INTERVIEW

‘It doesn’t matter if most of the stuff out there is crap because we can find an awful lot of gems that are right for us’

CHRIS ANDERSON, AUTHOR OF THE LONG TAIL, TALKS TO KENNETH WHYTE ABOUT WHY BLOCKBUSTERS AREN’T THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN ANYMORE

August 28 2006
INTERVIEW

‘It doesn’t matter if most of the stuff out there is crap because we can find an awful lot of gems that are right for us’

CHRIS ANDERSON, AUTHOR OF THE LONG TAIL, TALKS TO KENNETH WHYTE ABOUT WHY BLOCKBUSTERS AREN’T THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN ANYMORE

August 28 2006

‘It doesn’t matter if most of the stuff out there is crap because we can find an awful lot of gems that are right for us’

CHRIS ANDERSON, AUTHOR OF THE LONG TAIL, TALKS TO KENNETH WHYTE ABOUT WHY BLOCKBUSTERS AREN’T THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN ANYMORE

INTERVIEW

For the benefit of our readers who are not yet familiar with your book, what’s a long tail?

A: Well, it's broadly about life after the block-

buster, it's what happens to our culture and our economy as we shift from mass markets to millions of niche markets, and very specffically it refers to the long tail of the sales curve where the high part represents the best sellers and the products that are hits, and then that falls off, as sales do, and in most retail and distribution markets that's where you cut it off, because shelf space is expensive-you only have so many channels and television screens. That would be the end of it, except now we have new markets that have essentially unlimited shelf space, many of them online-Amazon and iTunes and suchand you don't have to cut it off, you can offer everything. What we're now able to measure is the size of the market for all those niche prod ucts that, although no single one of them sells a lot, in aggregate they sell often as much as a third or more of the total market.

Q: The subtitle of the book is “Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More,” so you must see this as something that is not only a present phenomenon but a growing phenomenon.

A: Absolutely. Basically anything the Internet touches in retail or distribution of a product tends to make distribution cheaper. Any time you can lower the cost of distribution-

which is effectively lowering the cost of shelf space—you can offer more stuff, and if you can offer more stuff you start to see a long tail effect. This took off first in the entertainment markets where it was easy to digitize many products such as music and video— and text of course—and it ultimately did create more products, and many more participants. But it’s now extending into hard goods as well. You can see the early examples in things like eBay, which is sort of the long tail of physical goods.

Q: On the question of the blockbusters—from a Canadian perspective, we’re proud of the fact that, with Shania Twain, we’ve produced the No. 7 bestselling album of all time, and I think Alanis Morissette weighed in at No. 12, and our own James Cameron did Titanic, which was the top-grossing movie of all time.

A: I had no idea those three were Canadian.

Q: Yeah, and Mike Myers has a No. 3 spot in the movies with Shrek II. So we kind of feel we’re living in a golden age of the blockbuster here. You can’t tell us it’s over!

A Well, there will always be blockbusters and hits, and one of the most common misinterpretations of the book is that it’s the end of the blockbuster or the end of the hit. What it is, instead, is the end of the monopoly of the blockbuster, the monopoly of the hit. Now there’s room for everything, and the bestsellers have to share the stage with millions of niche products, and that’s

the world of the long tail. There will always be hits because we’re a gregarious species, and because some things are better than others, and there’s always word-of-mouth snowball effects that tend to create herding behaviour, and that’s not going to change. What is going to change is that they’re going to be competing with many niche products, and you’re going to see less of the market concentrated around those blockbusters and more of it distributed across the entire curve. You’re actually going to see a whole crop of new hits, and these are the kind of grassroots hits, the ones that emerged from nontraditional sources, the YouTube hits, the MySpace hits, the independent acts that weren’t necessarily signed to a label.

Q: Is the long tail something new or is it something evolutionary? Long before the Internet, Barnes & Noble and Borders, the book superstores, were around. And before Barnes & Noble and Borders, every reasonably-sized city in Canada or the U.S. had a bookstore with 100,000 titles, and a bunch of good used bookstores, and you could always go to your public library, and you had interlibrary loan-you had access to pretty much everything out there, so in some sectors the long tail has been around for a long time.

A: The way to look at that is to realize how long that tail is. For example, you describe 100,000 books as the long tail. I refer to that as the short head. There are 37 million books in print in English, and close to 70 million books in total, including those that are out

of print. So the long tail is, you know, from 100,000 on to 3.7 million. In other words, it’s stuff that isn’t available in the Barnes & Noble and the Borders, and that has not been easily accessible.

Q: There’s no arguing, it’s a hundred times more convenient now.

A: Exactly. The question is not that this stuff wasn’t out there, it’s that it wasn’t easily available. I mean, look at the eBay effect or the Google effect. You can pretty much assume that if something’s made anywhere in the world it is a few clicks away from you. This wasn’t information that I could get before, and now it is, and that sort of takes a latent long tail and turns it into a practical one.

