One of the best niches for small publishers lies within the school system. Yes, the big publishers have a hold on the textbook market–and for good reason. Basically, it’s because this market is huge, and each state adopts its own texts. The state-based standards mean that it takes staff and dollars to go through the adoption process with state after state. However states tend to allot a certain percentage of their resource funds to supplementary materials–books and other resources not on their adopted textbook list. In California, that figure is 30%, and in Florida, it’s 50%. In Texas, most districts can exercise the "spot purchase" requirement for any purchase of $2,000 or less, and a district in Texas simply requests a letter from the publisher stating that they are the sole source as publisher of the requested materials for purchases over $2,000. The money is there.
When They Said It Couldn’t Be Done
I didn’t know anything about state adoptions or exemptions when I started Morning Glory Press 25 years ago. I also didn’t know it "wouldn’t work" to start out with a single title and sell by mail. All I knew was that I was teaching a teen parent program in a Los Angeles County school district, and the resources available for my students didn’t fit their needs. After I began developing more suitable materials for my own use, I decided there might be a market among other teachers in special programs for pregnant and parenting teens. Although the teacher of the first publishing seminar I attended laughed at my idea, we’ve now sold a total of 896,000 books plus workbooks, teacher guides, videos, games, and other curricula, with most of the products designed specifically for pregnant and parenting teens and for the people who work with them. Sales since May 1991 (birth date of our computer bookkeeping system) total more than $7 million. For the first two years, I chose books for parents from other publishers and adapted them (with permission) for classroom use with teens by creating study guides. Then I did my first real book, Pregnant Too Soon: Adoption Is an Option. Nothing was available at the time for birthparents considering an adoption plan. The literature seemed to assume that the only people involved were the baby and the adoptive parents. Because I had never released a baby for adoption, I didn’t know how it would feel, however I knew that this would be an important part of the book, along with adoption law, the need for counseling, etc. To find out, I interviewed 15 birthmothers, all of whom had been in my class. Throughout the book, I quoted them liberally to reinforce the concepts presented. By the time the book went out of print (to be replaced by Pregnant? Adoption Is an Option), we had sold more than 36,500 copies.
Advice from the Real Experts
Since there was no parenting book written especially for teen parents, I decided to write it, and published Teens Parenting: The Challenge of Babies and Toddlers in 1980. And that’s the book that has kept us in business all these years. I remember clearly the day I said to myself, "But why a parenting book just for teen parents? Don’t you want that huge market of older parents?" I answered myself firmly, "Because you don’t know much about all those parents. You do know something about teen parents." Again I went to the experts living my topic–the teen parents themselves. This time, I interviewed 60 teen moms and one teen dad (in 1980, most of us pretended teen fathers didn’t exist). I sent review copies to the major review sources and got a surprising number of good reviews including one from School Library Journal. Then Teens Parenting spawned three related titles. By 1991, we had sold 65,000 copies, most of them to schools, and most of them by mail. Our first book written by someone else appeared that year–Surviving Teen Pregnancy by Shirley Arthur, who had been a teen mother. Today, 17 of our 30 titles are written by other people. All these authors show, through their writing, that they know the realities of teen parenthood.
Making Friends, Making Lists
My husband once said, "It’s a good thing you have friends; they buy your books!" I wasn’t sure that I appreciated his comment. Really, though, he was referring to the fact that I was deeply involved with people who were working with teen parents in state and national organizations through the ’70s and ’80s. I went to a lot of conferences, both as a participant and as an exhibitor. I did parenting workshops, sometimes for pay, sometimes not. If I wasn’t paid, I figured the exposure would sell books. Conferences were also good places to collect names for our mailing list. This list includes names from membership rosters of state and national organizations, names from phone calls and e-mail inquiries, and, of course, names of customers. Occasionally we’ve bought lists of teachers (mostly family and consumer science, health, alternative schools). We always have newsletters and catalogs returned if undeliverable (an expensive process, but less so than continuing to send catalogs to worthless addresses). And after each mailing, we clean up our list. Maintaining a good list is perhaps the hardest part of this business.
Continually Creating Resources
Our current parenting curriculum includes six books, with total sales of these half-dozen titles coming to more than 440,000 copies. We also have a quarterly newsletter, PPT Express (PPT = Pregnant and Parenting Teens) that we mail to 7,000 people; these people include as many teen-parent teachers as possible. In the newsletter, we offer classroom tips, handouts teachers can duplicate, current information on national legislation in our area, descriptions of programs that can be replicated, etc. Each issue also includes enthusiastic descriptions of our new materials, comments from happy users, a couple of ads, and an order form. It’s expensive promotion, but I’m convinced it is the basic reason our sales shot up considerably after we began publishing the PPT Express 11 years ago–and the reason sales have continued to increase. Teachers tell me that they keep the three-hole-punched issues for reference. The reason so many teachers resort to standard textbooks is that they don’t have time to go through supplementary books, find the right ones for their students, and then develop class plans/guides themselves. What they need is curriculum they can review quickly, including guidelines they can follow to teach their subject well. That’s why we have always published some kind of study sheet or workbook to go with the books that we produce, why we also always publish the "answers" in some format, and why we’re now developing a Comprehensive Curriculum Notebook (150-190 pages) for each text. Each Notebook includes objectives, supplementary resources, teacher preparation suggestions, 10-15 learning activities, and several enrichment ideas–all keyed to chapter topics. One page in each chapter is specifically for independent study students. Together with the text and workbook, the Notebook gives teachers all the materials they need for each chapter’s learning. Priced at $125 apiece, the Notebooks are more expensive than anything else we’ve ever published. Obviously I hope and think they will sell or I wouldn’t have developed 800+ pages of curriculum designed to help teachers teach teen parents the art and skills of parenting. As with most publishing, add a little luck to all that hard work, and the customers will appear in our mailbox. We’re also having some success selling to English and language arts teachers. It started with a young adult novel, Detour for Emmy by Marilyn Reynolds. We published Detour in 1993 because it was a wonderful story about a 15-year-old who has a baby. I "knew" the fastest way for a small publisher to go bankrupt was to publish fiction, but this novel was in our niche, and I couldn’t resist. Happily, the American Library Association chose this title for its Best Books for Young Adults list, and we’ve sold 40,000 copies. This book continues to sell at about the same rate nine years after its debut. Also, we’ve published seven other novels by this wonderful writer, all with teacher guides, and sold a total of nearly 100,000 copies. Our distributor, IPG, sells our titles to libraries and bookstores so that they’re available to the many pregnant and parenting teens who have dropped out of school. But schools continue to be our major market, and when they buy classroom sets at our "heavily discounted price" (a discount of about 15% for 25 copies), don’t return them, and pay their bills, we’re triply convinced this is a great niche for us.
Finding Your School Niche
If you’re looking for a niche, consider your expertise but think schools. Science and math have high priority in our education system. So does improving literacy across the curriculum. Good books on academic topics that "nonreaders" will want to read should sell in schools. And the same goes for supplementary materials about environmental problems that kids would love to read and that would inspire them to do something about this media-genic issue. What about special education? Language arts? Sex education? Alternative families? Schools pay their bills, and they seldom return purchases. Also, teachers appreciate good and innovative resources. In addition, schools make a difference in young people’s lives. Perhaps you will decide to be part of the positive changes by publishing the supplementary materials that kids need and schools will buy.