November 21, 2017

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Inner Traditions Grows the Niche, Slow but Steady

Inner Traditions
The digital revolution has not discriminated. In its re-ordering of the publishing universe, changing the way readers find and buy books, it has unnerved, disrupted, flummoxed, and frustrated independent and major publishers alike — as well as those on the front lines cataloging at book stores and libraries.

Yet Inner Traditions, a Vermont-based publisher of new age and alternative science books since the 1970s, which saw its traditional selling model of main street retailers, book shops, and crystal stores slowly disappear, has managed to grow over the last decade, even blossom, slow but steady.

How? By focusing on a niche within a niche, by understanding how passion drives readership. Many librarians at public libraries trust Inner Traditions to deliver serious content in the mind/body/spirit categories, especially holistic health and naturopathy.

But beyond that, collection specialists at university and academic libraries have come to expect from Inner Traditions books from expert authors, many with Ph.D.s, M.D.s, J.D.s, and other advanced degrees.

“Our niche within the niche is as the ‘university press of new age’—we do books aimed at a niche reader,” says John Hays, VP, director of sales and marketing. “Our books are not for the person with a passing interest in these topics. They’re for people with a life-long interest, so our editors in acquisitions and other departments are in the same community of readers for whom we publish.”

Such drill-down editorial manicuring has paid off, with titles such as Chinese Pediatric Massage, Art and Science of Hand Reading, Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, and Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism recognized among the library market as trusted reference material.

It’s a strategy, born of necessity, that’s helped the company navigate the digital revolution by connecting directly to a loyal and discriminating group of readers. “We know our readers very well, something larger houses often times don’t have the opportunity to do,” says Hays. “We meet our community regularly through our traveling pop-up shop at book festivals and new age fairs across the country. We hear from them via our direct mail-order program, email marketing efforts and online shop.”

But the funny thing about the digital era is that it opens the possibility of one reader changing the way a publisher does business. Two years ago it happened to Inner Traditions. The source material was a B-to-B newsletter the company sends out to 2,500 librarians, which highlights notable titles and asks for feedback. One piece of librarian-reader advice proved extremely valuable.

“Librarians told us they didn’t know where to categorize us, didn’t know where in the public library they could place our books,” says Hays. “There are not that many categories in Dewey that apply to our new age spirituality books.”

As a result of the feedback, Inner Traditions instituted different BISAC code assignments to their products for university and research libraries. “When we have a book, about medical herbalism, for example, written by a medical doctor, we’d been calling the subject category ‘herbalism.’ We’ve changed that category to ‘medical,’ so its more discoverable to librarians in the university and research variety,” says Hays.

Inner Traditions’ lineage dates back to the glory days of the Dewey era — 1970s in New York, where Ehud Sperling, a college student studying physics and math, visited a well-known book store in Greenwich Village, Weiser’s, that carried titles of the occult, yoga, and metaphysics. Sterling got a job there, absorbed the catalog, and learned the art and craft of book selling and book making (Weiser collected rare books and published them).

One relationship blossomed into another, and by 1975 Sperling had published Pyramid Power, which became an international best-seller and funded the launch of Inner Traditions.

At the time, “new age” as a category didn’t exist, but that didn’t deter Sperling, whose ambitions multiplied with his categories, which grew to include indigenous cultures, perennial philosophy, visionary art, ancient mysteries, the spiritual traditions of the East and West, and holistic health and healing. It was the birth and triumph of spiritual niche publishing.

The books have found an audience. The company now has 11 imprints — including Healing Arts Press, Destiny Books, Park Street Press, Bindu Books, and Bear Cub Books — and publishes a long list of authors, including Zecharia Sitchin, Margaret Starbird, Alfred Huang, Ryuho Okawa, Terence McKenna, Ralph Abraham, Barbara Hand Clow, Nicki Scully, Alex Grey, Patch Adams, M.D., and Jose Arguelles.

Today, as a trusted publisher that can reach these niche markets, Inner Traditions has found competitive advantage. “Independent presses in our size range and specialty niche typically operate on smaller marketing budgets,” says Hays. “But, the greatest advantage we have is that we know the content better than a more commercial publisher possibly could. No publisher of any size can compete with Inner Traditions’ deep knowledge of the content in our subject categories.”

Simply put, Hays says the reason why the majors can’t compete is because they don’t want to — many of these deep niche topics aren’t lucrative enough for the bigger publishers to tackle, so they’re not dedicating resources to it. “Larger houses often publish books with large first print runs, reducing the cost per unit printed and freeing up valuable marketing dollars,” says Hays. “They don’t know how to make money on a 5,000-copy first print. We do.”

Indeed they do. For the last seven years this Vermont-based publisher has grown 3 or 4 percent — every year. Slow but steady, which in this new age of digital bookselling is remarkable.

“We run a tight ship,” says Hays. “Publishers in general have an opportunity to seize this digital shift. I think there are opportunities for libraries too. I think librarians have been very adept at managing the digital revolution — more so than even publishers, and I think there are more opportunities than problems presented by the digital revolution.”

Slow but steady.


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