My review of Chris Anderson's The Long Tail has been published in the August 3, 2006 issue of Nature.
It is subscribers-only, but I have permission to post my author version of the article:
There are also bookmarks to support the Nature article at
and even more around the topic at
To summarize the entire concept in a sentence:
if your marginal cost of providing new goods is near-zero, you can make money by providing more goods, as long as people can find them
In a very general way, this concept can also be extended to cover any operation that deals with holding or locating materials that are beyond the current "top hits" - libraries, museums, and archives are all by their nature thus "Long Tail" organizations. This concept is certainly very useful, although it tends to be stretched a bit much and overused by some technophiles (in the same way that it seems that every presentation must include at least one mention of The Tipping Point, The Wisdom of Crowds, and the fact that The World is Flat).
One thing I would have liked to have commented on was whether it is too steeped in Internet technoterminology to be accessible to an outsider - unfortunately I couldn't really judge this, being immersed in Internet jargon myself.
The general tone I tried to convey in the review is that unless you're a business person wanting to either
1) understand the Long Tail impact on your current business
2) create a new Long Tail business
3) invest in someone else's Long Tail business
this book is probably not for you, in part because the basic idea is quite well covered by his initial article, and extended by its followup, both of which are available for free.
Of course, if you prefer thinking over a topic at book length, or if you're unfamiliar with the concept entirely, the book might be a useful information delivery vehicle.
Anderson's ideas are certainly popular with both the Internet and the library (and the Internet library :) crowd. for example see my previous posts Long Tail book and ALA presentation and TypePad + Long Tail.
There's a much longer review in the New Yorker that also suggests Toffler - I'm glad I only read other reviews AFTER I wrote mine, otherwise I would never have had the courage to put Toffler in - I was stunned that a book I read 25 years ago that I thought was brilliant for remembering came up in the exact same review context.
As I indicated in my review, I do have a major concern that we may be Amusing Ourselves to Death - as we get more and more diversity of content online, we're getting less and less diversity of culture and species offline. I find it almost obscene that we're busy doing videos of Klingon rap, while real languages that have been around for thousands of years die off one by one. (See e.g. Globe and Mail article Standing by their words: A native community is doing all it can to rescue a language only 8 people speak and the web site FirstVoices.ca )
I also have some concerns, or perhaps warnings, around the Long Tail business model.
Collectively, if you take everyone, they own... everything. Other than some items held in museums, libraries, etc., it is people that hold the Long Tail of content. And some of them are quite willing to give away their stuff, or swap their stuff, or otherwise share their stuff in ways that make no one any money. (In the book context, I call this the peer-to-peer library.)
Furthermore, the accumulation and trading of stuff concerns me somewhat. While we're all merrily buying and trading and cataloguing our vast inventories of possessions, millions, probably billions of people around the world have next to nothing. No library of books. No shelves of DVDs. Zip.
I'm inclined to wonder if, rather than trading books amongst ourselves, we should have LibraryGiveawayTail.com - an aggregator that fills up shipping containers with freely donated books, and sends them to libraries in developing countries.
That being said, there is lots of good material in the book - I particularly liked the term "Real Timers", for people who still watch TV in real time. The end of real time viewing is truely the death of the water cooler, as Anderson explains. Sitting around at lunch with my co-workers, there is practically no recent (even within 5 years) movie or TV show that we can all discuss, because we are all at different viewing points thanks to our use of DVDs, PVRs and BitTorrent.
Chris Anderson blogs at http://www.thelongtail.com/
For a different library tech take on this book, Stephen Abram proclaims it the Hottest book out there.
Also check out the amazing collection of "librarytail" resources put together by Katie Day and Beth Gourley.
I think there are lots of useful ideas in the Long Tail articles and book that can help those of us in the Internet content business - whether as public libraries or academic content providers. I will cover this in my next posting: the Long Tail and academic content.
In the bookosphere (yes, I just made that up) you can find a few reviews of The Long Tail on LibraryThing, along with a couple slices of relatedness.
Here's a quick snapshot of the top three recommended and similarly tagged as of July 25, 2006.
People who own this book also own...
- The Economics of Attention : Style and Substance in the Age of Information by Richard A. Lanham 2/10
- Mark Lombardi: Global Networks by Mark Lombardi 2/7
- In the Gravest Extreme Role of the Firearm by Massad F. Ayoob 2/7
- Emergence : the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson
- Critical Mass : How One Thing Leads to Another by Philip Ball
- At Home in the Universe : the Search for Laws of Self-organization and Complexity by Stuart Kauffman
I always find myself a bit "I am a part of all the books that I have met" when writing things. The most direct influences on my review were The Third Wave, mentioned above, Waiting for the Macaws, about species and cultures going extinct, and The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the OED. A chance to plug Three Men in a Boat was a nice bonus.
I was curious to play some Amazon.com ranking games. I don't have numbers all from the same period, so this is a bit apples and oranges, but anyway
As I was writing my review, July 6, 2006 21:00 Eastern
The Long Tail - Amazon.com Sales Rank: #61 in Books
Yesterday: #93 in Books
The Third Wave (paperback) - Amazon.com Sales Rank: #11,400 in Books
Yesterday: #19,807 in Books
As I'm writing now (July 25, 2006) those numbers are: Long Tail #14, Third Wave (paperback) #19,218, Three Men in a Boat #21,640.
Waiting for the Macaws is so endangered it doesn't even exist in the Amazon.com
I find myself with three copies of The Long Tail (review copy, Amazon.com copy, Amazon.ca copy - long story). 3 seems a bit excessive, so I'm giving one away. If you're a library blogger and you promise to review the book in your blog, leave me a comment and the claw will select - I'll email your for your postal mailing info. Please tag your review