Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The long tail again

This is a piece which I began to write last week. But, now that I come to check it over, I see that it nicely continues yesterday's discussion about the future of the book.

In the past you and I have occasionally given consideration to the long tail. Well, I have, anyway. And if your eyes go all blurry at the very thought of reading about that obscure subject, then all I can do is encourage you to persevere. Because for writers, and indeed publishers, the long tail represents opportunity. And it is an opportunity which is considerably more valuable today than it ever was in the past.

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.

One man who has given much thought to the long tail is Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired and author-to-be of a book on the long-tail phenomenon. He runs a blog with that very title, telling us how he is getting on with the book -- and, as you will see, he obtains useful feedback from readers along the way. (Thanks to Publishers Lunch for the link.)

In his post of 4 July, Chris has a piece about the effect of filters on the long tail. He doesn't like the term filters but is using it for the moment. There are, he suggests, two kinds of filters: pre-filters and post-filters.

An example of a pre-filter, in the book world, is the editor of the slush pile, whether in an agent's office or a publisher's. The editor goes through the material on offer for publication and selects the 'best' from her point of view. The 'best' ms might be defined as the one most likely to win the Booker/Pulitzer, or the one most likely to sell a million, or whatever.

A post-filter is someone who sorts out what he or she thinks is the very 'best' of the output in a given field, 'best' being defined according to one of an infinite number of definitions. So, for instance, we might have a very keen science-fiction fan who tries to read everything in the field and runs a blog where he recommends the best of what he has found.

Such post-filters can be related to very narrow niches indeed. For instance, suppose someone has read every book on breeding budgerigars which has been published in the last forty years. Such a person is well placed to advise any newcomers to that hobby as to which are the best books to get hold of. What is more, such a person is ideally placed to comment on any new books which appear.

OK, so this has all been dry as dust so far. What's the point?

The point, as far as books in general are concerned, and particularly where novels are concerned, is that the long tail offers opportunity.

True, it is still hard as hell to get a novel published by a top publisher. It always was. It always will be. But if all else fails, you can now publish it yourself, in any one of a dozen formats from cheapo ebook to relatively expensive hardback. Costs are falling all the time because of new technology in the printing industry.

When published, this book can be offered in the marketplace. And, because of the internet, you can now make that book available all over the world. You can publicise it all over the world. You can send it to any and all post-filters known to you. And the search engines will direct other filters to it, even if you don't.

In other words, even obscure books on obscure subjects can now be published with a reasonable expectation that, if you do a little work, the thing will become known in the niches where those who might be interested are lurking.

I submit that this phenomenon changes everything. The world is now quite different from what it was even ten years ago. This alters the whole balance of power in publishing and it alters the entire economics of the book industry.

The long tail, in short, is a phenomenon which offers opportunity to writers, whether they publish their output themselves or work through established firms.

And it offers opportunity to publishers. There is a school of thought which holds that the long tail is actually worth more to output producers than is the short head. The short head, particularly in publishing, gets all the public attention: reviews in the top papers, interviews, book-signing sessions, and so forth. But, properly handled, the long tail provides modest returns for much less investment, and can go on providing those returns for years on end, as more and more filters find it and recommend it. And because there are so many separate items in the long tail, they can, collectively, be more valuable than the short head.

Let us take an example more or less at random and see where it leads us.

Suppose you quite enjoy reading mystery stories. And, within that category, you quite enjoy stories with female detectives, set in England, in the 1930s.

OK, so you go to Google. You type in the following search terms: 1930s "lady detective" England. You get 94 results. Click on the most likely-looking, (Women of Mystery), and you get a mass of promising leads to wade through. Couldn't be simpler.

OK, so we haven't, so far, turned up any new books. But you get the idea. You can locate stuff in ways which were completely unimaginable a few years ago.

That's how a reader can operate. What about a writer?

Well, more or less any writer who is smart enough to know how to turn on a computer and locate this blog could learn how to produce a PDF file. And a PDF file can be sold as an ebook through an outlet such as ebookad.

Anyone can do it. I did it myself with a book of photographs called Avebury in Winter. The last time I bothered to look at the sales record, it had sold six copies. But I didn't do it for the money. I did it for the pleasure of making the book (akin to the pleasure of doing a flower arrangement, I dare say -- that's Mrs GOB's field). I might have given the ebook away free but there has to be a minimum charge on ebookad, and I wanted to have it placed where the search engines could locate it easily, and where ebook browsers might also find it.

Now if you too happen to have produced something which might also be of interest to six people in the entire world, you know what to do. Of course, if your book is actually a heap of crap then no one can help you. The filters will find you out pretty damn quick. But you might learn how to do better next time.

Now do you see why I think the long tail is worth your attention?


Anonymous said...

Fascinating post. I love the statitistical analysis of the publishing market - it makes a lot of sense.

But I think most writers would still have their eye on the head and not the tail, no matter how unrealistic those dreams are. And if you're going to self publish, you have to be great at marketing and sales, which I suspect most writers aren't.

Anonymous said...

"In other words, even obscure books on obscure subjects can now be published with a reasonable expectation that, if you do a little work, the thing will become known in the niches where those who might be interested are lurking."

A small point, but one of some significance. I would contend that it is only rather than even obscure books on obscure subjects that lend themselves to do-it-yourself.

It may well be that the big publishers will in future give such projects an even wider berth than they do already. Their interest is in cornering the market in big-selling general interest books, novels being the obvious example.

I would guess that, increasingly, self-publishers will be unable to compete except in niche markets, while the big publishers will churn out clonelit till they're blue, black and purple in the face.

(I have seen the future, and it looks a lot like the present.)

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