The Long Tail of Publishing

I just finished reading Chris Anderson's "The Long Tail" and I genuinely enjoyed it. Chris offers a fairly comprehensive look at how modern information and distribution systems have greatly increased the number of unique products available, and how that affects the businesses involved in producing and selling those products. While the book doesn't offer a formula for success in the publishing business, it's about as close to a "must read" as I've seen for people who wonder where it's all going to end. The Long Tail was ranked #2 on Amazon yesterday, about as far from the tip of the tail as you can get!

Publishing has always been a business with a long tail, but most of the only people who used to make a living on the long tail were the second-hand bookstores and a few giant distributors, like Ingram and Baker&Taylor. These days, the main beneficiaries of selling a large number of slow-selling titles are Amazon, Lightning Source, third party sellers using internet store fronts (especially the Amazon Marketplace), and a couple large publishers with very large backlists.

Authors can't make a living on the Long Tail by definition. It's somewhat ironic that the very paradigm that allows for anybody to be a "star" ensures that the sky is so full of stars that only a few particles from each will reach earth each year. It's great that over a million unique titles will sell a couple copies this year, but nobody makes a living selling a couple books a year, even if they've authored dozens. The only parties that profit from Long Tail sales (other than the consumers) are the middlemen.

Neither authors nor publishers aspire to having their titles show up on the long tail. Everybody want to be in the short-head, the top ten books, the top 100 books, the top 1,000 books. By the time you get out of the top 10,000 books, they aren't commercially viable in any sense of the word, unless they are self published and the author is netting the publisher's share. A large proportion of the commercially viable books sold every year aren't new, they are classic fiction, classic non-fiction, books in edition, etc. What this means is you can't look at the 100,000 or so new books published in the U.S. each year (some people put the number closer to 200,000) and say, "10% will be successful". The real number is much lower.

The rest of the books end up on the long tail of publishing. They generate a couple years of depressing royalty reports for the authors, give the reminder houses something to do, and cost a new crop of acquisitions editors their jobs. The also contribute significant income to Amazon's bottom line, to Lightning Source, and to a large number of home-based bookstores who play the mail order game. As an author and a publisher, I don't want to see any of my books appearing on the Long Tail, but based on the time I've spent around big animals, I guess I'd rather be on the tail than under it:-)

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