"The Long Tail"

Years ago, when Amazon was just starting up, I remember getting into arguments over whether Amazon was killing off local book shops, and thereby doing long-term damage to bookselling and publishing. I argued that while Amazon would certainly take business away from local book shops, overall it would have a positive impact on the bookselling and publishing industries, by increasing access to hard to find titles that local booksellers weren't in a position to stock due to limited demand. Local books shops would be able to compete with Amazon by offering better service, browsing physical books, and a pleasant atmosphere. (These are all achieved by the local book shop in my hometown, The Seminary Co-op and its sister store, 57th Street Books.) Contrastingly, the chain mega-bookstores like Barnes & Noble, through their dominance of retail bookselling, have a pernicious effect on book publishing by "making a market" for many books. In other words, if BN isn't willing to carry a title — "making a market" for it — then a publisher will often choose not to publish it at all. Prior to the rise of the mega-bookstore chains, individual booksellers weren't able to exert this sort of insidious influence on which books get published. Amazon, on the other hand, would counteract this effect and expand the market for many titles, ultimately resulting in more books published, reaching more readers.

The gist of this argument has now appeared in an article, "The Long Tail", in Wired Magazine, where it is applied not only to books, but also to music and movies. It's well worth reading.


Blogger R. Scott Buchanan said...

Unfortunately, the facts on the ground don't always support this line of reasoning. Take, for example, the losses in the Boston-area independent book market, where Avenue Victor Hugo has recently closed for good, and Wordsworth has declared bankruptcy (although they're going to try to reorganize their debt). In both cases, the management have been blunt in pointing out that they had a well established clientele that suddenly dropped off starting about a decade ago (particularly in the case of AVH). People, in the broad usage of the word, don't want to touch books, have a pleasant atmosphere, etc. They want to sit their lazy butts down in their Barcaloungers and have someone deliver the latest picks from Oprah's Book Club to their lap without having to shift their latte very far out of the way.

Not that I'm bitter....

06 October, 2004 09:39  

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