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November 06, 2005


Chris Gilbey

This may sound bleedingly obvious, but have you thought about this not being a tail at all?

Remember when you used to break products by establishing a local market of fans....? Who - certainly in the music biz - used to enable there to be a break out market, which often led to signing by a major label...

Now with an infrastructure that enables a global distribution what you have is an interest market located globally.

So while with a band playing in the local pub there may have been a local fan base based on the "boys are from round here" with a book you may get a global fan base because the initial market is parochial and widely dispersed - say on rare Australian butterflies....

So instead of a tail back, you get a slow burn start, where the product may gain a global small fan base, and then cross over to the main stream....

If this happened wouldn't it be even more important than the tail? I sense this happening with some of the musicians that I listen to in podcasts. The protectionist policies of the big music content publishers has already led to podsafe music distribution, and I am certainly discovering some interesting new jazz guitarists through this that otherwise I may not have been exposed to....

Dan Theunissen

There is a great source for out-of-print books - the library system. You can search, reserve, and even request transfers from other libraries on-line. Librarians could/should be researching the interest in out-of-print books by tracking loans and transfer requests.

Kent Larsen

I'm afraid you still haven't caught everything. I believe the numbers you have generally only cover US titles -- certainly Nielsen Bookscan only includes US titles, since foreign titles, especially foreign-language titles imported from overseas, are often not found in US databases. Alibris (one of the book agregators -- this one for used books) captures some of this trade, but still those interested in foreign languages often have difficulty finding books in foreign languages.

Generally, foreign language books are a fairly large part of the potential book long tail. They are mostly sold by a number of small book importers and dealers, but the number of potential titles, not including out-of-print titles, is vast. (In my specialty, Portuguese, its at least 300,000 titles in print, and Portuguese books are published in relatively undeveloped book markets. In all languages, the total books in print could well exceed 10 million. Including out-of-print titles, who knows? 100 million?

Francis Hamit

The used book business has been transformed by Amazon and eBay. Amazon Marketplace now has over 800.000 dealers who sell used books online through Amazon. I doubt that many of them are full-time. Most are probably like me; its a nice, profitable little sideline. The margins are such that it's worth the few minutes it takes to list a book, or to package it and ship it. Stock is recycled from library sales and charity thrift shops and sold to eager buyers at market prices. The dynamics of the marketplace suck books that have beem lost in storage back into circulation. For most purposes a good clean copy for reading is all that is needed. The range of what I've found and sold this way range from first editions to old government reports to heavyweight scientific and technical books. Amazon Marketplace is the better place to sell because they don't charge the dealer until the sale is made and the listing is up for sixty days rather than a week. If you pick the right stock you can make sevral thousand dollars over a year's time. A lot of people bitch about the lost sales of new copies, but in Europe, the adoption of the UK "{ublic Lending Right" scheme is a partial corrective since it compensates authors for the number of times their books are read rather than the number of copies sold.
That principle would be easy to adopt to the electronic distribution model and it looks like Amazon is doing that too. They are too smart to rip off the people who create new material. The Long Tail will transform book distribution with more and more publishers going to Print On Demand. As some authors have already done. Traditional publishers may have to move away from the Best Seller mentality that devalues the work of most of the writers out there; especially if the writers figure out that booksellers like Amazon just want to sell books. They don't care whose.

Mitchell Waite

Here is another spin on the Long Tail idea as it applies to books:


SAUSALITO, CA, NOVEMBER 8, 2005: "Disrupting the status quo. My favorite thing" is the mantra of Mitchell Waite, former publisher of computer books who was among the first to include CD ROMs, posters, 3D glasses, and software in the back of tech books. Now Mr. Waite has a new spin on book buying: ala carte publishing, or what he calls the Make-a-Guide.

The buying of books has parallels to the music industry...until iTunes and similar services listeners interested in one or two tracks of an album had to pay for the whole album. Book buyers face the same issue today -- you can't just buy the chapters you want, you have to pay for the entire printed book. Mr. Waite's spin on buying books is to let the reader choose just the content they want, and this may open a new chapter in the publishing industry.

His first example of the technology is birding guides. The site where the first MAG is found is whatbird.com https://www.whatbird.com, a search engine for identifying birds. Nearly 46 million Americans take bird watching trips each year and the market for publishing of field guides is huge. And yet until recently the way we learned about birds was the field guide -- a book whose basic system of identification has remained the same for over 100 years.

