The long-tail of publishing

The following post first appeared on the website of The Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, on October 4th 2010.

When was the last time you bought a CD?

If you’re like most young Australians, the answer is: a while ago. The advent of digital file sharing technologies has completely transformed the music publishing business. Since Napster was invented in 1999, CD sales have plungedmajor record labels are struggling – butconcert and festival attendances have boomed.

Now it’s the publishing industry’s turn to feel the destructive gale of technological change. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal is only the latest of many to chronicle the declining fortunes of traditional book publishers, particularly in fields like literary fiction:

From an e-book sale, an author makes a little more than half what he or she makes from a hardcover sale. The lower revenue from e-books comes amidst a decline in book sales that was already under way. The seemingly endless entertainment choices created by the Web have eaten into the time people spend reading books.

 

Publishers and authors face declining revenues and profits in the digital world. Source: LJK Literary Agents, Wall Street Journal

 

The sea-change in the publishing industry illustrates the new economics of digital distribution. It’s a phenomenon dubbed “the long tail” by Wired editor Chris Anderson. (Anderson borrowed the term from technology economist Erik Brynjolfsson).

The long tail is illustrated in the image below. The “tail” is simply the long rightwards sloping end of the curve. Inside the long tail are all the unpopular and obscure titles that never used to get published – but that can none-the-less sell in small numbers online. Aggregated together by a business model such as Amazon’s, this vast global back-catalogue can add up to real profits. In a nutshell: falling costs of publishing and distribution have allowed an avalanche of content to find new audiences. They are small audiences, but they are real.

 

MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson analysed sales data from Amazon and found that 30-40% of Amazon book sales are titles that wouldn’t normally be found in bricks-and-mortar stores. Source: Erik Brynjolfsson, Jeffrey Hu and Michael Smith (2006) “From Niches to Riches: Anatomy of the Long Tail.”

 

What this means for writers is beginning to emerge. The long tail contains nearly everything that isn’t a commercially-viable proposition: in other words, most writers, bloggers and poets. But these new technologies can also help once-obscure writers and bloggers to connect directly to audiences, and even allow them to make a modest but sustainable living from their craft. As technology writer Kevin Kelly has observed, artists and writers may only need “1000 true fans” to build a career, and cheap and easy access to blogging engines globally makes this easier than ever before.

The ability of technology to put publishing in the hands of writers won’t create many superstars, but we’re already seeing its potential to allow amateurs to reach meaningful readerships and journalists, academics and other literary professionals to add second strings to their bows. Increasingly, writers are making money the way musicians are: bymonetising their speeches, presentations and merchandise. Theinter-connectedness of blogs, which rely on many reciprocal links between a community of interest in a particular niche, help this process.

Bottom-line: the long tail economics of blogging might be unsettling for writers and publishers used to the old models, but it’s a trend that’s here to stay.

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2 thoughts on “The long-tail of publishing

  1. I agree with your assertion that the long tail already is–and will continue–to be a dominant paradigm in the book industry, but, on the other hand, it seems to me that you are way too optimistic about the possibilities for ‘obscure’ authors to make even a ‘modest’ living. The ‘1000 true fans’ notion works on the premise that each of those fans will spend about $100 a year on the author’s work, but this is certainly not feasible for many (if not most) authors (especially, given that, for literary authors in particular, writing a book can take years of work), who will likely be getting something on the scale of $5-$10 per book sold. Any way you slice it, this isn’t going to result in a liveable wage for anyone stuck in the long tail, and blogging arguably makes things worse, since authors are forced to do even more work for relatively little monetary reward.

  2. Pingback: What is the Long Tail of Publishing? | Publishing Trendsetter

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