The New Prodigal Age: My GoodReads Review of The Long Tail

The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of MoreThe Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm a fan of Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail--even though, to my knowledge, he's never gotten a penny of my money. I read occasional issues of Wired magazine, where he's editor in chief, when I see it on the magazine rack in our office library. I downloaded his super-interesting Free as an ebook when he was giving it away, for free. And while I've been talking with coworkers and other publishing industry people for years about Anderson's ideas in The Long Tail (c. 2006), I didn't actually stop to read it till it showed up this month on the free table where I work. What can I say--I'm a moocher, and it's easy to not have to pay Chris Anderson for his stuff.

Anyway, The Long Tail is in many ways the perfect book for me to read in this, my Year of Overdue Books. It has direct bearing on the work I do, acquiring and developing books in the publishing industry, which is as much as if not more in flux than it was when Anderson was writing this book. It's also horribly dated--MySpace has eight index page entries, while Facebook has none; and ebooks for Anderson circa 2006 are a non-thing, whereas now, just six years later, they're the thing that will either save us or destroy us. And yet it's still an important book to read for a couple of reasons:

1. It challenges the deep-seated and self-reinforcing assumption that hits drive the economy, and so all resources must be mustered perpetually for the next big hit (say, Lady Gaga), to the sacrifice of the "misses" or "losers" or "also-rans" or whatever derogatory term we assign to the nonhits among us.

2. It points to (although it doesn't deliver entirely) a strategy for capitalizing on the abundance of nonhits that in reality buttress the economy and, in the new prodigal age, have the potential to be the main drivers of any business success.

Anderson argues that the Internet age has caused a shift in the economy from scarcity (cut-throat competition for limited time, money and other resources) to abundance. Today the cost of manufacturing pretty much anything is being perpetually shrunk (although that's as much to do with exploitation of workers in a global economy as it is to technological improvements). Meanwhile, everyone with Internet access has the world at their fingertips, and in the post-2006 development of the smartphone, in their pockets. I use the Shazam app, for example, pretty much every day to identify a song on the radio or the Internet that was never a hit but is clearly appealing; as a result I've been able to discover b-side and album cuts from classic artists like David Bowie and John Lennon, as well as new songs by artists who haven't been given the hit-nod by the old-school mainstream music industry, such as Half-Handed Cloud and the Avett Brothers.

Of course, I'm hearing these songs, which means that they're getting played, which seems to refute Anderson's thesis. But remember that this is six years down the road from publication of The Long Tail and eleven years since the launch of iTunes, which Anderson writes has sold every song it carries at least once. Industries are already acting on the premise of the Long Tail; indeed, we had long tails long before Anderson pointed them out to us. What's principally different is the rise of bits and the decline of atoms--the shift to digital content and products and corresponding abandonment of the necessarily limited capacity of brick-and-mortar stores, three-shift factories and human consumption. All these have been solved (or, maybe better, problematized) by digital technologies. We can buy things from virtual stores; in increasing cases they come to us not as physical products off a truck but as pieces of data instantly transmitted; and human consumers can effortlessly translate every curiosity, every impulse, into an instant purchase. Toward the end of the book Anderson describes a printer you can buy that pulls data from the Internet and "prints" it as a physical product. That doesn't sound novel now (though it most certainly did way back in 2006), but think of the implications: as Anderson puts it, "Today you print your own photographs at home; tomorrow you may print the frame, too" (p. 226).

The Long Tail feels to me a bit long in the tooth. Anderson repeats himself here and there throughout; his book Free is a much more systematic presentation of some overlapping content about the declining costs of production and the implications thereof for selling. But the main thing here is hope: in the transition from scarcity to abundance in the global economy, the power is shifting from the supplier to the consumer, and the supplier's role is shifting as well, from baronic doler of content and materials to wise guide and creative bandleader. In an economy of abundance, producers and sellers have the responsibility and opportunity to do more, not less.

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