The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More

  • Chris Anderson
Hyperion: 2006. 256 pp. $24.95 1401302378 | ISBN: 1-401-30237-8

The Internet has changed from a communications tool available to a small number of academics to a worldwide medium for commerce and information. Initially, business learned how to use it from the academics, but perhaps now the research community can benefit from some of the consumer-driven developments.

Amazon and other online retailers have discovered that there is a substantial amount of money to be made from selling a wide range of books, songs and other items that would be unprofitable or impractical to provide in physical stores, which tend to focus instead on the bestsellers. This group of less-popular content was first described by Chris Anderson as 'the long tail' in an article for Wired magazine in October 2004.

In his book also called The Long Tail, Anderson further explores the business and cultural opportunities emerging thanks to the availability and discoverability of huge amounts of entertainment and information online. He writes for and about business, and his main examples are drawn from a small number of major US Internet-centric content-distribution services including Amazon, the Rhapsody music distribution service, iTunes and the DVD rental service NetFlix.

But the book also examines related Internet developments in order to understand the multiple factors working to make the 'long tail' possible. In the electronic world, availability may be easiest of all — the cost of providing a new music track is essentially zero if a company is already storing millions of tracks. However, having provided new offerings, the company requires an audience that has somehow discovered content far beyond the heavily promoted hits they are most familiar with.

Off the beaten track: online stores cash in by selling less-popular items as well as those by big names. Credit: T. PINK/ALAMY

Anderson refers to this as “connecting supply and demand, introducing consumers to these new and newly available goods and driving demand down the Tail”. He suggests that other consumers may be a major force in this introduction, by reviewing, tagging and otherwise pointing the way to previously unheralded content.

Some of this content will be mainstream works that have fallen out of the public's gaze, or that may be better known in one corner of the world than another, perhaps leading a new reader to gleefully consume Jerome K. Jerome's 1889 bestseller Three Men in a Boat. But using the example of the amateur astronomers who observed Supernova 1987A, Anderson also argues that the ready availability of inexpensive technology is enabling many individuals to participate in areas that were previously restricted to professionals. Internet blogs, digital photos, audio programmes and video journals all add to the new marketplace of ideas.

The author has done substantial research and analysis, and refers to some earlier thinkers. However, in the chapter on the 'new producers', I was surprised that there was no reference to Alvin Toffler, whose concepts of the rise of amateur production and consumers-as-producers (which he termed 'prosumers') were presented several decades ago, notably in The Third Wave (Bantam, 1980). Also, an examination of the role of the public in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary could have usefully contextualized the discussion of the 'Wikipedia phenomenon', in which many amateur contributors collaborate to produce encyclopaedic articles.

The concept of the long tail can be extended beyond the realm of entertainment. Anderson does this briefly, but still remains primarily in the Internet and software domains, looking at its applicability to the business of eBay and Google, among others.

I found it striking that this explosion in online content comes at a time when the world is experiencing substantial reductions in species diversity, and in a core aspect of culture — spoken languages. If the long tail can help to address this diversity crisis, it would certainly be invaluable for world culture. It seems to me that perhaps the Russian scientist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, travelling the world in the early twentieth century to amass a vast collection of plant seeds, was an early explorer of the long tail of plants.

From the perspective of scholarly communication, librarians, publishers and academic institutions have much to gain from the ideas in this book. Scientific content, such as data sets and peer-reviewed papers, is being produced at a breathtaking pace, yet there are still gaps in terms of availability and discoverability. The techniques used to locate previously hard-to-obtain music tracks, obscure books and unexpected content relationships can be adapted to enable researchers to discover less-cited but potentially useful data and papers.

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