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The Long Tail: a Pre-Review

The new book by Wired’s editor in chief has caught the fancy of the business world. But does it impress the digerati?
July 27, 2006

This will be, I hope, unlike any other book review you’ve read. However, before we get to the review, there are two points of bias you should know: First, I haven’t yet read Wired editor Chris Anderson’s book, The Long Tail; and, second, I was an intern and editorial assistant at Wired before taking a job as the digital entertainment reporter at Wired News.

So how will this review be different?

Well, the most obvious difference will be that I’ll start by laying out my feelings about the book before I’ve read one word of it. Once that’s finished, though, I’ll be heading down to Borders to purchase the book (a very un-long tail action). Then, over the next few days, I’ll post the review in small chunks, sort of a long-tail-type review, taking into account readers’ responses. And if Anderson finds this, maybe a note of response from him as well. [Here’s the second part of Brad’s Long Tail blog.]

So why do the review now, when so much has already been written on the book?

Here is where my real bias is revealed. Anderson’s book has garnered much attention in the press, at least as much for his position with Wired as for the book’s subject. His position has given the book a weighty feel, and, like others in the technology press, that concerns me a little. When word of the book bubbled around the digital water cooler a few years ago, among the digerati that make up my world, its main idea – simply stated, that digital commerce enables businesses to create successful niche markets – was hardly revolutionary.

For those who had been covering the entertainment industries for any length of time, this idea had been discussed for years. For that reason, I think, I was initially put off by the idea of book: it just wasn’t news or news making. While those in various industries were searching for ways to capitalize on the end of the inventory age, Anderson seemed to be discovering that inventory no longer mattered. It was a bit like closing the barn door after the horse had escaped, which Lee Gomes explains much more elegantly than I in his Wall Street Journal column today.

From the column:

In the book’s main sections, Mr. Anderson writes that as things move online, sales of misses [slower-selling items] will increase – so much so that they can equal or exceed the sales of hits. The latter is the book’s showstopper proposition; it’s mentioned twice on the book’s jacket.

I was thus a little surprised when Mr. Anderson told me that he didn’t have any examples of this actually occurring. At Netflix and Amazon, two of his biggest case studies, misses won’t outsell hits for at least another decade, he said. None of these qualifications are in the book.

As good as Gomes’s column is, though, it made me reconsider my own skeptical stance toward Anderson’s argument. A few years ago, I co-authored a book with John Borland. It wasn’t a great book, for a variety of reasons, but it is ours, and we’re proud of the story we tried to tell. The reviews, by and large, were of a kind nature. The most brutal review, though, a two-page scorcher, came from a magazine that covered exclusively the subject matter on which we’d written the book and I could never help but think that the review was so critical because the editors at the magazine were upset that they hadn’t written our book.

Reading Gomes’s skewering of Anderson’s book got me thinking about that time, and rethinking my own position toward The Long Tail. Or considering it, if you will, since I haven’t yet read it.

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