Friday, April 24, 2009

Who's got a Long Tail?

I came to "" by way of my spam filter, and my curious streak. I'd like to say that I followed Jacqueline Lichtenberg's link from her most recent blog on Wired for Romance, but it wouldn't be true.

Not that I took the lowest of the low roads. I did not read the correspondence from the very persistent salesperson who emails me regularly and apparently wishes to show me his "long tail", and to advise me how I can grow a comparable one.

I did do a Google search. I was sure that "Long Tail" must have a respectable meaning. And it does! It's not dissimilar to riding someone's coat-tails.... for the purposes of marketing a novel.

Chris Anderson is Wired's editor in chief and writes the blog Long

He has given me permission --"quote away" are his exact words-- to quote from a blog he wrote in December 2004, which I find utterly fascinating, and which touches on the business of selling and marketing and stocking books, music, and much more.

This blog was expanded into a book: The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

The Long Tail 12/10/2004
Forget squeezing millions from a few megahits at the top of the charts. The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.

1988, a British mountain climber named Joe Simpson wrote a book called Touching the Void, a harrowing account of near death in the Peruvian Andes. It got good reviews but, only a modest success, it was soon forgotten. Then, a decade later, a strange thing happened. Jon Krakauer wrote Into Thin Air, another book about a mountain-climbing tragedy, which became a publishing sensation. Suddenly Touching the Void started to sell again.

Random House rushed out a new edition to keep up with demand. Booksellers began to promote it next to their Into Thin Air displays, and sales rose further. A revised paperback edition, which came out in January, spent 14 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. That same month, IFC Films released a docudrama of the story to critical acclaim. Now Touching the Void outsells Into Thin Air more than two to one.

What happened? In short, recommendations. The online bookseller's software noted patterns in buying behavior and suggested that readers who liked Into Thin Air would also like Touching the Void. People took the suggestion, agreed wholeheartedly, wrote rhapsodic reviews. More sales, more algorithm-fueled recommendations, and the positive feedback loop kicked in.

Particularly notable is that when Krakauer's book hit shelves, Simpson's was nearly out of print. A few years ago, readers of Krakauer would never even have learned about Simpson's book - and if they had, they wouldn't have been able to find it. Amazon changed that. It created the Touching the Void phenomenon by combining infinite shelf space with real-time information about buying trends and public opinion. The result: rising demand for an obscure book.

This is not just a virtue of online booksellers; it is an example of an entirely new economic model for the media and entertainment industries....

There are four or five more blog pages of riveting analysis not only of music, books, Amazon, and copyright piracy. The title of this blog is a link to it.

Chris's book The Long Tail was ranked around #3,000 when I took a look.

The Look Inside feature is available.
Over 90% of those who visit the book page end up buying his book.

Since this is a Craft and Opinion blog, I'd like to offer an opinion and potential discussion starter for authors and readers.

What use should an author make of this Long Tail information?


My personal inclination is to do nothing with it. That's just me. I know that some authors tag their books using the names of more famous authors as tag words or search recommendations in hopes of giving the Amazon bots a nudge. Maybe they're smart. I'd rather leave any such comparisons of my alien romances to my publisher, or to readers... or to search results by genre and subject matter.

Do you have any "Long Tail" thoughts, or stories, or opinions to share?

Rowena Cherry

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  1. Thanks so much for the recommendation! I've been looking for something like this too.

  2. You are very welcome, Cameron. Also check out Linnea's blog posting here on Mentoring.