On A Tail Spin

The “Long Tail” business model.

The Digital Age has spawned new business models, some of which sound more interesting than the rest. I set out to explore one with an Alice in Wonderland-esque aura to it: “The Long Tail.” The bestial-sounding semantic tassel was coined by WIRED magazine’s Chris Anderson to describe the seismic shifts in the media industry.

Consider Lulu, the self-publishing platform that allows anyone—anyone—to publish a book, whether good, bad, or middling.

It’s, in effect, one giant undiscerning publisher that has enabled niche authors—whose works would never have seen the light of the day in the 20th century—to serve niche audiences. In short, the digital media marketplace exists to cater to the “long tail” of the bulk of the niche authors.

This will have a deleterious effect on writers, not merely because paper books to wither away. Will writers be able to make a living and continue writing in the digital era?

The short answer is, no. For one, publishers have severely cut back on author advances.

To ask whether International Man Booker prize-winner Philip Roth could have written 24 novels and the award-winning American trilogy without advances is like asking if Michelangelo could have painted the Sistine Chapel without the patronage of Pope Julius II.

The economic framework that supports artists is as important as the art itself; if you remove one from the other then things fall apart.

Unlike brick-and-mortar publishing houses, which focused on promoting a few “bestsellers,” today, e-book sellers like Amazon sell less of more.

Rather than selling, say, 13 million copies of one “Harry Potter” book, a long tail provider can make the same profits by selling 13 million different “obscure,” “failed,” and “niche” books.

And that’s no fun for the writer, either.

The recent enthusiasm for the long-tail market does, however, obscure a very basic economic fact: very few writers and independent publishers can survive in the long tail.

Amazon can sell millions of books by obscure authors, while at the same time those authors, when they get their Amazon receipts, will see that they have sold only five books in a year.



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