Book Review: The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson


The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (2006) by Chris Anderson has been so discussed, cited, and praised the past few years that listening to the first few chapters I almost felt that I knew it all already.  The basic gist is that businesses can profit from selling just a few units of lots and lots and lots of different products instead of just focusing on selling lots and lots and lots of units of a few “hit” products.  On a graph, the traditional hit economy appears as a short head, while the niche economy appears as a long tail, thus the origins of the term.  Anderson’s original article on The Long Tail is still online at Wired (Issue 12.10 – October 2004) and is worth reading for a summary of the theory behind this book.

Anderson contends that the Hit Economy is actually unusual in economic history.  Examples of the hit economy include Casey Casem’s American Top 40 (which I listened to devotedly as  child), television programing dominated by three networks, and blockbuster films.  All were designed to appeal to a lowest common denominator to attract as many people as possible with the outlets for production controlled by a few.  Prior to mass broadcasting culture was regional, and thus the things people bought as well.   Today, internet communities are gathering around common interests in niches similar to the old regional cultures although the people using them are geographically disparate.

While Anderson credits the internet with providing the resources that allow the Long Tail to flourish, he also provides a history of the Long Tail dating back to Sear, Roebuck’s Wish Book in 1897 and 1-800 numbers in the 1960’s.  The internet allowed the democritization of the tools of production and distribution and allowing enterpreneurs like Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia to find success. The economics of scarcity were replaced by the economics of abundance.  It turns out that customers really like lots of choice contrary to the earlier conventional wisdom.  The difference is that consumers need filters like recommendations and reviews.

I like the examples Anderson cites such as the history of house music, the study of jams, and the punk rock revolution.  He makes a very compelling argument of the advantages of niche markets for the future of business.  On the other hand, I wonder how permanent this change is.  Anderson makes a point of the last big blockbuster pop album being an N*Sync record from 2001, their success in sales not repeated since.  Yet this is a very short period of time. Despite the influence of the internet on exposing niche bands to communities who’ll support them, whose to say that commercial forces won’t co-opt these new tools of distribution and production to recreate the Hit Culture?  I’ve read bloggers who are already complaining that blogs are no longer successful unless they have a staff of multiple writers with commercial support behind them.  Another example was the success of the internet phenemom Lonely Island conquering Saturday Night Live with their “Lazy Sunday” skit.  But is that the case?  Could it not be said that the SNL’s of the world will just keep swallowing up the Lonely Islands?

Author Anderson, Chris, 1961-
Title The long tail [sound recording] : [why the future of business is selling less of more] / Chris Anderson.
Publication Info. New York : Hyperion Audiobooks, c2006.
Edition Unabridged.
Description 7 sound discs (approx. 8 hrs.) : digital, 4 3/4 in.

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