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.
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.
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%.
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?