Alessio Iacona, an Italian journalist, has a question:
Dear Mr Anderson,
Recently, I've had the chance to write more than once about your interesting theory called "The Long Tail". But now I'd like to ask you to comment on a brand new Long Tail case.
In 1995 a quite anonymous chef named Simon Hopkins published a book called "Roast Chicken and Other Stories". For about ten years the book lived an obscure life on library bookshelves until a panel of leading chefs, writers and restaurateurs nominated it "the most useful cookery book of all time". Then the "Long Tail experience" took place: a lot of people went out to buy the book but they couldn't find it in bookshops. So they turned to Amazon.co.uk, which received so many orders that "Roast Chicken and Other Stories" jumped in 48 hours on the first place of the 100 top sellers list, passing the sixth volume of Harry Potter.
My question: What do you think about it?
Thanks for the example, which is an interesting one. It's not really a Long Tail case, however, because the LT in books doesn't really start until about Amazon rank 100,000 (prior to the nomination that book had been in the realtively-healthy 40,000s) and I imagine the title was actually still available in most UK bookstores. But it does show the virtue of keeping the back catalog available.
Although I used a similar example ("Touching the Void") to begin my Wired article last year, such rags-to-riches tales are not really the typical LT story. The point I'm making in my writing is that products don't have to become hits to be a success and fill a need. Now that online retail economics allow us to offer and sell modest-selling niche products efficiently, we don't have to settle for one-size-fits-all products of broad appeal. Narrow appeal is often better when it's narrowly-focused on your interests, and today the economics of digital distribution allow such micro-markets to exist profitably alongside the mainstream.
The fact that the occasional title is catapulted from the Long Tail to the Short Head is certainly a reminder that great stuff can be found in the tail, but it's the exception rather than the rule. A much more frequent, and better, example is the niches in the tail that are finding new demand, two, three, even ten times what they'd seen before thanks to the power of the Internet to help people find and obtain non-mainstream fare. That doesn't make them hits; it just makes them more successful niches. But that's the real power of the Long Tail.