‘Long Tail’ May be Great for Publishing, but Not for Printing. . .Unless Printers Act to Make It Otherwise
A hot book this year has been The Long Tail by Christopher Anderson. He initially wrote about the concept in an article of the same name in Wired magazine about three years ago. Basically, he uses a concept of the statistical dispersion of observations to describe a world where “big hits,” like best selling books or the blockbuster movies comprise the bulk of company sales. This large amount of sales is the head of the curve. Anderson’s thesis, illustrated by examples ranging from the creation of the Sears catalog and its impact on early 20th Century rural consumers to today’s examples of amazon.com and NetFlix, among others, shows that the other end of the curve is becoming more important and very lucrative. It’s no accident that Apple’s iTunes is thriving and that retailer Tower Records has declared bankruptcy. Rather than the “big hit,” the back catalogs of older offerings and specialty and niche products will have greater total sales than the “big hits” but dispersed over many, many products. This “long tail,” or the longest, flattest, and lowest, part of sales will have the greatest return.
Anderson does a superb job of making his case, acknowledging the contributions of decades of business and demographic innovations. This is contrary to the stereotypical Internet book which starts off with the assumption that these times are different than any other, and if you don’t get on board now, you’re dumb and you’ll be out of business next week, or sooner.
There’s only one area where I feel that Anderson is neglectful: there is virtually no mention about the revolution in logistics that companies like FedEx and UPS have created, where almost anything can be shipped for next day delivery. The connectivity of the Internet aside, which is a near-miracle itself, if a product can’t be digitized, then you need these companies. Without them, for example, amazon.com would be just an interesting order entry process, and then a plodding delivery system. The idea that you can track your package with a few keyboard strokes and mouse clicks is incredible.