Q: What percentage of the stuff that’s actually out there in the long tail is crap? I mean, you mentioned eBay.

A: Most of it.

Q: Most of it.

A: Yeah, but two things about that. First of all, you know, one person’s crap is another person’s...

Q: Treasure.

A: Yes, and secondly it doesn’t matter if most of the stuff out there is crap because, if we have really good tools and filters and ways to screen out the crap, we can still find an awful lot of gems that are just right for us.

QIs it possible that the long tail may actually serve, in the end, to feed the blockbuster? I mean, looking at the book world again, we’ve had things like the Harry Potter and the Dan Brown phenomena in recent years, a lot of people buying those books over the Internet, a lot of people talking to one another about them over the Internet, it kind of feeds a hit in a way.

A: That’s the fortunate thing about the research I did for the book, which is that I didn’t have to guess, I was able to measure the effect. We now have enough years of industries that have gone online—music, DVDs, books being the obvious examples—to actually see what happens as that form of buying becomes mainstream. And what happens is that you do see a shift in demand from the head down into the tail. It is a shape of radical inequality. That’s where you have a small number of things that sell a lot and a large number of things that sell a little. It’s just the difference between head and tail is not quite as pronounced as it is in traditional retail markets. In a regular store, one of the reasons that the Harry Potters and the Dan Browns sell so well is they’re the ones stacked a hundred high at the front of the store. Online everything is sort of equally findable, equally prominent in display and, as a result, it’s more of a level playing field for all the titles.

Q: Is it now, or is it going to be in the future, a normal trajectory for the gems found in the long tail to get taken up by conventional media and the people who make the blockbusters? A: Yeah, that’s a good question.

Q: I just thought of the blogger Wonkette who has gone to Time magazine now.

A Yeah, I think it’s increasingly going to be the case. You know, the old model was that the way traditional industries find talent is that you have to sort of luck out and get your foot in the door, get discovered by a talent scout or something like that, and it’s a long process to get into the factory, to get access to the channels of distribution. And once you’re there, of course you have an extraordinarily powerful machine behind you, but most people never get in. The new model is, of course, increasingly people just sort of put it out there because they can, they upload their videos to YouTube, they write a blog, they upload the music to MySpace, and they start to get traction based on a kind of organic grassroots demand. Now, at that point they either go through the traditional channels with some evidence of their success, or they decide to stick with that channel and to renounce the traditional forms of distribution because they like the freedom, or perhaps they’re getting 100 per cent of the revenues. For the mainstream media and entertainment folks, their challenge is to say, “Okay, what can we offer that these people can’t do for themselves?” And increasingly they have answers to that, which is that they are going to use the grassroots as kind of a distributed talent scout.

Q: And so what do they do, then? Do they confer legitimacy on these people?

A: Exactly that. They confer a little bit of legitimacy. They can give you access to those other channels like the Wal-Marts of the world—that iTunes alone can’t get you to, and they can do marketing—and so they can take you to the next level of popularity.

Q: Now, you’re the editor of Wired, you’re in the magazine business, which is ink on paper distributed by trucks and sold in airports and grocery stores. It’s the crudest and most cumbersome of old media, and now you’ve written a book which by all indications is going to be a blockbuster. It’s a little amusing, isn’t it?

A: I can live with that irony. I live in both worlds. We used to compete with other magazines and newspapers, and now we compete with other magazines and newspapers and 27 million blogs. Those blogs can do something we can’t do, which is they can be hyper-narrow. We had to ask ourselves what can we do that they can’t do. So the answer, of course, is that the glossy magazine, as you

well know, can have long-form journalism, lavish photography, high-end design. That’s something that doesn’t work well on the screen. And then the reality is we can use those long tail forces: we also have a website, and that website can migrate away from being a lecture and become more of a conversation between us and our very smart readers.

Q: You must be under pressure, like everybody else in conventional media is, to grow year after year. With the long tail flourishing, does that put you in jeopardy?

A: I resist what we usually call end-ism. You know, Hollywood is huge, the television industry is huge, and even the fact that television-network mainstream television—is in decline in terms of viewership numbers on an individual channel basis, and maybe Hollywood and box office have peaked, and maybe the magazine industry or newsstands have peaked, this doesn’t mean that it’s in

'Bestsellers share the stage with millions of niche products’

any sense dead. It’s still the biggest game in town, it’s just a game with a lot more competition. Yes, it becomes harder to grow using the old model, but those same tools that have created this army of amateur competitors also let us do our job differently and potentially better. So you’re seeing smart television creators use the YouTube effect. It’s a fantastic form of word-of-mouth marketing to reach audiences they weren’t reaching through traditional broadcast. Sometimes this translates into revenue, sometimes it doesn’t yet, but it’s clear that there’s an opportunity not to die but to change, and that those of us who do will probably succeed. M