Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The long tail

The "long tail" is a brilliant idea. It combines elements of a lot of stuff I'm interested in: genre, niche, midlist, backlist, gatekeeping, economies of digital distribution.

The Long Tail is the sort of Big Idea I really like. If you rank stuff by popularity, all the attention gets focused on the left side — the popular side of the graph. In the bestseller region of the chart, sales fall off quickly. The bestseller region looks like a big head, and the rest looks like a very long tail. After the popular stuff, sales trail off slowly, and for a long, long time: there's a lot more stuff out there. If you add things up, the area under the curve (i.e., total sales) is larger on the right side of the graph.
long tail graph

That means that there are a lot of opportunities there, opportunities that have been under-explored because most attention and promotion have been for the popular stuff. Some of these opportunities didn't even exist thanks to financial and technological limitations. One limitation is the cost of shelf space: A bookstore generally has to sell two copies of a title per year (and four is a lot better) in order to pay rent and other expenses after cost-of-goods. Quick special orders allow the bookstore to expand its inventory beyond what it can physically afford to carry. Another limitation is printing cost: offset printing is cheaper than hot lead, and allows many more books to be profitably published and kept in print. But a publisher still needs to sell a minimum number in the first year to initially publish the book, and afterwards must sell enough per year to afford keeping it in print. Print-on-Demand allows a publisher to print a smaller initial run of a title and keep it available at a lower level of sales. These and other factors (blogs discussing neat stuff, small online communities, digital distribution of music, etc.) can combine, sometimes dramatically, which means that although there's more stuff out there, it's easier for consumers to find and for retailers to sell it to them.

Check out the article and Chris Anderson's blog on the topic.


Blogger Scorpio said...

Way back in the '70's it was a 7 turn that made a book worth keeping on the shelf, not two.

I ran a section of a store where my policy was a 20 turn -- we just did not have room for stuff that did worse than that!

9:35 AM  
Blogger scott said...

20! damn! What was the section? magazines?

Or was it a section the management didn't entirely approve of? maybe computers or erotica?

5:01 PM  

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