Book review: The Long Tail

Chris Anderson’s “Aha!” moment that inspired “The Long Tail” seems to have come while he was looking at a graph representing a month’s worth of customer usage data for the Rhapsody music service. “I realized that the curve was unlike anything I’d seen before,” he writes in his Introduction.

He saw that a small number of hits that had been downloaded the most were at the head of the curve, which then fell off steeply but never reached zero as the long tail of the curve extended to include the total number of tracks available on Rhapsody. Even the 400,000th track was being downloaded a few times per month.

It isn’t until deep into “The Long Tail” on page 180 that Anderson sums up the significance of this new business model for the consumer:

“The Long Tail is nothing more than infinite choice.”

Anderson traces the roots of the Long Tail to the Sears & Roebuck catalog, an agent of infinite choice for late 19th century America. Enabled by the simultaneous maturity of the railroad and postal systems, the Sears catalog broke the tyranny that geography had held over consumer choice. By 1897, it offered 200,000 items to rural Americans who were previously limited to the provisions of the local general store.

Anderson portrays Amazon as the modern-day inheritor of Sears’ legacy and, by far, the most successful Long Tail purveyor of physical goods. Unlike, Rhapsody and iTunes, Amazon is a “box shifter,” and must deal with the cost-incurring problems of inventorying and distributing things made of atoms instead of bits.

Amazon has succeeded by effectively passing this buck to affiliates who participate in the Amazon Marketplace programs. Retailers and distributors of any size and stripe can have their stuff listed on Amazon, but they bear the cost of warehousing and shipping it. This aggregator strategy is key to Amazon’s success, which Anderson sites as comprising 40 percent of the company’s retail sales volume at the end of 2004.

Anderson relies heavily on the success of Amazon and other Long Tail superstars such as ITunes, Rhapsody and Google to hold out the promise of the Long Tail as a viable business model. He acknowledges that end-to-end digital offerings such as music present the fewest challenges and biggest advantages over their “brick and mortar” counterparts. In WalMart music resides in CDs that have to be shipped, warehoused, displayed on shelves and handled by clerks before getting to the customer. It behooves WalMart to devote the resources and real estate required to offer the 3000 CDs that can be displayed in one store to the “hits” most likely to be in demand that day by greatest number of customers.

ITunes and Rhapsody, meanwhile, can cheaply store and distribute an unlimited selection of digital song files in increasingly narrower genres, because there is no penalty for carrying products that don’t sell.

To Anderson’s credit, this prospect of the consumer finding a “Paradise of Choice” in the Long Tail is as close as he gets to promising any utopian outcomes from Long Tail economics. Throughout the book, he avoids the giddy exuberance that paradigm-shifting phenomena can inspire in authors and, the publisher would hope, readers. After all, books about The Next Big Thing that promise to upend the status quo would seem to have a better chance of creating watercooler buzz and becoming hits.

For example, Anderson acknowledges that infinite choice comes bundled with infinite crap, and stresses the importance of filtering mechanisms such as search tools and recommendations  to increase the likelihood of a painless, low-risk and satisfying customer experience. The consumer’s plea, says Anderson, is “Make everything available. And make it easy for me to find it.”

Anderson cites the three essential forces of the Long Tail as: the production of more stuff to lengthen the tail, the distribution to make the contents of tail available to the niche markets, and the connection of supply to demand — a process of using our attraction to hits to increase demand for niche stuff to satisfy our most individual appetites.

The way to get more stuff made, he argues, it to democratize the means of production. He cites the role of amateurs and peer production in the success of Wikipedia; the “exposure culture” of the Web, in which getting noticed is everything; and self-publishing and accessible audio and video technology as blurring the lines between producers and consumers. Yet, Anderson never adequately connects this democratization of production and distribution to a successful Long Tail business model. Wikipedia is non-profit and YouTube, the platform for all that nouveau auteur video, gets plenty of eyeballs but, to date, cashes few checks.

Toward the end of “The Long Tail,” Anderson seems to be aware that he has relied too heavily on examples from the digital entertainment sector to convey the promise of the Long Tail business model. He gives us a chapter of other success stories, but these are either less convincing (KitchenMaid and Lego) or one-off category dominators (Ebay and Google Adwords), which, like Amazon and iTunes seem unlikely to be rivaled or replicated any time soon.

“The Long Tail” is a well-researched and generally balanced treatment of a very big idea, a work that intelligently frames a phenomenon that is challenging the dynamics of conventional economics. The only thing that kept me from turning the last page and exuberantly declaring that “This is the future!” was my inability to think of a fresh example of profitable Long Tail success that has emerged in the two years since the book was published.

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3 Responses to Book review: The Long Tail

  1. captainchunk says:

    Terry,

    I think you bring up some excellent points with The Long Tail. Anderson does focus on a relatively small number of big success stories of Long Tail economics. I kept thinking that he should be using extremely unknown companies or music distributors to make his points about Long Tail success.

    In theory, the Long Tail is about infinite choice, but I don’t think that is currently the situation. Using the magical filter system could yield every single choice possible to consumers, but I don’t think it does. Over the next few years, that could very well change… who knows.

    As for your review… I enjoyed your writing style and I thought the review flowed well. It was clear what the book was about and Anderson’s position on economic issues. I think your criticism of finding a business model to really support all of this new amateur content is pertinent. It seems as though we share some similar thoughts on The Long Tail.

    -Brian

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