The Long Tail Wags the Dog

By Tom Peters | Graph of a long tailOn June 26th I caught the tail end of Chris Anderson's standing-room-only talk in New Orleans during the ALA Annual Conference. Chris was discussing the "long tail" phenomenon in the new business-and-economics climate of the Internet age. His book on this topic was just published, appropriately titled The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.

The long tail in a nutshell: when you give people hundreds of thousands or millions of choices—in books, music, movies, or other consumables—then create a graph, where the available choices are plotted (in descending order of popularity) on the X axis and the popularity of each item is plotted on the Y axis, the result is a rapidly declining, swooping line with a "long tail." In other words, a relatively small percentage of the available items will be very popular, but most of the items available will receive little use.

For years—decades, centuries—businesses focused on the head, not the long tail. Because order-fulfillment and distribution costs were relatively high, it made more sense to focus on the small percentage of high-demand items than on the larger percentage of low-demand items. Wal-Mart, which may have taken the traditional mode of retailing to its logical—some would say obscene—conclusion, fills its big-box stores with "heady" items. For example, the typical Wal-Mart stocks only a few thousand CD titles and probably only a few hundred book titles.

Anderson points out, however, that several innovative companies, such as Amazon, Netflix, and Rhapsody, have taken the long tail seriously and have discovered that anywhere from twenty-five to fifty percent of their total sales come from "taily" items when the long tail is well-groomed.Long tails on a short dog

It seems to me that for a long-tail enterprise to succeed, at least two essential ingredients are needed:
  1. The legion of customers must both perceive, and find, it easy to discover and experience items in the long tail. There must be a broadly experienced sense that millions of items are there for the picking, each equally available with just a few simple clicks of the mouse.
  2. The business must develop an easy, quick, and inexpensive means of order fulfillment.
One fascinating thing about this first wave of long-tail businesses is that—although computer networks, search engines, Web browsers, and secure e-tailing systems have helped them achieve the first essential ingredient—order fulfillment usually still involves shipping physical items in boxes. Efficient, effective, competitive courier systems are still essential to the early success of long-tail businesses. In fact, courier systems may be to Amazon, eBay, NetFlix, and others what the coal and steel industries were to the automobile industry in the third quarter of the 20th century. If fuel and distribution costs in general continue to rise, that may be the Achilles heel of these long-tail businesses.

If it is true that long-tail business models have entered the mainstream world of commerce and are here to stay, what does this mean for libraries?
  • Libraries were into long tails before long tails were cool. Any library stocking more than a few thousand titles (i.e., the vast majority of libraries) knows all about the long tail. In fact, most large libraries have collections that extend far beyond the utmost limits of the longest tail. In other words, many items in their collections have not been used since added.
  • Perhaps some libraries, in an effort to boost circulation statistics, have focused too much on the "heady" end of their collections. Rather than cater to the clamorers for Koontz, perhaps libraries should cultivate more long-tail usage.
  • If the long-tail phenomenon is here to stay, perhaps the 80/20 rule (that 20 percent of the collection accounts for 80 percent of the use) will become increasingly suspect. Anderson documents this in his book.
  • I still wonder if more libraries should experiment with patron-driven selection—point our users to millions of available books, perhaps through a mash up of information cobbled from WorldCat, Amazon, publishers, book jobbers, etc., then a user could actually purchase (or libraries could even lease access to) an item only when a user expresses the interest or need to use the full text. While we're at it, let's let them decide what format they prefer: p-book, e-book, audiobook, etc.
  • Perhaps librarians need to re-examine how we go about achieving the first essential ingredient for a long-tail enterprise. When the massive digitization projects come to fruition, it may become increasingly myopic to focus lots of resources on the local OPAC. The new rallying cry may become "OPACs suck, and I don't care," sung to the tune of "Jimmy Crack Corn."
  • We also need to concentrate on the second essential ingredient. Let's face it, currently most ILL systems and services are not going to take us to the promised long-tailed land. They are just too unwieldy and inefficient for both the users and libraries.

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