dent in his passion for the industry, even after his cardiologist’s advice to slow down after his third heart attack led him to sell Timber Press, the Portland-based horticultural niche publishing house that he started 30 years ago.
Abel will receive the Publishers Association of the West’s Jack D. Rittenhouse Award at the organization’s National Publishing Conference and Book Industry Trade Show, which runs Nov. 13-15, for his outstanding contributions to the western book community. He recently spoke with Book Business Extra about his long and varied career.
Book Business Extra: What challenges do publishers on the West Coast face that their peers in the East do not?
Richard Abel: We don’t have access out here to the same kind of freelance whatever—editors, designers and so on …. That means we have to do a lot of [that work] in-house or develop that talent for our own house. … Another thing [is that] we just don’t have access to the market the way [East Coast publishers] do. It’s easy for [them] to get to a central purchasing office. It’s very difficult for us. …
Of course, none of us [on the West Coast] have been long established. [On the East Coast,] there are so many long-established outfits, or people who have [worked at] long-established publishing houses who have spun off to start their own imprint. Out here, there isn’t any of that. …
Extra: Did you ever think about relocating during your career? What has kept you on the West Coast?
Abel: … I grew up on a cattle ranch in Montana. I simply don’t like a lot of people around. … Secondly, there has always been something different in the West …. We are a self-reliant lot. … That leads to a spirit of innovation. I think that those publishers that have been really successful have been what I like to call niche publishers. They discovered a niche that needed to be served that the big publishers in the East might not even have known about. What East Coast publishers would want to look at max print runs of 5,000? Very few. They sneer at that kind of thing.
We tend to look very hard for potential authors. We stay very close to the authors in the niche we’re working in. … We’re looking for literature niches that have not been occupied. Then, we do some nosing around. Who’s the best person in the field? Then, we go and entice them to do a book. There’s a lot of initiative in all of this. On the East Coast, it’s become pretty much a marketing affair. Out here, you’re still very much known by your catalog. Your catalog is your calling card.
Extra: How would things be different today if you were to start a company like Timber Press now?
Abel: I would look around for niches that are inadequate or not filled at all. I know they’re out there. I’ve done a lot of consulting since I sold Timber—both in this country and [in] England. There are a whole slug of niches. …
… To keep your list intact, you’ve always got [print-on-demand (POD)]. POD was just a dream when I was active. Now, it’s a great way for a niche to keep a title in print for years on end.
Extra: You’ve seen all of the various parts of the business—what has excited or shocked you the most in recent years?
Abel: What I’m really excited about is print-on-demand. You can do your own composition in-house and then send it to someone like Lightning Source and have books back in two or three weeks. …
One of things that really strikes me is that the unit sale of books has been topped out and is starting to recede. I think what we, therefore, are seeing is the demise of the book [for] just pure entertainment. People still are buying the serious book, the nonfiction book put out by the niche publisher, and that’s going to be around because people need knowledge. The entertainment books—the thing to spend away a few evenings with—there’s the competition from TV, the movies and now the Internet. They’re replacing the entertainment component that the book used to serve. Back in the golden age of reading, toward the end of the 19th century, almost anything would sell. That’s not the case anymore. ….
Extra: What would you say is a gap in knowledge of the publishers you see today?
Abel: … If I were consulting right now, the first thing I would be doing would be helping the publisher identify a vocal editorial niche. I’d help to get that publisher to give up the notion … that you can find shelf space for your books in enough bookstores. You’re mistaken. You can’t compete with the big guys. What you’ve got to do is stay focused on that niche market. You can’t consistently dream of that best-seller that will sell 100,000 copies. Everyone that has a press is seduced by that notion. You’ve got to find a niche, a subject niche, which needs to be served.