The long tail, shortened from 57 per cent to… about 20 per

(Yes, I could be telling you all about Australia and New Zealand – where I am just now – but that’ll come later. Anyhow.)

It seems the Long Tail©™® so beloved of Chris Anderson at Wired isn’t quite so long or tail-y after all. Here, he recants. A bit.

Let him tell it:

One of the most quoted statistics in my original article was the data point that 57% of Amazon’s book sales are in the Long Tail, defined as beyond the 100,000 books available in the typical Barnes and Noble superstore (we sometimes used 130,000, which is the inventory of its larger stores).

But it turns out that Amazon’s ranking numbers are notoriously unreliable:

we were told that Amazon’s sale rank algorithms were, well, notoriously funky; indeed, they apparently showed hysteresis at certain points, jumping backward thousands of rank steps when certain sales thresholds are crossed. Finally, Amazon sources suggested that the MIT methodology may have undercounted Head (top 100) sales, leading to an overcount of the Tail.

I can certainly vouch for that: watching the wife’s novels leap up and down the rankings is enough to persuade one that it’s very volatile between 1,000 and 10,000. And there was a famous New Yorker article (anyone got the link?) where the writer simply picked a very obscure book and kept on buying one or two copies a day through Amazon to see what happened to the ranking. It leapt about.

Anderson again:

Subsequently, I had the chance to speak with Jeff Bezos about the figure, and although he didn’t know the exact number, he also thought ours was very high. He guessed it was closer to the 20% range, in line with the other examples. In October, I posted on the debate here.

Which leads to the finale:

..research with aggressive assumptions puts the Long Tail (titles beyond the top 100,000) at 36% of Amazon’s book sales. Conservative assumptions, meanwhile, put it under 20%. Cross-checking it against Amazon’s book revenues seems to suggest something in the mid-to-high twenties. In either case, it’s certainly less than 57% and even 39%. But the Long Tail still appears to be somewhere between a quarter and a third of Amazon’s book business, which is a significant fraction by any measure.

His emphasis with the bold quotes.

Well, it’s quite a comedown for the digital age. It turns out that all those dreams of the superniche online world have turned to dust, shattered by some more careful work using the back of a larger envelope. Tch. Pity.

1 Comment

  1. I appreciate the critical thought applied to this book. As it would state online sales of large catalogs of items are not the business to rush into.

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