Publishing’s Long Tail

 By Douglas Winslow Cooper, Ph.D.

“More nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” That need
not describe the modern would-be book author. The publishing world has been
changing, giving newcomers a greater opportunities for being published, while
making it less likely that their books will have large audiences. Let me explain.

Imagine creating the following graph: list the books published in the preceding
year from 1 to whatever, in the order of their sales for that year, and plot the
sales against that rank ordering. The best-selling book’s sales would be plotted
high, at position 1, the second-best-selling book’s sales, somewhat less, at the
number 2 and so on. The curve would fall continuously, but would go on and on,
reaching values just somewhat larger than or equal to one. This kind of curve is
said to have a “long tail,” staying above zero much farther than most common
mathematical curves would. There were several hundred thousand new titles
published 2010, I have read, and the expectation for 2012 is a million or so, with
the advent of electronic book publishing (“ebooks”) and publishing on demand
(“POD“) printing technology. A decade ago, far fewer new titles were published.

Economics and technology enable this explosion in the number of titles “in print,”
where we consider those that are available as ebooks as being “in print,” whether
or not anyone prints them on paper. My magnificent 2010 tome, Ting and I: A
Memoir of Love, Courage, and Devotion, recently ranked about one-millionth on
the Amazon list of printed published books sold by them and about 250,000th
among their Kindle ebook offerings. Imagine if a book store was to try to keep the
top million sellers, so you could be sure to find mine there: at a half-inch (1/24th of
a foot) thickness average per book, and only one book per title, the shelf space
needed would be (1/24th)x(one million)x(feet) = 42,000 feet, almost eight miles
of shelf space. [Mine would be way down at the far end.] No sensible book store
would try to carry the top 1 million best sellers, and my book would be doomed.
With the Internet and Amazon and my publisher’s [Outskirts Press‘s] Print on
Demand technology, my book has a chance to be seen by people who would
never have had that opportunity years ago.

This “long tail” situation allows economical production and “storage” of far more
books than ever before, giving the writer for a niche market a chance of being
published and being read by his proper audience. The best-seller lists will rarely
have such a title on them, but the book will be published and its author will have
a shot at reaching his intended readers. The costs for printing and storage will
be relatively small, the profits per book possibly large, and the number of buyers
largely dependent on the author’s ability to promote himself and his work, as
well as on the quality of the book itself. Fear not, this long tail can be to our