Future-proofing Your Publishing Business: F+W Media President Sara Domville on Developing Vertical Communities

In English Language, Resources by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

“The old publishing model of creating a product and then hoping it sells is clearly not working,” says Sara Domville, President of F+W Media, Inc. “The beauty of verticals is that it gives you an opportunity to create a relationship with those communities you’re selling to – you learn from them and then create a product that they are interested.”

Sara Domville

Sara Domville, President, F+W Media

The old model of publishing a book and hoping it sells is no longer a viable long-term business plan.

During next week’s Digital Book World conference in New York City I’ll be moderating a panel on the topic of verticals, which, in addition to Domville, will feature Joseph Craven (Vice President, Sales & Business Development at Sterling Publishing), Rob Flynn (VP & Global Travel Publisher, Frommer’s), Roger Waynick (Publisher, Cool Springs Press). Over the next week, I’ll be offering several articles introducing the concept of verticals from the perspective of some of the speakers.

“Verticals” is the colloquial short hand for “vertical markets.” Loosely defined, it’s a business model whereby publishers take their existing content and expertise and leverage it to establish new revenue streams typically by catering to a specific community around a particular topic.

In the case of F+W Media, the company has developed 17 “verticals” – which they have dubbed “communities” – around topics ranging from writing, fine art, genealogy, antiques and collectibles, to design, guns, outdoors, and horticulture. Domville directly oversees seven communities Adams Media, Crafts, F+W Media International, Fine Art, Genealogy, Woodworking and Writing.

In all, the company operates 22 different e-stores, which offer not only F+W products but a variety of other products and services, such as how-to videos, podcasts, user forums, classifieds and Webinars.

Smart publishers are leveraging their subject expertise to deliver immersive experiences online – and selling a lot more than books in the process.

“It’s necessary to add a wide variety products that the customers will like,” says Domville. “Take fine art. Say you’re an artist – you might spend 5% of your budget on our how-to books, but the rest will be on materials and supplies.” The additional items for sale are provided through third party partnerships. The Woodworking community, for example, has just added hand-forged woodworking tools for sale, while the Firearms and Knives community (overseen by Domville’s co-President David Blansfield) now buy-and-sell classifieds.

Domville points out that F+W recently integrated the Ingram catalog into it’s web stores in order to expand the number and variety of book titles on offer. “We began doing this in part, because as bricks and mortar stores are reducing their selections, there’s a reduced choice being offered to consumers,” she says. “If you know what you want, then going to Amazon.com to buy it makes sense. But if you don’t – and most people don’t – you need to be able to offer people a selection. People expect to have their individual needs catered to.”

The advantage to F+W developing verticals is multifarious and has the potential to offer higher margins, increased customer loyalty and, perhaps of most importance, the ability to control their own fate in a world where retailing looks increasingly vulnerable (Domville’s reaction to the news about Borders’s recent financial woes was to note,“It focuses the mind on just how much we need to be masters of our own destiny.”).

That said, Domville is keen to underscore that the development of its own verticals doesn’t preclude the company from still working within the traditional retail distribution model. Instead, she notes, it offers new opportunities for collaboration.

As a specific example, Domville cites a new series of digital boxed sets tied to the Writer’s Digest community that F+W has just put on the market and are being sold through Barnes & Noble and online at both BN.com and the Writers Digest community’s own online shop: The Writer’s Digest Master Box collection contains four editions -– “Deluxe Get Published,” “Get an Agent, Get Published,” “Mastering the Craft of Fiction” and “Writing for Children” – each of which retails for between $99 and $445 each. Depending on the set, it will include several physical items, such as an instructional book (in print as well as a PDF e-book, a one-year subscription to Writer’s Digest magazine, and a pre-recorded Webinar on DVD, as well several “digital assets” and services, such as a subscription to WritersMarket.com, access to Peer Critique Studio (an interactive online community for writers seeking feedback), and a 50-page manuscript review by a professional editor.

“These hit the shelves on January 16 and initially, we’re rolling them out in the top 50 B&N stores, to test them and, if necessary, modify them before rolling them out to further stores in April,” says Domville. “It’s a joint launch. We’re doing sending out emails to some 300,000 people and telling them to buy them at Barnes & Noble or at BN.com. One reason is audience development – some people just prefer to shop in a store – but its also because since people are buying fewer units in bookstores, we want to make sure what they are buying is high value.”

Should the Writer’s Digest branded boxed sets prove popular, the plan is to follow those up with sets from other verticals in the F+W family, which might include, for example, sets covering “Careers” or “Foundations of Coin Collecting.”

To ensure that each community has a chance at success, F+W has created a dedicated e-marketing team focused on digital first. “We work collaboratively with our customers and we understand that its consumer choice — ours is a pool, but we want to be in the ocean. We want to be everywhere a customer is — if they are on a little sewing site or woodworking site, we want to be there too. This is what drives sell-through.”

Ultimately, Domville says “verticals” are about becoming synonymous with a given subject in the same way that Amazon has become synonymous with online shopping.

“F+W’s strategy is to become the Amazon of craft, art, wood, genealogy…places where we can lead customers by the hand and become community leaders. The key is to give them a great experience online, maintain your credibility and sell them a good quality product at the right price.

She notes that publisher should pay attention and that the vertical model of operating a publishing company has greater long-term potential for growth than does the traditional horizontal approach. “If you can make that conversion, the more successful you can be.”

DISCUSS: Is the Print and Pray Model of Book Publishing Dead?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.