Monday, May 01, 2006

Long tail coming

The concept of the long tail, and its relevance to the book world, has been discussed here before. Several times, but notably on 13 July 2005. On that occasion I defined the long tail as follows:

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 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:
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....

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.
Now -- enough of quoting others. Time for something that might loosely be called original thinking.

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.


Adam Powell said...

I have recently opened a bookshop in central London (Crockatt & Powell, Lower Marsh, SE1) with a friend with the specific intention of only dealing in the 'long tail'. Having realised it was pointless trying to compete on price for new titles with the big boys we have stocked our shop with (what we think) are the finest editions in print of our favourite books. We have unnashamedly chosen to sell books that we like and rejected the rest. However with live stockholding shown on the wholesaler websites we can offer customers guaranteed next day delivery. It's not quite the 'ready in fifteen minutes, madam' you mention but it's pretty darn close. Our customers are amazed with this service. Amazon, Waterstones, Smiths etc. cannot beat us for time! Because we are small, because we have shop access to the internet we can offer the long tail to our customers almost instantly. Even books from the States get here in 3 days.
So, we stock our shop with the choicest selection of a few thousand titles and we have a 'backroom' of every thing in print. I believe they call this the future, sir. (the online shop is coming next week)

skint writer said...

This is a great concept and one I'm sure will be realised in some form close to the one you've suggested.

Only problem is how can you find the gems in the long tail without wasting endless hours googling and following links?

Andy Laties said...

I don't believe in the "Long Tail Phenomenon" as propounded by Anderson (that is, I don't think this shift in sales is occurring in the aggregate as he says it is). I posted this entry to my blog,, on October 31 of last year:

On Selling 1,000 Books and Enabling More Authors to Sell 1,000 Books
A few posts ago I puzzled over the meaning of selling my first 1,000 copies of Rebel Bookseller. Is this a small number? A large number?

Well -- although it seems like a small number to me (after all, I'm attempting to foment a revolution as rapidly as possible!) -- here's some perspective, drawn from John Mutter's website, Shelf Awareness ( -- the September 26 ezine issue:

"At the Book Standard's Summit 2005, held on Thursday in New York of the most-repeated statistics was mentioned early in the program by Jim King, senior v-p and general manager of Nielsen BookScan, who noted that 93% of all ISBNs of books whose sales were tracked by the company during 2004 sold less than 1,000 units.... Some 1.15 million ISBNs (often representing several editions of one book) accounted for 13% of all sales during 2004, and the remaining 7% of ISBNs accounted for 87% of sales, prompting King to suggest that in 2004 that the old 80/20 rule of 80% of sales coming from 20% of titles had become a 90/10 rule."

So -- a thousand copies sold in the two months Rebel Bookseller has been on the market begins to look pretty good! I'm already in the top 7% for the year, presumably.

By the way: so much for the supposed "long tail" phenomenon. There's been a lot of garbage about how Amazon and online sales will change the world for authors and readers because now every book can be discovered by every reader. But if this were happening, then the 80/20 rule would be shifting to a 70/30 rule or a 60/40 rule. As long as there are the mathematical realities known as Power Laws (related to Complexity Theory), the "long tail" portion of any statistical distribution like that of Gross Sales Revenues From All Books will come in at about 20% of the total. And 80% will be accounted for by the so-called "short head" (i.e. the hot sellers).

This is why the solution to the book industry's woes is NOT digital distribution, but rather Bookseller Education. When people can get certificates in bookselling (or become professionalized in other ways) the way they get degrees in library science or in education, there will be many more top-notch booksellers in the world, and these fine professionals will function as free-lance educators who successfully encourage readers to sample a much wider variety of books than the current self-service bookselling environment conduces. Online, readers are left to shift for themselves and they make choices that are just as conservative (and predictable) as they do in superstores. Bestsellers just sell better and better. Only the presence of human intermediaries will bring the current generation of readers to broader reading practices -- shifting us back from a 90/10 reading population to a better-read 80/20 population (and maybe passionate booksellers can even bring our nation all the way to 75/25!) .


Clive Keeble said...

Nowadays the long tail gets chopped off when there are board changes or olde worlde publishers get bought out.

Sixteen months ago I purchased, via an intermediary, all available (liquidated) copies of 19 titles from such a publisher.

These books are my "bin ends". This week I will be receiving, from Bertram, a POD reprint of "The Hajj, The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places" a companion volume (both by Professor F E Peters) to "Mecca, a Literary History of the Muslim Holy Land" another "bin end" of which I purchased all available copies.

Clive Keeble said...

The long tail can only be maintained with real stock, as opposed to POD, so long as it is viable for the publishers to store the stock.

Many of our publishers, even smaller independents, now keep no stock in house - it is stored in central distributors where they will be paying a monthly or similar pallet rate.

Amazon will not want to shelve titles of which they only sell a few hundred, let alone a few dozen, copies a year.

Better stop there because yesterday morning a corporate publishers senior executive told me I knew sweet FA about publishing.

Andy Laties said...


When the bigwigs tell you to mind your own business, you KNOW you've got them on the run. Many of the top execs who were telling me to get lost, back in the 90s when I was complaining to them, are now unemployed! (Or, rather, they're "consultants")


Jpatrick said...

I think that when the marginal cost of small print runs, i.e. print runs of one approach that of larger print runs that publishers do, we've got something. Someone needs to develop a machine that can make paperbacks out of .PDF files.

John Morrison said...

I've seen digital print-on-demand in action, thanks to Gardners the wholesalers, who have space in their giant warehouse for a POD unit run by the printers Antony Rowe. Somehow I don't quite see the technology getting simple enough for bookshops to operate it in their stockrooms. Adam Powell, more power to his elbow, is right that next-day delivery from wholesalers is probably better.

Clive Keeble said...


I will grant you that it will not be viable at the present time for a bookshop to install a POD machine capable of printing from a catalogue of many million titles, however, a system evolves when there is a genuine need.

Yes, I can also offer 24 hr delivery from Bertram (as well as from many truly independent publishers); but as distribution costs soar in the next five years then the need for state-of-the-art POD machines will ensure that their development is fast tracked.

The Luddites in this instance will be such as Amazon and Tesco who will try to de-rail this technological research, as they will be aware that this is a trump card which will put terrestial bookshops back at the top of the pile, instead of fighting for survival in the slurry.

Keep up the good work at Black Pig Books - your country needs you !!

Martin said...

Being an avid music and books fan, I find it hard to muster any sympathy for analog culture intermediaries such as record companies, agents, book publishers and store keepers of any size. Tesco or Mom & Pop off the High Street, why should I pay them for the creative work of someone else? From the perspective of information transmission, they're all just switchboxes.

Music and literature is produced and consumed on networked computers these days. I have long downloaded music, buying CD:s that I never actually play as the only available means of remunerating the artists. And I recently read my first on-screen novel (by one G.O. Bookman), likewise buying a printed copy to pay for the pleasure. But musicians are putting PayPal buttons on their web sites. And one day we'll have decent pocket e-readers, obviating the paperback.

I foresee a future for media with no likes of Madonna or J.K. Rowling, simply because there will be no way for publishers of making the kind of serious money necessary for the marketing behind such great global successes. One day the long tail will be all there is in media, because there will be no way for enyone except the artists themselves to make big money off big sellers. I welcome that change.