David Chappell


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Doubting the Long Tail  
# Friday, July 28, 2006
I received a royalty statement last week from a publisher that’s made me think more about the idea of the long tail. Among other things, the long tail posits that even slow-selling work—things way out in the long tail of the popularity distribution curve—will gain new life as linking among digital information becomes more common. In a recent New York Times article, for instance, Wired’s Kevin Kelly asserts that “digital interlinking will lift the readership of almost any title, no matter how esoteric”.

But is this really true? I doubt it. The book that generated last week’s royalty statement was certainly far out in the long tail: my royalty was $1.14. The book itself is out of print, and so the royalty was for a digital version. If that digital version didn’t exist, I would have received nothing: score one for Kevin Kelly’s view of the future.

Yet the book isn’t popular for a couple of very good reasons. First, and most important, I misjudged the audience. The book’s approach just isn’t useful for a large number of people, and so it never sold especially well. Second, the book is old, and so the technology it describes is years out of date. No amount of long tail evangelism is going to resurrect its sales, even in an electronic version. The truth is that nobody cares about its content.

And this is the reality for most little-read work: it’s not read much because nobody cares about it. Long tail proponents argue that many books are ignored because they’re not stocked by major bookstores, and so potential readers can’t find them. I’m willing to believe this for some titles—there are bound to be a few unjustly ignored masterpieces out there, along with a larger number of specialized but high quality books that will see their readership increase—but I don’t buy it for the bulk of the tail. Most books either aren’t very good or the information they contain isn’t interesting to anybody (or both). In general, books that have low sales, like the one that generated my $1.14 royalty, are getting what they deserve.

While dreams of the long tail might comfort authors whose books haven’t sold as well as they’d expected, I’d encourage those authors to hold off on spending their hoped-for royalties. For most of us, they’re not going to materialize.

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