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Belonging to the Long Tail

Okay, so I may be the second- or third-to-last person to post about Chris Anderson's article in WIRED on "The Long Tail," but I'm mindful of what Mary Hodder was saying last week about the lack of blogospheric engagement with it (beyond quotes and points). At the tail end of her post, Mary asks a bunch of good questions that may never find answers, mainly because it would require these various companies to divulge more information than they're typically willing to offer.

She asks "what kinds of sellers exist further down the curve," and my gut answer is that just about all academic presses would qualify here. One of the crucial differences, though, between academic presses and more popular ones is that no one who publishes an academic book expects (or, given the general density of prose, tries) to achieve the kind of success implied by the power law distribution curve. That doesn't disprove Anderson or Pareto, but it does complicate the long tail a bit. There are portions of these industries where "micro-fame" is the goal (Gordon Gould had a post about this, about which I wrote, back in May.), and although an overall power law may still obtain, it flattens some crucial distinctions.

Before Amazon, it was really no more difficult to get a hold of academic press books--in many cases, Amazon still requires a 1-2 week wait for a lot of the titles I order, unless they're brand spanking new. The difference between ordering it there and ordering it at a bookstore, I'd argue, is that Amazon offers the illusion of immediacy that placing an order at a bookstore, waiting two weeks, and then going in to collect and pay for a book does not. Yes, it's marginally more convenient to have the book delivered, and yes, there's collaborative filtering (still secondary to scholarly networks for me, though, in usefulness). But the important difference is this: in a bookstore, I can either buy a book off the shelves or order it. There is a lived, experiential contrast between those two--one is immediately gratifying, the other delays gratification. At Amazon, we don't really experience the difference between one end of the power law curve and the other--in both cases, we order the product, and wait a couple of days to get it.

And because my experience of ordering an academic press book is the same for that of ordering a best-seller, Amazon doesn't make me feel obscure for doing so. Instead, I feel like I'm part of one big, happy market, even though I'm one of maybe a couple hundred (at most) who will buy that book there.

It may be different for other media, but I think that Amazon's success isn't simply a matter of providing access to the long tail of the book market--it's in minimizing the differences between those of us who practically live in the long tail and those who don't. At Amazon, I experience no less convenience than someone who only buys best-sellers. In other words, Amazon makes everyone feel as though they belong equally, and a lot of the "secondary" features of the site (if we assume that sales is the primary feature) are geared to enhancing that sense of belonging. And if I feel like Amazon meets my needs better than other options, that's where I'll spend my money.

I've got more to say, but I'm going to pause here, and come back in a bit.