The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More
by Chris Anderson (Hyperion Books)
Wired editor Chris Anderson wrote about the concept of The Long Tail in an article in 2004 and the book of the same name appeared in 2006 but the idea is now an ever-present theme of sales and marketing conferences, used to describe the importance of the huge numbers of books, CDs, DVDs and other products that sell individually in small numbers but, when taken together, have tremendous value.
Interestingly, few people recognise that Anderson was not first in identifying the existence of the long tail. In fact, the concept goes back decades. Wikipedia suggests that even the "long tail" term itself goes back at least to 1946, appearing in the Annals of Mathematical Statistics. There are also close comparisons between Anderson's description and what are known as Pareto tails and other terms.
Anderson himself cited research by Erik Brynjolfsson, Yu Hu and Michael D. Smith plotting a line that recognised the importance of small-selling items to Amazon's success.
However, lest we underestimate Anderson's insight, his real achievement was to equate the concept with the rapid changes wrought by the internet and eloquently describe the implications for companies like Amazon, where all those unloved titles became available, and even profitable even though no sensible retail outlet could ever justify giving them cheap shelf space. In other words, even the latest Harry Potter cannot hope to outsell the total volume of books you didn't even know (or care) existed.
In many ways, Anderson's discovery is a joyous one. It is pleasing to know that in an age where Tesco, Oprah and Richard and Judy can make or break books, the internet makes it possible to build a market based on the arcane, niche and quirky. Not only that but the tail is supported by other tools that rely on the fundamental ubiquity of the web: social networks, comments and ratings can bring new life to old titles. This is all, surely, for the good.
Today, anybody working in the IT, publishing, communications and retail sectors can hardly afford not to profess some knowledge of The Long Tail, but they should go further and read the thing too because this is a book written with admirable rigour and balance. Taken together with John Battelle's The Search, it is nothing less than a primer for understanding the economics of business-to-consumer e-commerce and, therefore, essential reading.
Anderson's next book, due out next year, sounds just as interesting. Called FREE, it is an examination of another aspect of the economy the internet has helped popularise -- giveaway products.
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