It's not a warehouse full of books

The New York Times offers yet more coverage of The Long Tail, this time looking at the book industry. As with most things related to the book, it seems to miss the point, which is not necessarily that large corporations will get rich selling one copy of a million different things to a million different people, but that smaller companies selling a few things to those in several niches will find ample success where, prior to certain technological advances, they would fail.

The Times article finds that "publishers remain wary of the long tail theory, largely because they haven’t figured out how to make money off it." This, of course, is the point. Big publishers/record labels/film studios don't get it, because they're always after the hits. They won't stock 10 copies of a book for years in the hope that they'll someday sell, and the long tail doesn't suppose they'll suddenly start. It's the little guy -- or rather, guys in aggregate -- who will benefit from the long tail. The article eventually gets around to this in the, um, tail of the article, yet the writer seems not to notice that she has quite successfully buried her lead:

"Some small presses build their business entirely on the long tail, bringing back into print esoteric titles that are in the public domain or had been abandoned by other publishers as unprofitable," she writes, sharing the stories of the New York Review of Books Classics imprint, which, according to editorial director Edwin Frank, is "happy with any book that sells over 5,000 copies.” With lower overhead, a company that sells 5,000 of a few different things can do quite well for itself. Several of these companies can then equal the sales clout of the big houses.

Meanwhile, Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine spins this off into a number of interesting directions. Print-on-demand, using blogs to promote obscure titles, etc. I think he puts a bit too much faith in the ability of blogs and hyperlinks to solve any ill, but it's thought provoking as always.


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