the tail that wags the tail

July 3, 2008

Fascinating article about the “long tail” in the Harvard Business Review that I picked up from Siva. Anita Elberse contents that the digital world actually favors the blockbuster. The reasons that people go for the hyped book, music, film – because it’s higher quality, it’s what everyone else is doing, and it’s abundant – are actually amplified in the world of digital choices.

Chris Anderson (not surprisingly) disagrees, but mostly over the methodology. Had she defined the head and tail differently, the conclusions would be closer to his – that the long tail has an advantage in a digital world.

What seems to me the two critical issues are that publishing still bets on the blockbuster. That’s where their resources go, and that’s where their profits come from. Second is that social urge to read what everyone else is reading and – failing a reliable source for ideas about what to read next – what everyone else is reading is a very common way of making a decision. If everyone’s reading it, it must be good. I can discuss it with others, and I won’t have any trouble finiding it. It’s probably at Wal-Mart, on discount.

This made me think about how I decide what to read next. When I started reading mysteries as an adult, I didn’t know people who read them, and I mostly relied on reviews in PW and the NYTBR. It was hit and miss, but better than the best seller lists, which proved absolutely useless. (The “quality” argument, above, fails, at least in my experience.) Marilyn Stasio introduced me to Dennis Lehane, and pretty soon I had a few names of writers I could count on. But I didn’t have a good method of straying outside that circle of known authors until I joined an online community of mystery readers. Now I don’t have any trouble at all  knowing what to read next, other than a slight feeling of panic that I’ll never have enough time to read them all before I die.

What one needs to take advantage of the long tail is a deep well of knowledge AND a good sense of which source of knowledge matches yours. For me, choosing a mystery is easy because I know what I like, and I know who else likes the same kinds of books, and we share our reading lists so each of ours gets bigger.

I don’t have that for other genres. I don’t have that for movies or music or restaurants, so I might fall back on buzz. (Actually, I’d ask my kids. They know.)

A problem with digital communities as wells of knowledge where you can learn about good stuff is that they can easily become polluted with BSP (blatant self promotion). Even more so, they’re polluted by subtle promotion, circles of authors who promote their buddies, circles of fans who promote their friends, and very little authentic reader response.

There are a lot of things that make my reading group – 4MA -  work, but one of them is that there is absolutely no promotional activity. None. Zero. Zip. And there is a ton of discussion about books, which oddly enough promotes books far more effectively. We have the advantages that hype supposedly provides: we know we’re getting recommendations of high-quality books, we have a social experience, and we know how to get our hands on the books we want because members have shared information about where these books can be purchased, even from abroad. In a pinch, we mail our copies to each other.

None of this works when trust goes out the window, when we aren’t sure if the recommender has ulterior motives. If the community of consumers is infiltrated by sellers. And the din of voices telling creative people they have to sell themselves is absolutely deafening.

That is the tail that wags the tail. Unless consumers can trust what they’re hearing, it won’t work. And right now, who’s wagging the long tail? It’s very hard to tell.


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