You may have missed reading Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, but you have certainly heard its main thesis summarized: The development of netcentric distribution means consumers have access to ever-greater variety than what is on offer in stores, and suggests that a massive total demand exists out in the niche markets. Anderson believed the future of profits in retail and media existed out in that long tail rather than at the crest of the wave of wildly popular items.
I enjoyed The Long Tail, and hoped that it indeed predicted the shape of the future. Recent history suggests that Anderson may have missed a few important points, and an article in the November 28th issue of The Economist discusses The Tail versus The Blockbuster.
What appears to be losing out is the midlist. We now have many more books selling a handful of copies, and many more small, low-budget indie films. But blockbusters are faring better than ever. It's the middle that is dropping into oblivion*. The Economist notes that the traditional bookshop, which has always carried the bestsellers as well as a good helping of the midlist, is under attack at both ends: Amazon can do better at covering the full range of books, right down to the obscure and self-published, while competition on the bestsellers comes as much from supermarkets and discount department stores as from the web.
Something I had never considered is what a different audience blockbusters reach. The article notes that a study at the Wharton Business School has found that on Netflix the customer reviews of blockbusters--even blockbusters that are generally deemed by the movie community to be irredeemable garbage--get better ratings from their viewers than more obscure films. Why? The Economist puts it so nicely that I won't attempt to paraphrase:
...William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type...A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel. for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read "The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.
(The article goes on to make many other interesting points about distribution channels, word-of-mouth, piggybacking, and cross-merchandizing, but most of these points are more applicable to movies and television than to novels. It's worth a read in its entirety: here's the link again.)
Now, I may be chided for not realizing the obvious long before now, but this was news to me: Success in terms of number of copies sold inherently means that your book has been bought largely by people who don't read much. (In the case of JK Rowling, it may even mean that your book converted millions of non-readers into readers--but I suspect that can only occur write Young Adult fiction.) I'd conceived of the bestseller as a phenomenon where, through some magical process, readers of diverse tastes converged on a single title that had appeal across genre and style boundaries. Surely those people may be included as the readers of a bestseller. But the majority of readers of a bestseller are actually people we would class as non-readers.
Note that I said "readers of a bestseller." There are also those bestsellers that are more sold than read (Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient after the release of the film, Julia Glass's Three Junes, Seamus Heaney's new translation of Beowulf). But that's another post entirely.
*James Michener famously commented that America was a country where a novelist could make a fortune, but not a living. He should see it today.