Heads or tails?

My return after a long layoff was spurred by The Long Tail Chris Anderson's new book about how online retailing has allowed those in niche markets to make a go of it against the world of blockbusters and limited choice at traditional bricks and mortar stores.

I've been reading Anderson's blog for more than a year, watching in near real-time as he sorted through the issues to be covered in the book. Given his focus on entertainment offerings, it struck a chord. Some of his postings sparked debate, but it wasn't until the book's release recently that people really started to discuss the merits of his theory.

There are plenty of people who think Anderson has hit upon something revolutionary, but it's the naysayers that offer the most interesting reading. Lee Gomes with the Wall Street Journal weighed in today, saying Anderson's numbers are flawed. "It would be wonderful if the world as Mr. Anderson describes it were true: one where 'healthy niche products and even 'outright misses' collectively could stand their ground with the culture's increasingly soulless 'hits,'" he writes. "But while every singer-songwriter dreams from his bedroom of making a living off iTunes, few actually do, mostly because so many others have the very same idea."

Two points: Anderson doesn't argue that bedsit singers are going to get rich thanks to the Long Tail; online retailers who offer the work of hundreds of such artists might. Also, while Anderson may be projecting a bit into the future (something he addresses on his blog in part by saying, "Which is why the language Gomes cites from the book jacket is actually all phrased in the future conditional tense"), his point remains valid. It is clear that those offering more choice can remain viable and even compete with those who do not. Does the Long Tail equal the Head right now? Might it soon? Would Amazon stock so many books if it thought otherwise?


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