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When Variety Costs Little More, People Enjoy Having More of It
on 8 October 2007
When you want to eat ice cream outside your home, do you go to a store that offers only chocolate and vanilla . . . or do you go where there are many more choices? Most people will do the latter. That's the basic point of this book. If you're satisfied with knowing that point, you don't need to read the book. Instead, you could settle for Mr. Anderson's article in the October 2004 issue of Wired.
But if you are like the growing legions of people who enjoy knowing more about the quirks of micro-economics (such as those who were intrigued by The Tipping Point, Freakonomics and Fooled by Randomness), The Long Tail will provide much entertainment.
Let me explain what a long tail is. If you plot the popularity of various products (say, books on Amazon) with the most popular products at the left, the left part of the curve will be very vertical (the head) and there will be a long list of items to the right that will have relatively few sales (the tail). Mr. Anderson's point is that as it becomes economically viable to produce and distribute more low-volume products (such as print-on-demand books and e-books), there will be more items available to purchase at any outlet . . . and the length the tail to the right will grow. As more outlets can afford to make these items available, the thickness of the tail will also grow.
A physical store will only distribute a small percentage of the items, stopping where the offering no longer adds to its targeted rate of profits. An on-line store will have far more items (such as Amazon), appeal to more customers and sell lots of its volume in relatively unpopular items. The author estimates that 25% of Amazon's book sales volume, for instance, comes from outside the 100,000 top selling books.
Here's where Mr. Anderson begins to lose his way: He tries to describe the sociological implications. He sees, for example, a loss of common cultural items of the sort that talking about the Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan once provided. He imagines a world in which everyone drifts off into various different niches and the size of the head becomes less vertical. While that may be true, it doesn't correctly forecast the amount of commonality in the culture. The sales of any given item over time may well be in both the head and the tail. Or an item could be a sleeper and always be in the tail, but if enough people buy it, the item will become part of the common culture. In addition, some elements of common culture don't appear in sales curves. I'm sure that yesterday's arrests in the alleged plot to bomb a number of airplanes have already become part of the common culture.
I won't go on to point out his other errors. I'm sure you'll notice them for yourself.
The other disappointment was that he doesn't do a very good job of describing strategy choices for product producers. It seems to me that the long tail is simply another argument in favor of intense individual product and service customization of the sort that Dell has been giving us for years in computers and related equipment.
My grade of 3 stars for the book is 5 stars for long-tail trivia and 1 star for sociological and producer analysis.
If you haven't read any of the following books, The Tipping Point, Freakonomics and Fooled by Randomness, I recommend that you read those long before you get around this one. They are much better books about micro-economic implications.