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The Long Tail – Chris Anderson *****

I ought to explain why something that some would see as a business book is turning up on a science site. Like a number of “crossover” titles (take Gladwell’s Tipping Point for instance), this is a book on the application of science to a business topic – in this case the science is a combination of economics and statistics, while the topic is the way we buy and sell things. Like all the best such books, the style is fluent, readable and packed with people and real examples (though it’s rather sad for a book on a subject where the global market is such an important component, that Chris Anderson takes such a parochial, almost purely US approach).
The message, like all the best big ideas, is very simple. Until very recently our whole approach to business has been to aim for the small number of big sellers and really push them. In fact we’ve seen a strong trend in that direction. It used to be you bought books in a bookstore with thousands of different titles. Now you are just as likely to buy the latest Harry Potter (or whatever) at a supermarket stocking perhaps as few as 200 titles. But the Internet, Anderson argues, is changing the game. As well as offering the big sellers, online retailers like Amazon and iTunes, and even more so Google (we’ll see why Google in a moment) have expanded into the tail of the distribution of sales (hence the book’s title). These virtual and semi-virtual stores can contain tens, hundreds or thousands of times as many titles as a normal bricks and mortar shop. It doesn’t matter if only a few copies sell, because the stockholding cost is so low.
In the early days of online shopping, retailers got it wrong in a big way. I can remember the excitement of discovering that there was an online CD store in the early days of AOL… and then the big disappointment that they actually carried less stock than the equivalent physical shop. The wonderful thing about Internet shopping is that you can have a vastly bigger catalogue and search through it, rather than browsing shelves in a shop. And this is producing a very different approach to shopping. Anderson describes his epiphany when asked to guess what percentage of the albums on a 10,000 album jukebox that takes its music from the Internet got played (after someone paid money for it). Anderson realized the usual answer of around 20%, from the 80/20 idea that says 20% of your stock produces 80% of your revenue, was too low for a digital device, and went for 50%. In fact the answer was 98%. Practically everything was of interest to someone – and the Long Tail idea says if you can get all those small sellers out there, the result will be a big market.
There is some argument that too much choice is a bad thing – people just get confused. This is true if all you do is present them with a huge bewildering array of options, with no way to make a practical choice. But the other part of the Internet success story is information and communication. You don’t just get vast amounts of products, but a swathe of information and filters to help support finding the right stuff for you. Some of it will come from the big sellers, but other parts will come from Anderson’s Long Tail, the niche stuff that may only be of interest to you and a few others. This is partly where Google comes in as a way of finding the stuff you want – but the company has also been very clever in the vast number of ways it makes use of the Long Tail, from its tailored advertising to its Google Video outlet.
Take two quick examples of dipping into the Long Tail. I have no trouble selling science books to publishers, but it’s much harder if I come up with a different idea. I wrote a book containing 12 murder mystery events, a bit like the murder mystery party kits, but there are 12 events for less than the price of one kit, and they are much more flexible. (See www.organizingamurder.com) No publisher wanted it. They said “it’s a great idea, but we don’t do books like this.'” No one does – that was the point. But by addressing the Long Tail directly it’s now selling well.
Similarly when an organist in Nottingham, UK came up with the idea of CDs of hymn backing tracks to sing along to when you don’t have an organist, he couldn’t get a company to produce them. But making them himself and selling direct (including individual tracks by email, a sort of iHymns, which no one else does) has made www.hymncds.compopular. Interestingly, he approached iTunes about carrying these tracks but they weren’t interested – as Anderson points out in the book, they are one of the less flexible suppliers to the Long Tail market, and still miss many opportunities.
I do have a couple of concerns. There is one example in the book that is just wrong in a big way. Anderson uses the example of astronomy to show how what used to be the preserve of a few professionals is now pushing out into the tail of amateurs, making real discoveries. Now if it had been almost any other science, this would have been a legitimate point. All sciences started out as amateur activities. Up until Victorian times, both professionals and amateurs could make a contribution, but in the 20th Century, science got too complex, too specialized for the amateur – and largely remains so today. But astronomy was always an exception (actually meteorology is another example, where amateur observers collect data for the professionals).
All through the 20th Century and up to the present day, amateurs have continued to make contributions and discoveries. There is just too much sky for it to be otherwise, and the techniques of observation remain relatively simple, compared with most scientific research. A good example is the UK’s favourite astronomer, Patrick Moore (see his autobiography for more details). Moore is an amateur (admittedly he has made his living from writing and broadcasting on astronomy, but he has never been a professional astronomer), yet he is the best known astronomer in the UK, and has made significant contributions to the study of the Moon.
The bigger concern is with Anderson’s assertion that the Long Tail effect is good for everyone. Specifically he asserts it’s good for the producers of what’s being sold (writers, artists etc.), as many more of them get exposure. But the trouble is, the Long Tail effect is an economy of scale thing, as Anderson himself identifies. The people who benefit are the big portals, through which buyers get to the niche items, because they have millions of little hits. The individual producer only gets a very small income. Isn’t that better than nothing? Yes, if you had nothing. But for good professionals who earned a living from writing or music, but weren’t in the blockbuster category, it’s a nightmare. You can’t live on the earnings from a small niche in the Long Tail – it’s an occupation for spare time enthusiasts. And it makes the route to success more of a lottery. Where once, the effort required to (say) get a book published was such that if you made that effort with a good product, yours would be relatively visible, and have a fair chance of becoming a big seller, going through the Long Tail route puts your product alongside millions of others – the outcome is much more random. Anderson might say we shouldn’t care – you don’t need a big seller if you’ve got the Long Tail. Again that’s a corporate view. Individuals still need something more than a few cents here and few cents there.
There is one significant flaw, then, but it doesn’t stop this being a great read and a superb assessment of what’s happening under our noses without many of us realizing. TV companies, movie companies and book publishers are still largely chasing the blockbuster. What the Long Tail says to them is: fine, don’t ignore the big sellers, they are still important – but give equal emphasis to providing access to that astounding choice that resides in that long, thin tail.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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