The Make-a-Guide beta, which is free for now and which can be found at https://www.whatbird.com/mag/make-a-guide.aspx lets you build a field guide answering the questions in a set of screens, selecting for example all the birds of a particular state or family. Then a PDF of the book can be downloaded or a custom printed book ordered -- usually for much less than the cost of a traditional guide.

WhatBird's highly visual, easily navigated database uses something called parametric search which allows you to find what you are looking for in a few easy steps. Each step narrows the search results, as opposed to most search engines that provide an all or nothing approach. Whatbird.com is now a holy grail of descriptions, hand drawn illustrations, maps, quizzes, photos, video and audio recordings of over 800 species of birds in North America -- all accessible in a simple web browser or via a cell phone or PDA.

Supported by a group of ornithologists, including David Lukas and Simone Whitecloud, the site not only provides valuable information, but allows people to communicate with experts who can answer any questions you have about birds, helping to make it the preeminent online community for birders and nature lovers who share this passion. The site is so accurate and easy to use that the Wild Birding Institute is using it for Project Wildbird, a three year study on backyard bird feeding habits.

The market for identification books is hundreds of millions of dollars a year -- one popular book has over 2.5 million copies in print. With birds in the news each day from the re-discovery of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, to fears about West Nile Virus or Avian Flu spreading to humans, this site and its new ground breaking Make-a-Guide system, provides not only a valuable tool for people seeking more information about birds but a way to purchase field guides that are custom tailored to there needs.

To learn more about Whatbird.com or schedule an interview, please contact Mitch Waite or call 415 888 3233.

Karen Telleen-Lawton

Interesting post. My only concern in reaching the 15% figure is equating "books" with "titles." You say B&N carries 100K books, and then give that as a ratio of the titles sold in the US per year.
Hats off to the little guys - small publishers, local bookstores, and unknown writers - who keep the market moving!

chris anderson


B&N says those large stores carry about 100,000 unique titles. Multiple copies of many of them means that the total number of books is larger. Apologies for the ambiguity, but just to reassure you, the number I quoted is indeed a proper apples-to-apples comparison with the figures for titles sold in the US.

Jim Rockford

I think you are missing something here. I don't think the e-Bay "let's trade each other's junk" model is going to sustain itself for either books or music. Simply because even the Longest Tail is probably unlikely to cover the costs of production for niche products.

Look at say Music. It costs about $3,000 or so to record a single, that's DIY style and acquiring the equipment, mixing, etc. Or renting a studio and having that done. This pencils out to the break even point of 4,348 songs with a gross margin of $0.69. That's a lot of songs. Too much I'd add for the Long Tail.

I don't have the costs for publishing and margins, but I assume that they are similar. I would argue it's more likely for publishers and music labels to drop even more marginal authors and bands. Because while the Long Tail may cover SOME of their sunk costs in producing, they don't have an upside and they are limited in time and space in how many authors or bands they can oversee. Leading to an airport model at the big retailers and the Amazon folks ending up competing with e-Bay for aging out of print stuff.

Bottom line: you will have less and less diversity in books and music until and unless even marginally small selling author or band can pretty much make money, or the cost is so trivial that it doesn't matter. I still see a pretty solid lower limit on start up costs for both; and little ability to raise prices or demand to cover those costs.

Francis Hamit

A note on those mega book stores. Most of the stock is considered wallpaper. It sells very slowly but provides the ambience to sell a high volume of best sellers and other hot category mechandise. I think the 80/20 rule applies here.

Chris vLS

All of these statistics seem to prove that the "old wisdom" of Pareto -- that less than 20 percent of titles represent over 80 percent of revenue -- rules here.

Explain to me again, where's the revolution here?

Cheng Xue

I¡¯m a Chinese Freelancer. So sorry for my poor English first, I try my best to express clear.
When I caught ¡°Long Tail Theory¡±, I suppose I have found its precise answer. When I research some information of some BBS, I observed there is a law that webmasters give about 1% topics medals as best topic. Then these best topics occupy about 20% entries.
So I suppose in the information times, the ¡°28 law¡± will be replaced by a new law: 1% civilization/customer occupy/create 20% estate/benefit, other 99% occupy/create other 80%. I call it ¡°Paradise Law¡±.

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The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

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