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

Reading this book reminded me a lot of reading Paul Graham’s article “The Other Road Ahead.”  Both pieces are a bit on the older side, but posit theories and observe and report on trends that have become essential to today’s internet landscape. In Graham’s piece it was the rise of cloud computing and SAAS, for Chris Anderson it’s the demise of the hit.

Anderson is best known as the Editor-in-Chief of Wired Magazine. In his role as tech reporter and trendspotter he noticed a certain fracturing in the modern market and the rise of specialty items and niche entertainment choices. As the cost of creating, storing, and distributing content has reached nearly zero there has been an explosion of available products. But what’s more interesting is that the demand for these products is also exploding.

In the October 2004 issue he published an article called “The Long Tail” which was developed into this book (of the same name). It was first published in 2006 and updated in 2008.

The crux of the book is best demonstrated in these three graphs:

They are a bit hard to read at this scale (click through for a slightly better size), but essentially they demonstrate three things:

  1. While the greatest demand (here measured in play-count on the music subscription streaming service Rhapsody) is for a relatively small number of products, there is still some demand for even the least popular product–the tail never reaches zero.
  2. Online retailers can offer infinitely more products than physical stores (as there is nearly no additional cost to take on niche products in addition to the bestsellers.)
  3. Online services are making real money by offering products that are impossible to carry in brick-and-mortar stores. (In Amazon’s case in this graphic, 57% of their sales are from products that are are beyond the scope of the average Barnes and Noble.)

The demand for niche products and the disparity between online and physical stores is only growing, there is huge potential to grow a business on the idea of “selling less of more”. The majority of Anderson’s examples are entertainment products, but he also notes identical patterns in services such as Google (“the Long Tail of advertising”), eBay (“the Long Tail of products and merchants”) and Wikipedia (“the Long Tail of knowledge”).

One of the most valuable chapters outlines “the secret to creating a thriving Long Tail business:

  1. Make everything available.
  2. Help me find it.”

Later in the book, Anderson puts particular emphasis on the power of a service’s recommendation engine, it’s not enough to just offer every conceivable thing, you have to guide your users “down the tail” and help them discover the niche content that is precisely relevant to their interests.

In the epilogue, he gives the perfect nutshell of the theory: “(A) if you can dramatically lower the cost of production and distribution, you can offer far more variety; (B) given more variety, and the tools to easily organize it for individual taste, people will increasingly revel in their differences rather than settling for their commonalities as in traditional blockbuster culture.”

Anderson is a gifted writer first and foremost–the book is well-written, inspiring, and is flush with real-life data and incredibly helpful graphs. While some of his examples can be repetitive, and the core ideas may be less revolutionary than they were five years ago, I found myself constantly relating them to more recent innovations and trends, as well as thinking about how they applied to my own work.

If you have a particular interest in the future of entertainment online (as I do) this is a must-read book. But, I would highly recommend that absolutely everyone take the time to read the original article from 2004, which is still available on Wired’s website. 

You can also get tons more information about the Long Tail, and the audiobook of Anderson’s more recent book Free for free on his website: http://www.longtail.com/

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One Comment on “Book Review: The Long Tail, Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More”


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