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Will the Long Tail Have a Long Run?

5:55 PM -- My brother-in-law, who's a tech venture capitalist in Southern California, had an advance copy of Wired editor Chris Anderson's book, The Long Tail, when I visited over the weekend. Official publication date is July 11, according to Anderson's Website.

"The Long Tail' is Anderson's term (originating in statistics, it describes a graph with a few cases with huge numbers associated with them clustered at one end and a whole lot of cases with few associated numbers making up the long, gently sloping "tail" of the curve at the other) for the new economics of Web-based commerce: Because, in theory, everything is available online, there's an incentive for retailers to keep the low-selling, obscure items available continuously as well as the huge-selling hits. In other words, while Mariah Carey's new album might sell a few million copies, CD-sellers can also make good profits by making available hard-to-find old Thelonious Monk recordings that only sell a few hundred a year.

I wrote a feature for Wired on XM Radio a couple of years ago (before Anderson's "Long Tail" article ran, I must add) that described the satellite radio business as one of "microgenres" -- if the programming director at XM thinks there's an audience of a few hundred for, say, early Joy Division, he throws up a channel. The channels are constantly in flux and sat radio is by definition a non-hit-driven business.

Essentially a magazine article pumped full of examples, The Long Tail is being touted as the new Tipping Point, and the term has already entered the tech-business lexicon. You could argue that the wireless business is by its nature one of long tails -- to each cell phone its own ringtone, its own playlist, its own obscure Hong Kong gangster videos. It'll be interesting to see if sales of the book match up to the expectations -- not to mention the huge advance Anderson reportedly received.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

daniel.taylor 12/5/2012 | 3:51:46 AM
re: Will the Long Tail Have a Long Run? I'm a trained scientist who's made a career out of studying, at close range, aspects of technology adoption. During the course of my studies, I've been through several waves of tech pop psychology.

Fueled by case studies and a dearth of empirical evidence, these analytical models assert theory from a handful of observations. But few actually eat their own dog food.

As you've identified, the "long tail" has recently replaced the "tipping point" as the most fashionable of these marketplace explanations. Over the past year, I have watched numerous technologists attempt, unsuccessfully, to adapt the story of the "long tail" to their businesses.

And the business model is the hardest thing to reconcile. Without a locus of customers, it's extremely hard to develop and market products and services. What the "long tail" proposes is a business case that only works for published goods and bottom feeders selling obscure items on eBay.

Were the "long tail" a viable business case and a real phenomenon, Anderson would have made his money selling his book in bits and pieces on the Internet. And we'd be learning about it on Sunday morning infomercials. The book would have been redundant and unprofitable, because consumers would have already found what they wanted.

But the existence of a book published through traditional is the most poignant data point disproving the "long tail." As consumers, we need marketing to find products, and without a sufficient number of consumers (product sales), it's pretty hard to carry the overhead of being in business.
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