Book review: The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson

From the archives

"The Long Tail" has been lauded and quoted at length. But what does the book actually say, and how does it stand up to scrutiny. In this lengthy review I give it a cautious "thumbs up".

Supply and demand

The subtitle of this book is “How endless choice is creating unlimited demand”. That is, in a superficial sense, a restatement of Say’s Law, a law of economics that states that supply creates its own demand, although the mechanics are not the same.

In this case, the basic thesis is that, because of the availability of what is, in effect, unlimited space, together with tools that enable anyone to become a supplier, and algorithms that guide consumers in their choices (cf Amazon’s “Readers who bought this book also bought …”) the economics of supply and demand have changed.

To summarise, Anderson states that the tail of the demand curve has flattened out, and become infinitely long. This is what he means by the term “the long tail”. Perhaps it would be churlish to point out that in economics, the demand curve depicts the relationship between price and demand. There is a separate construct known as a supply curve, which depicts the relationship between price and supply. No matter. It’s an interesting hypothesis, and describes a phenomenon with which we are becoming increasingly familiar: the growth of niche markets.

Scarcity vs abundance

Another way of describing this is to say that the economics of scarcity have given way to the economics of abundance. This is true to an extent, except that there is still scarcity – of time, and knowledge. How does one find the time, for example, to explore all the music available at the click of a mouse, and how does one know, without time-wasting and potentially time-wasting trial and error, which products and services are good, and which not?

Anderson addresses such concerns by talking about the software programs that aggregate consumer choices and make recommendations as a result. But unless you’re incredibly lucky, or an automaton, you will still have to explore the products for yourself, and make your own decisions.

There is no doubt that we live and work in an age in which anybody with access to the internet and a computer can become a supplier, even if all they do is sell things on eBay. In economics parlance, the barriers to entry have been lowered to the point where they are virtually zero.

This is great news to those musicians who will never be lucky enough to be discovered through the usual methods, and for those authors who hitherto have been faced with the choice between oblivion or, thanks to vanity publishing, a huge outlay.

And from the consumer’s point of view, it is good news, because it’s now possible to find things which are so niche that no normal supplier could afford to stock it.

The suppliers’ problem

But there are downsides, not only for the consumer, which we have already considered, but for suppliers as well. Actually, it’s the other side of the same coin: how do you get your product to stand out above the dross, or the perception of dross, that is flooding the market?

I don’t think Anderson addresses this issue adequately, but it’s a real one. Take, for example, the field I know a little about: self-publishing. I can, and have, published some niche titles at no financial risk, thanks to Lulu’s print-on-demand service. But the real cost is that many booksellers won’t stock such books, because print-on-demand is perceived by many as another form of vanity publishing.

For the same reason, many periodicals won’t review self-published books, and of those that do, many won’t review printed-on-demand books, for the same reason. In my case, it’s not too much of a problem: I know my market, and I know how to go about getting my books reviewed and sold. And if I don’t sell any, it doesn’t matter anyway because the existence of the books helps to cement my reputation as an expert in my field.

But I can’t help feeling that I wouldn’t feel quite so relaxed about it all if I didn’t already have an established reputation, and I would certainly think, not twice but many times, before making my first novel available in the same way. Why? Because in my perception, and I am sure others, to do so would be tantamount to an announcement that it would never get published by any other means. And before you protest that there are many examples of now-famous authors whose work was thrown on the scrap heap by publishers, bear in mind that what is important here is not someone’s unsung literary genius or the fact that publishers can only read, let alone publish, a fraction of the unsolicited manuscripts they receive, but the public’s perception.

Some nitty-gritty

There are a few specific issues I’d like to take up.

First, in a section entitled “The power of peer production”, Anderson states that Wikipedia is, on the whole, “arguably the best encyclopaedia in the world”. But that the quality varies at an individual level. He goes on:

“Your odds of getting a substantive, up-to-date, and accurate entry for any given subject are excellent on Wikipedia, even if every individual entry isn’t accurate.”

This makes no sense: as a researcher or student, I’m not interested in the macro level – I just want to be reassured that the search that I am conducting right now will be accurate, more than a placeholder entry and not autogenerated spam.

In another part of the book, he basically says that scarcity is giving way to abundance. For example, he states that:

“Two of the main scarcity functions of traditional economics – the marginal costs of manufacturing and distribution – are tending to zero in Long Tail digital goods.”

This is true only in a mechanistic sense: for reasons already stated, the costs of supply are probably higher now, though not necessarily in terms of money. For example, to get your music discovered by as many people as possible you have to spend time and energy making it available in numerous places.

In addition, because it’s so easy for utter rubbish to hit the (virtual) streets a lot of thought, time and energy has to put into convincing potential purchasers of your credentials. You can no longer necessarily say “Five million people bought this last year.” Proclaiming that two hundred, or even two thousand, people bought it doesn’t have quite the same ring about it!

At the risk of sounding like a nit-picker, he says that network ad time increased from 6 minutes to 12 minutes between1982 and 2001, “an increase of 50%!”. Er, no, that’s an increase of 100%. I know that, and I’m no mathematician. It’s an easy, and apparently common, mistake to make, but it casts doubt on whether his other facts and figures are to be taken at face value.

In conclusion

If I were to be unkind, I would say that this is one of those books that has a single idea, repeated 15 times. Whilst true, in my opinion, that does not convey the book’s readability, or the fact that it makes a valiant attempt to not only explain the proliferation of niche products, but to do so in a way that goes beyond the mere anecdotal. I should not only read the book, but recommend it to your students, and to any economics teachers you know.

This was originally published on 13th February 2008.  I’ve written more about the myth of the long tail here: Reflections on the London Book Fair 2015.

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