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The Book Shelf Test or How to Research Your Market Part II

art I of the Book Shelf Test looked at how your own book shelves can provide you with instant market research, showing you who is publishing what, and through which publishing houses.

If you already have your book planned in your mind (or indeed written) there’s another way of turning your book shelves into instant market research. Now you want to collect together all the books that most closely relate to the one you’re planning to pitch and write. Firstly, pile them up by publisher. This test is slightly less revelatory as you can probably predict the tallest pile before you start and you have probably also already made a mental note to pitch to this publisher. But is there a pile – even of only one book – that represents a publisher you hadn’t noticed before? If so, leap over to your computer and look them up and find out how they’ve categorised this book. The answer might be clear cut; that they publish books very relevant to your field but you hadn’t realised.

Be warned, this could get expensive! You might be about to find a whole list of books you didn’t know about, or that were vaguely on your radar but you’d had to banish from you mind in order to keep focused for your thesis. You might be about to buy several of them! Although, if you want to justify the purchase, call it market research, which in fact it is. Indeed, if you weren’t aware that this publisher covered your field and you didn’t know about these books, you need to know about them now, so buy away with a bit less guilt.

The less clear cut answer is that this house publishes a strand of books where the book you have taken from your shelves features not as an example of a subject area, but a sub-theme. I don’t have a concrete example of this but let’s say that you’ve got a book by SuperDuperPublishers on chickens. SuperDuperPublishers don’t publish on farmyard animals generally, but they published this book as part of a series on feathers. What you need to consider is that while you’ve been looking for farmyard animal publishers, you book could suit another publisher if part of a different category. This takes some thinking because you’ve probably never seen your work as feathers before (I think I’d better drop this terrible metaphor now), but it’s well worth setting aside some time to look at all the different ways in which your work might be classed.

OK, go back to the publisher piles and now reorganise the books thematically. This is fun because the options are fairly limitless. Each time you have them all piled up in themes, take a look at their spines/logos. In doing this, firstly, you should be looking to see if certain ideas crop up more regularly with certain publishers. And secondly, seek out the themes that are missing, look for what isn’t being published, what isn’t in the piles of books before you.

By this point, you will have tested your shelves for who is publishing what and hopefully had some exciting and useful finds – including discovering some books you’d forgotten you’d got which you read for a bit before remembering why you’d taken all your books off the shelves. (And call me ‘study proud’, but while you’re doing all this you might just as well dust the shelves and check you’ve got your books organised in way that is most logical to you. You’re a professional now you know, and these are the tools of your trade…) But anyway, if you’ve been clever about this, you should have been getting a really good idea of which publishers deal with which areas of knowledge at both a subject level and a more specific sub-thematic level. What you can now start to think about, for example, is whether you pitch to publisher ‘A’ precisely because they they’ve published books that address the subject and theme you plan to write on, or if publisher ‘B’ is a better bet because they’ve published in that subject area but not on that particular theme before…

And there you have it, you’ve tested your shelves for evidence of the publishing markets you’ll need to reach and just by looking at the books you use daily – in a slightly different way – you’ve done some really solid market research. Of course, your shelves are idiosyncratic and can’t be taken as the clearest guide, but they are a great start. You could also do this test in your university library – although piling up books all over the place might not make you very popular – but you can at least get an idea again of who the publishers are and which areas of thinking they cater to.


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