The Long And The Short Of The Long Tail

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: "ain’t nothing like having something think and chunky to read over the weekend." I was floating through my Google Reader feeds late yesterday afternoon, when I came across this Blog post from Chris Anderson (author of The Long Tail and editor of Wired Magazine): Excellent HBR Piece Challenging The Long Tail.

The Harvard Business Review published an article titled,  Should You Invest In The Long Tail?, by Anita Elberse.

Here’s how the article begins:

"In a typical year, Grand Central Publishing (formerly Warner Books) goes to market with 275 to 300 book titles spread across two catalogs—its fall and winter lists. For each list the company identifies the handful of books it believes have the greatest sales potential and gives them the full benefit of its marketing capabilities. Of those, it spotlights just two ‘make’ books, one fiction and one nonfiction, for which the company’s publisher is willing, in her words, to ‘pull out all the stops.’ In the fall of 2007 those books were David Baldacci’s Stone Cold and Stephen Colbert’s I Am America (and So Can You!). The effects of this strategy show up in sales figures and profits. Whereas the 61 hardcover titles Grand Central put on its 2006 front list, on average, incurred costs of $650,000 and earned gross profits of just under $100,000, a wide range of numbers contributed to those averages. Grand Central’s most heavily marketed title incurred costs of $7 million and achieved net sales of just under $12 million, for a gross profit of nearly $5 million—50 times the average.

Grand Central is pursuing what is known as a blockbuster strategy — a time-honored approach, particularly in the media and entertainment sector. With limited space on store shelves and in traditional distribution channels, and with retailers and distributors seeking to maximize their returns, producers have tended to focus their marketing resources on a small number of likely best sellers. Although such an approach involves substantial risk, they expect that the occasional hit’s huge pay-off will cover the losses of many misses, and that a few big sellers will bring in the lion’s share of revenues and profits. In 2006 just 20% of Grand Central’s titles accounted for roughly 80% of its sales and an even larger share of its profits.

Much has changed in commerce, however, in the decades since the blockbuster strategy first took hold. Today we live in a world of ubiquitous information and communication technology, where retailers have virtually infinite shelf space and consumers can search through innumerable options. When books, movies, and music are digitized and therefore cheap to replicate, the question arises: Is a blockbuster strategy still effective?"

Chris Anderson obviously thinks differently about how Elberse walks through the data, and here theory of what, exactly, The Long Tail is.

So, not only do you get some great reading, but some lively debate as well.

You can grab the full article here: Harvard Business Review – Should You Invest In The Long Tail?

And Anderson’s response along with the communities comments here: The Long Tail – Excellent HBR Piece Challenging The Long Tail.

For the record, I’m hopeful that when my book, Six Pixels of Separation, comes out on Grand Central Publishing next year that it will fall within the twenty percent 😉


  1. Hey Mitch, what a fantastic subject this is! I have been doing some reading and I truly think we have not yet understand the big implications this “long tail” really has. I love Anderson´s perspective, because is has a “product / brand” focus. I also feel that there is a “consumer” perspective that we should also be paying attention to. Have you seen Clay Shirky´s talk at TED? It´s about collaboration vs institutions, based on the same “long tail” idea. The important point of Shirky´s talk is that it refers to what people are actually doing and achieving from this long tail. His “cognitive surplus” idea is very close to what you always talk on your podcast (consumer power and brand democratization).
    Just wanted to share this…
    Regards from Venezuela,

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