Friday, July 21, 2006

Long Tail Books

Chris Anderson's The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More and The Long Tail blog have focused on the idea that due to technological changes in recent years, big money in the future will come from selling very little of a lot of things. From Chris' blog FAQ, this is the idea:
The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-target goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.

One example of this is the theory's prediction that demand for products not available in traditional bricks and mortar stores is potentially as big as for those that are. But the same is true for video not available on broadcast TV on any given day, and songs not played on radio. In other words, the potential aggregate size of the many small markets in goods that don't individually sell well enough for traditional retail and broadcast distribution may rival that of the existing large market in goods that do cross that economic bar.
So the idea is that in the past, only the orange part of the distribution sold enough to get brought to market, but now we get to see the little bit of everything that is potentially out there. (File sharing is a good example of this, as it helps spread "news" about artists who are far out in the "long tail." Note that the link to the paper in the post no longer works. This one does. Here's a link to a paper that argues that file sharing does not really fit this story.)

Anyway.... the NY Times recently reported on the long-tail coming to book publishing. They cover the growing number of firms that allow users to publish very small book runs (even one book, potentially). These firms generally provide the user with a free copy of book layout software. (Professional versions of print layout software from Adobe and others cost hundreds of dollars, or more.) Once the book is designed and layed out, it is uploaded to the service, and anyone can log onto the site and order a copy of the book. Naturally, pricing depends on the size of the book: according to the Times article, at it costs from $29.95 for books between 1 and 40 pages long and gets as much as $79.95 for books between 301 and 440 pages.

Now, you might ask, who's going to pay $80 for someone's amateur novel or a collection of photgraphs of their cat? Very, very few people; but that's the point. In the past, if there were only 2 people interested in a book, you couldn't get it published; it would have cost thousands of dollars. But now, we can all publish our own stories, family histories, or whatever and even if there is only one person interested in reading it, it can be produced for a more or less reasonable price.


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