The long tail

There is a great story in last month’s Wired (The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson, now on the web) about the economy of digital distribution.

It talks about the importance we attach to hit status; if a song is not “Thriller”, if a book is not “Les Trois Mousquetaires”, if a film is not “Das Boot”, it might as well not exist. We can go to the store, and only buy hits: this is because shelf space is limited. Even if there are millions of fans for an obscure alternative band, that does not mean your local CD store will sell enough of them to justify putting their CDs on the shelves in the first place.

The digital arena changes this; suddenly, shelf space is unlimited:

Wired/Chris Anderson: “To see how, meet Robbie Vann-Adib�, the CEO of Ecast, a digital jukebox company whose barroom players offer more than 150,000 tracks – and some surprising usage statistics. He hints at them with a question that visitors invariably get wrong: “What percentage of the top 10,000 titles in any online media store (Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, or any other) will rent or sell at least once a month?”

Most people guess 20 percent, and for good reason: We’ve been trained to think that way. The 80-20 rule, also known as Pareto’s principle (after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who devised the concept in 1906), is all around us. Only 20 percent of major studio films will be hits. Same for TV shows, games, and mass-market books – 20 percent all. The odds are even worse for major-label CDs, where fewer than 10 percent are profitable, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

But the right answer, says Vann-Adib�, is 99 percent. There is demand for nearly every one of those top 10,000 tracks. He sees it in his own jukebox statistics; each month, thousands of people put in their dollars for songs that no traditional jukebox anywhere has ever carried.

As a volunteer for Distributed Proofreaders, a site that produces hundreds of ebooks per month for Project Gutenberg, I find the idea that even the most obscure texts I help produce will find a reader very gratifying.

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