REVIEW: THE LONG TAIL
Chris Anderson. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. Hyperion, 2006. 1-4013-0237-8. $24.95. Reviewed by Marylaine Block
Chris Anderson's initial article about the long tail in Wired 2004 <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html> made the case that our hit-centered economy, in which 20% of product accounted for 80% of sales, resluted not from natural law but from scarcity: limited physical space for inventory and the costs of maintaining titles in inventory made it economically necessary to limit stock to anticipated hits that would do well enough to support those that did not sell well. "More than 99 percent of music albums on the market today are not available in Wal-Mart," Anderson says, and "Of the more than 200,000 films, TV shows, documentaries and other video that have been released commercially, the average Blockbuster carries just 3,000."
But there IS no scarcity in the digital economy. WalMart stores limit the number of available songs to the top 25,000, but Rhapsody carries - and sells - every one of more than 900,000 tracks. At Blockbuster stores, 90 percent of their stock is new theatrical releases, but at their online store, about 30 percent of sales is from older titles.
That's because several digital efficiencies have reduced the costs of reaching niche markets producers scarcely knew existed. Inexpensive software and equipment have democratized the production of text, music, and video, making far more products available inexpensively. Digital storage makes it easy for people to find information about products, or even the products themselves, while the costs of storage are edging toward zero. When consumers have easy access to a far wider array of products than ever before, that meet their specific tastes better, they buy farther down the tail, making even small niche markets profitable. Long tail products that aren't available in offline stores account for 40 percent of Rhapsody's sales, 21 percent of Netflix sales, and 25 percent of Amazon's. As Anderson says, "There's still demand for big cultural buckets, but they're no longer the only market."
The article made a good case, but in the book, Anderson has bolstered it with extensive research, using consumer behavior data from online retailers and service providers like eBay, Yahoo!, Rhapsody, Netflix, Lego, and Google, and from companies with both bricks and mortar operations AND online outlets.
If anything, the new digital culture creates too much product, an unintelligible mishmash and cultural free-for-all. What becomes critical, says Anderson, is the creation of "filters" - guides that will help people "move from the world they know ("hits") to the world they don't know ("niches") via a route that is both comfortable and tailored to their tastes" and thus find the highly specific products that match their interests. Start with "alternative music," for instance, and you can wend your way to "alternative Christian punk," or "alternative country," or "adult alternative" that might be more your thing. The most effective online retailers have created a variety of such recommendation systems - think Amazon, with its reader-created reviews, readers' topical favorites lists, and automated recommendation systems based on user purchases.
Libraries are not businesses, but they are classic "long tail" organizations. While bookstores have concentrated on new releases and current issues of magazines, we have always stocked the back catalog. Oprah may make discover an author libraries have been stocking for years, and perhaps building an audience for. We've been creating "filters" for years, with our lists of "readalikes," and services like Morton Grove Public Library's MatchBook service, which finds matches between new books and patron-created reading profiles. We've also been collaborating with other libraries to share our resources, so that we can say, "I'm sorry, we don't own that, but I can have it for you the next time our van comes."
But there are some lessons in this book that we can apply. One is the cost of shelf space versus digital inventory. Given a decent server and reliable high-speed internet service (still not a given in rural areas), there's a strong economic case for increasing your offerings of digital books, audio, and even movies.
Another is "let the customers do the work." We already provide our own filters: our review sources, booktalks, discussion groups, and databases like NoveList. But who knows better what they like than our patrons? If you're not already doing it, why not give them the chance to post their own reviews online, submit their own "readalike" lists? One thing we have learned because of the internet is that people WANT to talk back, want to be part of the discussion.
A third issue is weeding. Shelf space IS expensive, and many of us weed ruthlessly by use. If it hasn't circulated in two years, out it goes. But before we weed, it's worth asking why it hasn't circulated. Is this a book that would have an audience if people only knew it existed, like for instance a classic or hilarious baseball novel, like Jay Cronley's Screwballs? If so, maybe what it needs is not the booksale or the dump, but a filter that lets people know it exists - displaying it with other baseball novels in March, or including a list of baseball novels in your library blog.
I think librarians should read this book, and fortunately, Anderson makes it easy to do. He's a good writer and an interesting one. He's lucid, organized, and logical, and the evidence he presents is fascinating. I think of it as professional reading that is not a duty but a pleasure to read.
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As I browsed each, I was struck that I kept looking for the user-contributed content. The comments by play-goers, readers, people who reported additional details or perceptions about the people and activities being presented. This was, for me, another example of how a particular kind of offering - in this case sites which solicit user-contributed content - is creating a general expectation. Without user-contributed content, each of these sites seemed - to me anyway - slightly flat or inert. This is probably unfair to the creators of the sites, but it is how I responded. And I certainly wouldn't have felt this way a couple of years ago.
Lorcan Dempsey. "Changing Expectations (Again)." Lorcan Dempsey's Weblog, January 2, 2006, http://orweblog.oclc.org/archives/000909.html
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