Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Blockbusters versus The Long Tail

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.


Matt Curran said...

Hi David

So the secret of publishing success is to write a book that regular readers of books won't pick up. It's a bonkers industry we work in. I don't understand half of what goes on if I'm honest. Perfectly good books I thought would make bestsellers lists have disapeared into obscurity, and then there's Dan Brown...
However, there is the supermarket factor going on here. If one store is only selling 30 titles at knockdown rates then those thirty titles become bestsellers. Unfortunately a lot of non readers buy their books from such places and I wonder whether they even know bookshops exist at all.
As for mid-listers... I found a particularly grim story last week about mid-list woes which I've linked on the blog...

Tim Stretton said...

I like the Michener quote - first time I've heard it.

The upside of the story is that people who have small readerships are more likely to have fans who genuinely appreciate their work. Or maybe they just don't get lost in the crowd.

But can anyone "genuinely appreciate" Dan Brown?

Jake Jesson said...

This article - and your post - both horrifies and fascinates me. I'm one of that faction of writers who doesn't want to just be published; I want to be widely successful. (I say this in contrast to other writers I know who idolize the "starving artist". Well, in these times, a starving artist may be literally starving.) If you aim for the stars and miss, at least you'll hit the moon, right? Well, in this case, it looks like the moon is a crap place to end up.

I've seen the love-for-blockbusters phenomena in the sci-fi/fantasy worlds, too; avid consumers of sf/f who don't read or watch outside their genre may see middling characterization or plot as utterly fantastic, merely because character and plot aren't the strengths of the genre overall.

A good recent example was the cancelled-last-year "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles", which was ~not~ a hit but drew a terribly vocal fanbase from the sci-fi crowd, who saw some fair attempts at character development and plot complexity and stylistic experimentation in a sci-fi action tv series, and ate it up. Wider audiences, however, and more widely watched viewers, found the show guilty of the criminal offense of being boring.

There's been so much money spent on fan campaigns to bring the show back, though, that it might actually happen. In which case the show would be categorized in the 'tail' of niche hits referred to here.

I think the central issue behind the convergence on a blockbuster is not just a desire to be One With Culture but lack of knowledge about what the heck these books are. Niche stuff is easier to come by than something middle of the road - if you find the niche, there's not all that much there, and word of mouth within the niche will spread it. Middle of the road stuff - where do you go to find it? I've experienced this difficulty myself trying to expand the variety of reading/watching that I do. I do mostly run into blockbusters or niche flicks.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

"Bonkers" is spot on. It's neither intentionally cold nor particularly savage, like, say, Wall Street, but it's definitely wacky. What's interesting to consider is that by saying, "I want to write a bestseller," you're saying, "I want to write a book for people who don't read." Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but I suspect that isn't what most writers are thinking when they try to produce a wildly popular book...

I follwed your link to the Salon article. Grim is right; and also quite interesting.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

I always appreciated that Michener quote because he had the perspective to make that observation in the days when he was Mister Bestseller. Many writers who make it to the top of the heap lose all sense of what is and isn't sensible.

You're absolutely right--the smaller fan bases are probably more discerning and loyal, and each reader is, by the nature of the set-up, more valuable to the writer.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jake--

I suspect that most writers harbor a desire to be wildly successful, but many of them have definitions of that term that involve almost-impossible combinations of circumstances. (In fact, I might post on that topic rather than answering here.)

You're right about niches; indeed, one of the arguments for the validity of The Long Tail concept is that the internet makes it possible for word-of-mouth to spread rapidly and efficiently within small, well-connected, self-defined communities. These smaller groups of people, who have tastes that are a bit uncommon, were never worth reaching out to through conventional mass-market advertising, but in a connected world these niches self-organize, become reachable, and have thier own "buzz". In the past, the nearest thing to these niche communities were newsletters and fanzines, mimeographed and mailed out each month by The Faithful; but these communities were hard to find, and staying connected took considerable effort.

So, I guess there's good news and bad news. We have better access to niches than ever before, and offbeat writers can find an audience easier than ever before. On the other hand, your chances of accumulating a large-enough following to have a career rather than a hobby are shrinking...