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Summary:

The Long Tail is Chris Anderson’s brilliant coinage. If you’re not up to speed on it, here you go.

Well, the long tail has hit the book bus…

The Long Tail
photo: The Long Tail

The Long Tail is Chris Anderson’s brilliant coinage. If you’re not up to speed on it, here you go.

Well, the long tail has hit the book business, and hard. The number of e-books published in 2012 is going to exceed a million, easily. That’s more than eight times as many books as were published to the public a year ago, and many times the number twenty years ago.

Most of those books will be in the long tail and by most economic measures, will fail. A few will end up on the short head and do just fine, thanks very much.

But what about the future of the book? When will we see books with seriously high quality embedded video, multiple endings, plot twists based on your pulse rate and significant interactive features that aren’t that difficult to dream about?

Phil Simon sent along this interview with the head of Ingram books [David "Skip" Prichard]. It’s filled with breathtaking visions of the future, and they are economically ridiculous. The Long Tail creates acres of choice, so much as to make the number of options almost countless. But at the same time, it embraces (in every format) much lower production values. For what Michael Jackson and Sony (NYSE: SNE) paid to produce the Thriller album, today’s artists can make and market more than 5,000 songs. You just can’t justify spending millions of dollars to produce a record in the long tail world.

(The only reason that movies still cost so much to make is the finite number of movie screens available to the studios [this choke point enforces the scarcity of the short head]. Once the world is 100% Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX), don’t expect to see many more $200 million movies.)

The same thing that happened to music is going to be true of books. The typical e-book costs about $10 in out of pocket expenses to write (more if you count coffee and not just pencils). But if we add in $50,000 for app coding, $10,000 for a director and another $500,000 for the sort of bespoke work that was featured in Al Gore’s recent “book”, you can see the problem. The publisher will never have a chance to make this money back.

Sure, there will be experiments at the cutting edge, but no, they’re not going to pay off regularly enough for it to become an industry. The quality is going to remain in the writing and in the bravery of ideas, not in teams of people making expensive digital books.

The market didn’t really make a conscious choice here, but the choice has been made: it’s not a few publishers putting out a few books for the masses. No, the market for the foreseeable future is a million publishers publishing to 100 million readers. Do the math. Lots of choice, not a lot of whistles. And no bells.

This post originally appeared on The Domino Project.

Seth Godin is the founder of The Domino Project and has written twelve books that have been translated into more than thirty languages. Every one has been a bestseller. He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership and most of all, changing everything.

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This article originally appeared in The Domino Project.

  1.  If more than 1 million titles are to be published next yea it is no
    wonder it’s hard to get noticed. If this keeps up, the problem won’t be
    getting published, it will be finding content worth reading. In the end,
    this could make the role of editor more important.

  2. The entire premise of the article is flawed because it is based on the assumption that money = production value.  It does not.  If anything the fact that there is less money per project on the table means investors will be more willing to take risks that lead to better art.  I mean this, “The quality is going to remain in the writing and in the bravery of ideas” is a very very good thing if you enjoy reading.  I’m not sure I follow the logic that “a million publishers publishing to 100 million readers” will mean “not a lot of whistles. And no bells.”  If anything a market like that will encourage individual authors and publishers to make their product stand out from the rest with value adds like bells and whistles.  It’s the cash-cow projects of the past, predicated on a captive audience with little exposure to competing products, that encourage a lack of bells and whistles.  Why bother trying to stand out when you already do, after all?  Again, it all comes back to that implicit assumption that production values require boatloads of cash which simply isn’t always true.  Hell, if the copyright restrictions are relaxed a bit the customers themselves could be creating these value adds completely free of charge simply because they enjoy the original work.  This is especially true in the case of the ‘long tail’ where there are fewer interested consumers but each has a far greater interest in the art than usual.

  3. I call bu**sh**t on the whole article.  Creativity in ebooks design has absolutely nothing to do with market forces.  Or how much gets spent on production.  There’s a ton of functionality in epub, for example, that has yet to be harnessed, and it’s available to anyone producing an ebook.  Or a regular book. 

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