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Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Bestseller Study: Long Tail = Shorter Head

Elizabeth Freeman wrote in email: "I listen to NPR's On The Media regularly (as a podcast) and the June 30th episode had two interesting segments, one with Clive Thompson of Wired discussing the long tail and self publishing called "Turning the Page" and another about John Shors creating his own word of mouth buzz for his book by showing up in person to book clubs featuring his book, and answering questions in person. Both are really interesting (although definitely the first is nothing new to you, it does cite a study that did about the life expectancy of best sellers).

Beth's right. The Lulu study is very interesting. They discovered that "The life-expectancy of a bestselling novel has halved within the last decade.... It has fallen to barely a seventh of its level 40 years ago.... The average number of weeks that a new No. 1 bestseller stayed top of the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List has fallen from 5.5 in the 1990s, 14 in the 1970s and 22 in the 1960s to barely a fortnight last year -- according to the study of the half-century from 1956-2005. In the 1960s, fewer than three novels reached No. 1 in an average year; last year, 23 did."

This is the converse of the Long Tail. In the face of a plethora of media choices, the "Short Head" is getting shorter. We see this in our own segment of the business. The #1 computer book bestseller today sells a fraction of the number of copies that it sold a decade ago. This is partly due to asymmetric competition from information available on the net, partly due to the increasing maturation of the industry (no one sells many books on how to repair cars any more either), partly due to cutbacks by the retail channel, but it is also partly due to the increase in choice.

There's a closely related and very insightful New Yorker review of Chris Anderson's The Long Tail. The article starts with a similar assertion to the one in the Lulu study, namely that none of the top 25 albums of all time were published after 2000, and only three of the top 100. But it later points out that this assertion breaks down badly with regard to movies, where seven of the top ten all time bestselling movies have come out since 2000!

The article also points out that "The long tail has meant that online commerce is being dominated by just a few businesses—mega-sites that can house those long tails....The successful long-tail aggregators can pretty much be counted on the fingers of one hand. Although the online economy has existed for only a decade, businesses like these—and you can add Google and Yahoo—have already established seemingly impregnable positions. If you’re a typical Internet user, when you need to find information you go to Google; when you’re looking for a book or a CD, you go to Amazon; when you want a new golf club, you go to eBay; when you want to download a song, you go to iTunes....Has the New Economy really moved past the familiar “winner take all” dynamic? That depends on whether you’re looking at the long tail—or at who’s wagging it." (See my 2001 essay, Piracy is Progressive Taxation, for an analysis of why media industries always seem to take this shape.)

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Comments: 8

Gerard   [07.08.06 07:35 AM]

Book and Album sales are measured in units sold while movies are counted in dollars generated by theatre tickets. Does this include money from DVDs, VHS/Beta, Pay-per-View, Cable and broadcast rights? Do we have any accurate data about the numbers of tickets/dvds/videotapes? The movie industry made a genius move in measuring popularity by dollars. Inflation alone ensures that every few years a "record-breaking" movie comes along.

Swashbuckler   [07.08.06 08:00 AM]

I listen to OTM as a podcast as well. I remember hearing that interview and was very surprised to hear the long tail mentioned in mainstream media.

The part about the author talking to book clubs was interesting as well. For the many not-so-noted authors, it seems like there is no head, just a tail.

Julian Bond   [07.08.06 12:00 PM]

The really interesting area is "The Fat Middle".

It's where all the volatility happens.

Frank Hecker   [07.08.06 07:14 PM]

Gerard's comment above is absolutely spot-on: The comment in the New Yorker review about top-selling movies is bogus because it doesn't take inflation into account. If movie box office figures are adjusted for inflation (as done in the list on, which covers domestic grosses) then no movie since 2000 is in the top 10, or even the top 20; the highest ranking film from the last ten years is Titanic at number 6. If you added in money from outside the US, DVDs, etc., then these rankings may change somewhat, but I strongly suspect that they still wouldn't show the bias towards recent films claimed in the New Yorker review.

Juan george   [07.08.06 10:09 PM]

Do we have any accurate data about the numbers of tickets/dvds/videotapes?

Thomas Lord   [07.08.06 10:27 PM]

What I get out of all this (and similar, and horizontally related) talk/analysis:

For any given medium, if you want to get some ideas about how demand curves adjust once sellers can serve further down the curve, look at the transition from 3.5-network television to cable. Further back, look at radio.

Of course, the various media have pretty distinctive marginal costs for content production and content distribution. Very different externalities.

You can cut through a lot of BS by just observing that as a medium industry progresses from very high barriers to entry and relatively high marginal costs of production to lower barriers and lower marginal costs: the early 500lb guerillas suddenly find themselves in mid-fall because they're so heavily inested in the wrong things; consumer choice goes way up and so people make money selling down the tail; hits still happen and, unsurprisingly, their quality tends to rise (even if their payoff doesn't)..... as one of the Red Hat guys put it "Our goal is to shrink an industry" (paraphrased).

It's the details that matter. The curves are turning into "Media Economics 201" ;-) (Thanks to great work such as Tim is pointing out and does himself.)


Kevin Farnham   [07.09.06 07:10 AM]

The analysis of topselling albums seems flawed. To me it is no surprise that none of the Top 25 bestselling albums of all time were released since 2000. These albums have been for sale only for a few years.

Meanwhile, Pink Floyd and Eagles albums released 30+ years ago have been available for purchase for the past 30+ years. Since many of these albums crowd the upper reaches of the long tail, as new generations discover and purchase music created before they were born, the cumulative sales of the older "classic" albums far exceeds the cumulative sales of excellent modern albums.

If you compare the first 4 years of sales of Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" (released in 1973) and with the first 33 years of sales of Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon", which number is bigger?

It's not valid to compare the cumulative sales of long-selling "classic" albums -- music's "backlist" -- with the cumulative sales of recent releases. I mean, you can do it, but I don't think any meaningful conclusions can be drawn.

pcomeau   [07.10.06 10:31 AM]

My only critique for Clive Thompson is that he did not look at the history of book publishing enough.

Print on demand might help bring the long tail back, but it did exist once. Just ask genre based mid-list authors what the market was like in the 70's and 80's vs. 90's and 00's. I don't remembmer the date of the case but... Thanks to the autoparts industry the federal government declared that inventory could be taxed.

The affect this had on publishing is that it was no longer finacially worth while to have a large stock of books (i.e. what was a tax write off now counted as revenue to be taxed.) The science fiction genre is an easy one to look at for the effects. Paperback mid listers (e.g. Spider Robinson) became hard to find. The publisher would produce enough books to get decent first time sales and pray there weren't too many books left over to pulp. In additon the publishers would keep thier back catalogs rather thin.

So things like seeing book 2 of a trilogy and finding out that book 1 was out of print already became common. At least one authors response to this (Octavia Butler) was to demand that her fist edition books all be in hardcover, so that libraries would hold on to them and then generate future paperback sales that way.

But overall the market has changed (and suffered) because of a change in tax law. So it's kinda a nitpick, but just demonstrated again that people should do a little more historical research to understand why an industry acts the way it does.

Again, print on demand, as well as other new modes of publishing, might bring back the long tail.

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