Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Long Tail and a Steep Learning Curve

I am always amazed at how my working life veers between chasing work ( like a sad-eyed dog outside a butcher's shop) and having too much on. Last week was an example of the latter. I delivered three different presentations, at three different institutions over the course of five days. This week I blog!

I enjoy giving presentations and I also enjoy all the feedback from fellow participants. However, I also find that I am often rushing around ("like a witch's maracas") and so miss out on the chance to mull over what has been said; to cogitate on how it fits in with my wider understanding of what is going on in the world of the digital writing. However, I could not help in noticing a running theme last week between the plenary session at the NAWE conference (my contribution was called Good Grief not Games...) and the 'So You Want to be a New Media Writer...' session I gave to the undergrads at NTU. In both sessions, there was an exploration of the impact of digital technology on publishing. This is a subject I have been giving some thought to of late, mainly, as the result of reading 'The Long Tail' by Chris Anderson.

I would recommend that any writer get hold of this book. Not so much because it provides a bible or even a blue-print of how to tackle the issue of publishing in the digital age but more because of its many provocations and its easily absorbed case studies, drawn from companies as diverse as amazon, e-bay, rhapsody, iTunes , lulu and booksurge , which flag-up some of the economic issues driving current changes in our industry.

'The Long Tail' of the title is in reference to a graph that plots sales revenues (on the y-axis) vs sales rankings. Traditionally, this graph shows that 80 percent of retail revenue is generated by 20 percent of the products. These 'hit' products (on the left hand side of the graph) are the stars of their industry, and they are the products that you will see on shop-shelves. However, to the right of these hits is a long tail of products which are ignored in traditional retail economics ( generally these are the sort of thing that I am interested in). Basically, one does not get to see these products in shops because the 'hits' outshine them in the competition for shelf space. This is why, for example, when I walk into my local Blockbuster video rental store there are only about 200 titles available in shop. The hits are on the shelves and the long tail products are excluded.

Anderson's thesis is that the composition of sales has changed as a result of digital distribution and retailing from likes of amazon. He argues that:
"new efficiencies in distribution, manufacturing, and marketing were changing the definition of what was commercially viable across the board."
What is striking in the statistics he quotes is that a much wider variety of products sell in the digital world. He describes this as the 98 percent rule because almost every thing in the catalogue will sell at least once. Anderson argues that the range of products that it is economic to distribute is no longer defined by competition for shelf spaces and that digital distributors , therefore, are able to sell a much wider variety of goods from much further down the long tail of the sales curve.

I believe that this is important for writers because, with some honourable exceptions we are all part of the long tail. This means that for the most part we are excluded by the cost of distribution and retail. We are seen as low-volume writers and denied access to the shelves, which by self-fulfilling prophesy, guarantees that we are turned into no-volume writers. This is culturally significant because it denies us the chance to have our voice heard. However, by contrast our inclusion in the amazon database will greatly improve the chances of finding our readership (even if it is very small and geographically fragmented).

Digitization also alters the economics of book production. In the traditional model there is a high element of risk because a book must be printed before it can be sold. This risk is greatly increased for an unknown author working in a poorly understood niche market. This, in turn, impacts on cash flow and profitability because traditional publishers are routinely required to produce books that they are unable to sell. It makes them cautious! However, in contrast print-on-demand technology makes it viable to sell the book first and then print it. As Anderson notes:
"the production and inventory cost of a print-on-demand book that is never bought is zero"
Service such as Lulu and Booksurge allow individual authors to have access to this technology. Booksurge, a subsidiary of Amazon, also provides a tie-in to the amazon store so that you can market your book to the world before it is even printed. In some cases these services are cheap. Booksurge's author express service is just $99 for a black and white text with a colour cover.

For many, this vision of the future of publishing will sound like vanity publishing. It is certainly worth considering the role played by an editor in the production of a book. I have had a number of positive experiences working with editors who have worked hard to add value to the final draft ( Let's face it I am a lousy proof-reader). Similarly, it is worth thinking about the role played by agents in the success of a publication. They can add valuable to your book by placing it with a publisher with an appropriate list who will have an in-depth knowledge of your sector. However, on occasions the professionals do not have all the answers and an author has a better handle on their niche.

In the end the choice is going to be yours. However, I would argue that it is nice to have that choice...though exercising it might involve you in a long, steep learning curve.


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