Friday, March 25, 2005

More on the long tail

I have my son to thank for pointing out an interesting article in the Guardian about the Long Tail phenomenon.

The long tail is named after the type of graph you get when you plot such phenomena as the sales of CDs and books, or the popularity of web sites, and any number of other things. What happens in all these cases is that a small number of CDs or whatever sell in enormous quantities, forming a peak on the graph. After that you get a vast number of goods which sell in small quantities, and these form a 'long tail' on the graph, dribbling away to the right.

What has begun to be noticed is that some industries are only geared up to sell the big hits; in fact they can only sell the big hits. A cinema, for example, can only afford to show films which pull in biggish audiences. Films which attract tiny audiences are not economically viable.

However -- and it's a big however -- if you're selling films on DVD, you can have a million films in an online catalogue, and the 990,000 of them which sell only in tiny numbers will collectively add up to one hell of a lot of business. Perhaps they may be worth more than the big hits.

This is good news for creative people, in that, in theory at least, it provides a market in which they can offer goods and at least get some exposure. Low-budget movies may never get a full-scale cinema release; but they may nevertheless be seen by cult fans of that kind of movie, and they may build a reputation.

The same is true for writers. Someone whose face does not fit in big-time publishing can nevertheless get themselves into print somewhere, and in principle it is possible for followers of, say, science fiction, to find these small-time providers on the net.

There are many issues and problems associated with this concept, and the Guardian article does a pretty good job of summarising the chief of them.

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