The long-tail idea has no doubt been around a while, but it has also been known for some time that Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, has been working on a book about the subject. Said book is now scheduled for publication in July by Hyperion (US) and Random House (UK). The Amazon UK entry gives more detail than the .com at present:
In brief, the long tail is a term used to describe a feature of statistical distributions when illustrated in the form of a graph. For instance, there are a few words which are used very often -- the word 'the' being an example -- and a very large number of words which are used very seldom -- words such as 'disintermediation'. If you plot a graph showing this kind of distribution you get a sharp peak on the left of the graph and a long flattish line tailing off to the right. This is the 'long tail' (aka heavy tail, power-law tail, or Pareto tail). See our old friend Wikipedia for details.
Whether you can visualise this picture or not, all you need to remember is that in publishing there are a small number of individual titles which sell in huge numbers, perhaps a million copies each; and there are also a large number of individual titles (approaching 200,000 a year in the US) which sell in small numbers, perhaps a few hundred copies each.
The "long tail" refers to the hundreds of thousands of products that are not number one bestsellers i.e. all those products that form a line that tails off down any company's sales graph. But in the digital and on-line world, these products are booming precisely because they are not constrained by the demands of a physical retail space. In the autumn of 2004 Chris Anderson identified this trend in "Wired Magazine" and called it "the long tail". The term has since caught fire in tech and media circles. He says that in an era of almost limitless choice, many consumers will gravitate toward the most popular mass-market items, but just as many will move toward items that only a few, niche-market people want.... In this new digital era, the long tail is a new and powerful force.OK so now you get the idea. And Michael Cader, of Publishers Lunch, has read an advance copy of The Long Tail and has some quotes to offer:
The market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is already a third the size of the existing market -- and what's more, it's growing quickly....Now -- enough of quoting others. Time for something that might loosely be called original thinking.
Bringing niches within reach reveals latent demand for non-commercial content. Then, as demand shifts towards the niches, the economics of providing them improve further, and so on, creating a positive feedback loop that will transform entire industries -- and the culture -- for decades to come.
Consumers must be given ways to find niches that suit their particular needs and interests. A range of tools and techniques -- from recommendations to rankings -- are effective at doing this. These "filters" can drive demand down the Tail.
I have recently been re-reading Jason Epstein's famous (but not sufficiently widely read) book from 2001, Book Business. That re-reading, plus being reminded about the forthcoming Long Tail book, plus writing about EminemsRevenge (see below), prompts me to make the following observations.
I am normally cautious about all forecasts of impending change: cautious in the sense that I think that forecasts of both the speed and extent of change tend to be over-estimated.
For example, it's only about 25 years ago since home videotape recorders began to be widespread. And at the time you could find plenty of 'experts' who predicted that the film industry as we knew it would disappear. Cinemas would close, and so forth. Didn't quite happen that way.
However, it occurs to me that the book trade as a whole, may, just conceivably, be under-estimating the extent and speed of changes which may shortly be upon us.
Consider, for example, the growth of digital photography. I was interested in digital photography well over ten years ago, before the average man in the street had ever heard of it. Then, when I finally got a copy of Photoshop 3 (?c. 1999), I began to make enquiries as to how one might print out a digital image, after one had tweaked it to one's heart's content in Photoshop. And I discovered that it was extremely difficult to find any firm or organisation which had a machine which could handle the job. Those firms that did offer such a service tended to be concentrated in Soho, and charged a small fortune for each print.
Within a year or two of that, Epson came up with a printer which would allow me, in my own home, to make a print which was every bit as impressive as a colour photograph printed in the traditional wet darkroom. And within a year or two after that, even a small town like Trowbridge, near me (population maybe 20,000), had suddenly acquired three commercial machines which would produce prints from your digital files, for relatively small amounts of money, more or less instanteously. Two were in big firms' shops: Boots and Tescos. But one machine was based in a small one-man business. He got as many customers as did the big guys.
So here was a huge change in techniques and mind-set which came about if not overnight, then at least in a very short time.
Even in 2001, Jason Epstein was suggesting that, before long, bookshops would have a digital machine in a back room which would be able to print out, in a few minutes, a paperback copy of any book that the firm happened to have on file. And the file catalogue could be more or less infinite in size. This facility would, of course, would make the mom-and-pop store just as effective as, say, the newly merged Wottakars; at least as far as many books were concerned. If you insisted on a hardback copy of a heavily illustrated coffee-table book, you might have to go to a more traditional supplier and wait until a copy arrived from the distributor. But for the average book: No problem, madam, please have a cup of our complimentary coffee and it will be ready in fifteen minutes.
Yes, much of the new long-tail niche business will be powered by the internet. That is how customers will hear about their niche books (or even the smash-hit worldwide sellers); and much ordering will be done online, with the book being sent by post.
But, suppose you work in a city, and there is a new-fangled digital bookshop on your route to the office. The night before, you phone in, or email in, your order, and pick it up as you walk past. The shop may or may not carry inventory. It may be a whopping big Wottakars, but it could just as easily be your local newsagent, with a machine in the back -- just as some of them have photo machines now.
Given what we now know about the extraordinarily rapid growth of digital photography, it seems to me that this change in the book world could come about a great deal sooner than is often suspected. Could, I say, not necessarily will.
And if and when this change does occur, it will transform the book world for every participant. Some will prosper, and some will go bust. Small independent booksellers may get a new lease of life. But the most remarkable change, at least in my estimation, will be that experienced by the EminemsRevenges (see below) of this world.
Once, those who wrote experimental works such as Jew Girl would stand no chance whatever of getting their books published. But now they can do it themselves; and they can tell people about it through the internet; and a few will even take some notice. In the long-tail digital era (for want of a better expression), the 20 people in the world (or the 200, or 2,000 et cetera) who are actually interested in this peculiar book that they have heard about, can order a copy tonight and pick it up from their newsagent when they buy their morning paper.
In such a world, the pro-am writer (see On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile for details of that concept), will come into her own; and she will find her maximum potential audience, however large or small that may be.