A new non-fiction book hit the stands on Tuesday. Entitled "The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More," it's by Chris Anderson, the Editor-in-Chief of Wired, the online magazine (www.wired.com).
The book grew out of an article Chris wrote back in October, 2004 for Wired in which he talked about a new economic model created by the Internet. That article generated a lot of interest and discussion. The new book is sure to do the same.
To understand The Long Tail (both the concept and the book), picture the standard bell curve. You know, the one that looks like . . . well, a bell, with two long tails on either side gradually trailing off, becoming increasingly smaller and thinner the way a tail does. Where most statisticians concentrate their attention on the larger bell curve, Chris is fascinated by that small, thin tail. To follow his thought process, we'll start with an example from the world of books.
For the last fifty years, most of the publishing industry has been focused on finding the next best-seller--the book that will sell hundreds of thousands of copies and dominate the best-seller lists. However, a recent study concluded that, "The average number of weeks that a new No. 1 bestseller stayed top of the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List has fallen from 5.5 in the 1990s, 14 in the 1970s and 22 in the 1960s to barely a fortnight (two weeks) last year." This phenomenon results in a much flatter bell curve.
What's that about? Are the books today not as interesting or as well-written as the books in the past? Considering that we're talking about Valley of the Dolls and Love Story, that's probably not the case.
What it IS about is the fact that today's consumers have so many more choices than their counterparts in the '60s or the '70s had. In his book's introduction, Chris puts it this way: "Contrast my adolescence with that of Ben, a sixteen-year-old who grew up with the Internet . . . He’s got a Mac in his bedroom, a fully stocked iPod (and a weekly iTunes allowance), and a posse of friends with the same. Like the rest of his teenage friends, Ben has never known a world without broadband, cell phones, MP3s, TiVo, and online shopping."
All these choices mean that it's harder for any one option to develop a commanding lead over its competitors. Another example: In the late '60s, my family's choices for television on Sunday night were Bonanza, Ed Sullivan or one other program. However, today's families have 150 channels to choose from when they sit down to their cable television. Chris says, "TV shows were more popular in the seventies than they are now not because they were better, but because we had fewer alternatives to compete for our screen attention."
What does it mean?
"This shattering of the mainstream into a zillion different cultural shards is something that upsets traditional media and entertainment no end. After decades of executives refining their skill in creating, picking, and promoting hits, those hits are suddenly not enough. The audience is shifting to something else, a muddy and indistinct proliferation of . . . Well . . . 'everything else'."
It's the "everything else" that Chris focuses on in The Long Tail. He tells of a conversation he had with the CEO of a digital jukebox company who asked him to guess what percentage of his company's 10,000 albums sold at least one track per quarter.
The usual wisdom (the 80/20 rule) would suggest that 20% of the albums would account for 80% of the sales. Chris, suspecting a trick, thought he could avoid a trap by responding with an outrageous 50%. To his astonishment, the jukebox exec answered that 98% of his 10,000 albums sold at least one track per quarter. That's the "everything else" confined in the two long tails of the company's sales curve.
So, what does that mean for business? Especially the business of writing? We'll talk about that in my next post. In the meantime, if you haven't read Monday's post (Mining the Niche Markets), you might want to go back and read that one.