Is the Long Tail an Old Tale?


The hot buzz term for some time now has been the "long tail," and the concept is now the basis for a new book by Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson called " The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More."

On a surface level, the premise of the book is straightforward: Anderson believes that the 80/20 rule, where 20% of products represent 80% of sales, is increasingly being inverted by companies that have found they can make more money, more dependably, selling lots of little items as opposed to focusing on selling big blockbuster items.

Anderson focuses heavily on retail media companies such as Amazon, Netflix and iTunes, so his insights would seem to apply to the larger media/information industry. Yet the more I looked into it for implications for the specialized publishing industry, the more I asked myself: what about the long tail concept is new?

It's hardly a secret that while many book publishers chase blockbuster titles in the hope of making big money fast, most of them are sustained by what's called their backlists -- the hundreds or thousands of titles they have already published that sell a few copies here, and a few copies there over a long period of time. Assemble a sufficiently large and good quality backlist and it seems to me you've got the proprietary equivalent of a long tail.

The same is true for movie studios, that get sold for obscene amounts not because of the hits they might provide in the future, but because of the solid library of films they have produced in the past and still own. The bigger the library, the bigger the revenue opportunity. Another proprietary long tail. Ditto this for the music business.

In the data publishing world, our product is more perishable, but still we have our own variant of the long tale: by slicing and dicing our databases into ever more specific pieces, we have found we can produce more sales, and at higher prices, by providing customers the exact data they want. No particular selection of data may sell a lot, but a lot of selections selling a few copies each still approximates the long tail effect.

So is the "long tail" an old idea dressed up in a trendy new catchphrase? Yes and no. I think the buzz has distracted us from the more important, underlying point: that the Internet has made it significantly easier for buyers and sellers to find each other. By creating a more efficient marketplace, we can now consider making and selling small-volume products that wouldn’t be economically viable in a pre-Internet world.

The truly important message of The Long Tail is that the Internet has freed all publishers, including data publishers, from having to exclusively chase "home run" new product ideas, because it's increasingly possible to do quite well with a collection of singles and doubles. And that's a tale worth listening to.

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