Sunday, June 29, 2014

The "Long Tail" and You

I ran across Chris Anderson's Book "The Long Tail" and just noticed the sub-title. "Why the future of Business is Selling Less of More." I was going over some of the notes from the book that people had highlighted and remembering a lot of the discussion. Without getting into the math and statistical basis, one of the conclusions is that digital businesses make it possible to shift focus away from the Head of the tail (high sales producers) to the tail itself.

For those unfamiliar with the basic theory (and this is overly simplified) the Long tail is a distribution
curve applicable to many areas of life but frequently applied to business and sales. A few products tend to sell extremely well, everything else sells fewer units. In publishing this is clear. Pick the genre and there are a dozen names that are insanely popular and everyone else is splitting up what is left over.

In brick and mortar retailing, this presents a dilemma. Do you stock as many products as possible giving your customer a huge selection, but end up with some of those products sitting on your shelf for months or years. Or do you focus only on the top sellers. I knew a Christian bookstore owner who used the terms Narrow and Deep vs Broad and Shallow. He felt his success was based on the Broad and shallow approach. He bought a few copies of a lot of different books. Other bookstores, most, in fact, went narrow and deep. They bought lots of copies of the best sellers and few if any copies of anything else.

The change comes with digital retailing where you don't have to worry about shelf space in the store. Amazon can sell literally every book published that any publisher wants to sell through their store. Aside from issues of legality, rights, potential for libel, etc, basically, they turn no one down. This is what Anderson calls The Economics of Abundance. Digital publishing makes it even easier because you don't even need a warehouse, just a single copy of the book on a server (well probably a few back up copies as well).

Lets go back to that long tail curve. If you add up everything in the tail, it's a lot of stuff. As much, if not more, sometimes than in the head. So, you can sell fewer units of each title but make as much money or more than on those few top performers.

This can work for or against you depending on where you are in the curve. If you are in the head or short neck, it could mean less attention and more competition because you are in the same store with those in the tail, which you never were before. My book can show up right next to a book by James  Patterson in a search for mystery novels. Not that Patterson has anything to worry about from me. His marketing machine is massive, but the point is, when someone sees his book, just a glance to the right or left could bring up my book or some B level trad pub or someone who is writing a debut novel. And in all likelihood, our prices are going to be less than half of his. So, it expands the competition base.

But the other thing is that Amazon isn't going to stop carrying, say, steampunk novels, because they aren't trendy this season and sales have dropped. This means the author can have a longer shelf life.

However, the other side of this long tail theory also applies not only to the retailer, but to the producer. Trad pub writers have often been punished for taking risks and writing books that had only a niche appeal or books that were different from their normal "brand." An agent wouldn't represent a science fiction novel from someone they had promoted as a romance writer. A publisher wouldn't publish a book that might only sell a couple of thousand copies in the first  year. And if it did hit print and didn't sell in the first three months, it just goes out of print.

The indie can take more chances because even if the book isn't in the head of their own personal long tail, it can still make money for years even if it comes in only a few dollars at a time.

But a few dollars at a time even if it goes on for years doesn't amount to much right? This is where selling Less of More comes into play. Many writers, in fact most of us, have that dream of that one breakaway bestseller that will make us a household name and a ton of money. Then we can write a book a year and each one another best seller.

Well, the economics of the long tail favor the more prolific writer. Success in this model is selling a few units each of a lot of titles. We've all heard the old saying about how to make a million dollars. There are two ways to make a million dollars: find one person who will give you a million dollars or find a million people who will give you one dollar. You can write one book that sells a thousand copies a month or write a hundred books that sell 10 copies a month. The old economics of scarcity says the road to success is the first. The economics of the long tail say it is the second.

Now, you may like that or not. You may feel that quantity destroys quality. I don't believe that has to be the case. But I'm afraid that this provides both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is that you don't have to be dependent upon a single book or series of books for your success. The challenge is that writers are going to have to be more efficient and produce more content in order to be competitive. But it also means that I can experiment more and take more risks because even if it flops, it can still be part of my own long tail of finances.

But whether it is to our advantage or not (and there are compelling arguments that say it isn't) the Long Tail is with us an in that economic climate, turning out content consistently is going to be the key to economic security.

1 comment:

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