LATELY — 8 August 2005

What's with the Long Tail?

Whoa, what happened? Years ago I used to write (and love writing) whimisical, playful entries; now it’s all drudgery and grumpiness.

Which brings us to … the Long Tail.

  1. The original “Long Tail” article stated flatly that “more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles.” This was re­ported as if it were a fact, but it was not; it was an estimate.

  2. The es­ti­mate orig­i­nates from a paper which cal­cu­lated (using data col­lected in 2001) that 39.2% of sales came from outside the top 100,000 titles. An­der­son got his rather more im­pres­sive figure by up­dat­ing the data for 2004 (though to my knowl­edge his cal­cu­la­tions are not public); also, despite writing that more than half of Amazon’s sales come from outside the 130,000 most popular titles, he (even at the time) dis­trusted his own figures, saying (in an email) that “they seem too high” and that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the true figure was 20-30%.

  3. The Long Tail has very little to do with the in­ter­net and a whole lot to do with size. The reason why Amazon sells a dis­pro­por­tion­ate number of un­pop­u­lar books is mostly due to the fact that Amazon is the only place you can get them. Com­par­ing Amazon to B&N is like com­par­ing B&N to the corner bookstore: in both cases, the bigger store will sell a dis­pro­por­tion­ately larger number of un­pop­u­lar titles. Isn’t this obvious? So, what’s the deal?