We all need to re-read The Long Tail again…

It’s been a while since I last read Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. Certainly it’s come under fire, along with several other texts, for promoting a digital utopia.

But the reason I need to re-read it is that people keep referring to it being disproved by digital sales stats.

For instance, the recent finding that most digital music titles sell fewer than 100 copies, and 32% sell one copy, from a Nielsen Study referenced by Bob Lefsetz.

The problem is that I’m pretty sure, even after all these years, The Long Tail explicitly states that the Pareto Principle of the top successes selling the majority of copies, will remain true, and that most of the ‘long tail’ titles will sell next to nothing.

The point is that having digital copies of single sellers, or those selling to 10 or 100 people, is cost effective for a business when compared with having them all available in a retail store. Amazon and iTunes still make a huge profit from amalgamating all those small numbers, just as Google does with Advertising, and Facebook, Twitter and other social networks are attempting from our data.

There are lots of reasons to question any theory or belief about the future, but it’d be nice if we could all strive for at least some accuracy when doing it…



  1. StLouisLawyer says:

    Thank you. I was wondering when someone was going to get around to pointing this out.

    30 years ago, the Long Tail would have been the “No Tail”.

    What “The Long Tail” said it didn’t say has been lost by now.

  2. “The point is that having digital copies of single sellers, or those selling to 10 or 100 people, is cost effective for a business when compared with having them all available in a retail store.”

    Lefsetz specifically points out that the majority of records in the tail “sell far too few copies to be lucrative investments” and that one third of all records sell just one copy.

    • DanThornton says:

      But the point is that Amazon or iTunes have a large enough collection of those individual copies sold, which aggregated makes it worthwhile. Just the same as the average Google Adsense advert makes almost nothing, but Google makes a lot of money from the aggregation of search results pages and websites.

      When it comes to digital, the cost of storing and making an additional file available is tiny compared to the cost of stocking a physical copy, which allows that economy of scale to happen.

      It’s always been the case that the majority of any product type won’t sell – it’s the Pareto principle in action. But the idea of The Long Tail is that you can now make a decent return by collecting all the misses together.

      • We’re talking about different things. Lefsetz talks about it not being profitable for the authors, artists, etc., not for the channel provider (Amazon, iTunes).

      • To make it extra clear (because I cannot edit my comment): if you make a record and sell just one copy, you lose money. You need to sell at least a couple dozens to cover the recording costs (studio hours, mainly). Even if you do it at home, or if you wrote a book, the time you invested in it is not compensated by selling just a handful of copies of your work.

        “For old hits, then, digital channels may present a real opportunity. But the large majority of products in the tail were not very successful to begin with. Most of them, in fact, never met the bar for a release through traditional distribution channels.” This is what Lefsetz says, and he is clearly talking about the opportunities and possibilities for the artists, not for the owners of the digital playground.

        • DanThornton says:

          But nowhere in The Long Tail does it say that digital channels make it possible to earn a living by releasing something which does not become successful. That was the point I was trying to make…

          The success stories are for the businesses doing the aggregating, not a creator trying to make a living. They still need to find a way out of The Long Tail to be able to survive, although various mechanisms mean that the number they need to reach could be potentially a lot smaller than in previous eras. The idea of the 1000 true fans that Kevin Kelly wrote about is closer to reality across a range of businesses as well as the creative arts.

          There’s no mechanism that means you can make a living from selling a handful of copies of any work at the normal market price, digital or otherwise, and no-one sensible has ever claimed otherwise…

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