New data on the Long Tail impact suggests rethinking history and ideas about the future of publishing
From long-time publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:
For most of my lifetime, the principal challenge a publisher faced to get a book noticed by a consumer and sold was to get it on the shelves in bookstores. Data was always scarce (I combed for it for years) but everything I ever saw reported confirmed that customers generally chose from what was made available through their retailers. Special orders — when a store ordered a particular book for a particular customer on demand, which meant the customer had to endure a gap between the visit when they ordered the book and one to pick it up — were a feature of the best stores and the subject of mechanisms (one called STOP in the 1970s and 1980s) that made it easier. But they constituted a very small percentage of any store’s sales, even when the wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor made a vast number of books available to most stores within a day or two.
It was an article of faith, and one I accepted, that if you could expose most books to a broad public, they would “find their audience”.
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There was also ample evidence over time that a large selection of books in a store acted as a magnet to draw customers. That fact was noted by my father, Leonard Shatzkin, in the early 1960s, when they doubled the inventory at the Short Hills, NJ, Brentano’s store (the chain reported to my father, who was a Vice-President of Crowell-Collier, the company that owned Brentano’s, Collier’s Encyclopedia, and Macmillan Publishers, among other things) and it went from the worst-performing store in the chain to the best. In the 1970s, BP Reports published a survey that said that nearly half of bookstore customers chose the store they were in on the basis of the selection they’d find and more than half reported their particular purchase decision was made in the store.
By the late 1980s, both of the big national bookstore chains — Barnes & Noble and Borders — were undergoing a massive expansion of “superstores”. Whereas chain bookstores (B&N’s B. Dalton and Borders’s Walden) carried 20,000 or 30,000 titles, and large independents carried as many as twice that, now the new superstores would carry 100,000 titles or more! Customers flocked to the massive bookstores and the ever-expanding chains ordered lots of the publishers’ backlists and everybody celebrated a new era, except the independent bookstores who were increasingly squeezed by their new large competitors. The era was less than 10 years old when it got disrupted.
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Remember, in physical retail, selection was the magnet. The books that didn’t sell were helping to pull in the customers for the books that did sell. Stores knew that too. Later work I did demonstrated that there were whole store sections that turned at half or less of the rate of the store as a whole. But if you want, say, a philosophy section that “turns”, it would only have about ten titles in it. If you want a philosophy section people will browse and shop from, you have to carry a lot of slow-moving titles.
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The challenges for conventional publishers got steeper again when ebooks became mainstream, pioneered by Amazon’s Kindle in late 2007. There had been a modest ebook business building for about a decade, but until Amazon committed its resources to creating a dedicated device, a repository of content, and audience awareness, it had a trivial impact. But a full-fledged ebook business unleashed a new wave of competition from self-publishing authors. Amazon fostered growth by creating an easy on-ramp for self-publishing, a move quickly copied by B&N, Apple, and Kobo. In the several years that ebooks have been commercially important, many — certainly hundreds and perhaps thousands — of authors have achieved meaningful sales. Many of those have been of backlist books originally published conventionally but there have also been thousands of successful original ebooks. Whether revived formerly-dead backlist or new titles, these are books that are competing with the output of the conventional publishers and wouldn’t have been a decade or two ago.
So the Long Tail for books has been a topic of conversation for most of the past 20 years. Amazon’s limitless shelves and Ingram’s Lightning contributed heavily to this before the turn of the century; self-publishing has accelerated it dramatically. The early expectations, including mine, were that the Long Tail would take sales from all the books being “currently” published. But it became evident pretty early that the big books were just getting bigger: the head of the sales curve wasn’t diminishing. In fact, both the head and the Long Tail took sales from the middle of the curve. This was particularly challenging for publishers because publishing mid-list, those books they do that aren’t bestsellers, became much more challenging.
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The implications of this in the discussion of how the publishing industry might be affected by self-publishing disruption are interesting. It would suggest to me that the boosts publishers can give a book — even their catalogs provide more marketing lift than most self-published books start with — will become increasingly important as the market becomes increasingly flooded. If the data Vena has presented turns out to be the future trend, the increase in self-published titles will drive more and more sales to a smaller number of winners, and my hunch would be that the winners will most likely be from publishers.
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So far, the commercially successful self-published authors overwhelmingly, if not entirely, fall into two categories. There are authors who have reclaimed a backlist of previously published titles and self-published them. And there are authors of original genre fiction who write prolifically, putting many titles into the marketplace quickly. Successful self-publishing authors are often in both categories but very few are in neither. Those two categories are nearly 100% of the self-publishing success stories but a minority of the books from publishers. So, even before Vena published his White Paper, the idea that self-publishing would upset the commercial establishment was way overblown. If Vena’s data turns out to be prophetic, the road is going to get harder and harder for all books, but especially the self-published.
Link to the rest at Mike Shatzkin