If you were to graph a retail environment where a large number of different items are sold in relatively small quantities each, you’d get something like this:
See the “long tail” tapering off to the right? In bookselling, a profitable industry has grown from the availability of so many unique titles. All these titles are represented on the right side of the graph: the realm of self-publishing, print-on-demand, backlists, zines, and niche-interest blogs.
If you’ve been in book business for fewer than 10 years, a Long Tail-driven business is the only one you’ve ever known. But how did it get to be that way?
Since 1994, Amazon has grown to become the biggest selling e-retailer in the world. Alone, they represent 10% of the US ecommerce industry. One of the reasons Amazon has been so successful is because they have taken advantage of what has been termed “the Long Tail.” Even though you can get any popular book from Amazon quickly and cheaply, Amazon “probably makes more from selling non-bestsellers than it does from blockbusters.”
The term “Long Tail” has become more famous than its inventor and may seem like it’s been around for a long time. In fact, the editor of Wired, Chris Anderson, coined the term in 2004. He wrote an article on Wired about the “business model of the future,” which he called “the Long Tail.” In 2006, he adapted the article into a book in which he argues that the Long Tail model applies to all industries. In 2009, he published a second book expanding on the idea. Anderson claims that with the introduction of the internet the “natural shape of demand is revealed, undistorted by distribution bottlenecks, scarcity of information and limited choice of shelf space.”
So, what existed before the Long Tail?
Historically, people in certain geographic areas with unusual interests would have been unable to access niche information. Customers were restricted by distance and booksellers were limited by shelf space. Publishers were more heavily dependent upon the profit from bestsellers to publish other manuscripts. In short, it was much more difficult for non-mainstream products are able to find an audience, and therefore much more expensive to make and sell them.
Whom does the Long Tail benefit? And how?
For online booksellers, (ahem, Amazon) the advantage is that there is very little storage cost, allowing a much larger back-catalog to be available for sale. For physical books, the Long Tail doesn’t always work as a business model. The cost of storing many copies of obscure books, and filling out single orders quickly becomes expensive. On the other hand, merchants don’t not have to pay for warehouse space to store copies of ebooks, making ebook sales an intensified version of internet sales of physical books.
Publishers don’t have the pressure of making every book a bestseller. The cost of providing access to their backlists is dramatically decreased, opening up new business opportunities based around things published years ago that interest only a few people.
Readers have access to an ever-increasing amount of specialised information. However, to find what they are looking for, they have to navigate the vast sea of content. The number of content sources has also increased, meaning readers have a lot more to evaluate when seeking out reading material.
Authors are able to publish their own work and potentially gain access to a dedicated niche market. However, they are also under increasing pressure to provide a higher volume of content and release a lot of it for free. Authors often spend years on their books and are expected to produce even more additional content for little money in the form of blogging, making the ‘1000’ true fans theory untenable. In this equation, the primary advantage of the Long Tailmodel is for the reader, not the author.
The Future of the Long Tail
Back in 2006 when Anderson’s article was published, the New York Times made an astute observation about the outcome of the Long Tail system which still holds true: “So far, the winners in the Long Tail scenario aren’t publishers but the online booksellers and the databases that aggregate their titles, making books stranded on the dusty shelves of local used-book stores readily available to buyers around the world.”
Long-Tail opportunity lies in the ability to produce high-quality content and to reach the niche market for which it is intended. Publishers who successfully strategize with booksellers have the opportunity to harness the power of the Long Tail to connect with the right customers. Readers are able to access more information than ever before. If handled creatively, there’s still positive change that the Long Tail can bring, no matter who you are in the publishing equation.