Wednesday, June 7th, 2006

The Long Tail

There’s an article in today’s New York Times, “What Netflix Could Teach Hollywood“, that’s essentially about the long tail of movies.* David Leonhardt writes about The Conversation, a Francis Ford Coppola movie from the 1970s, that,

“… was on its way to the movie graveyard just a few years ago. Since video stores have room for only a few thousands titles, some didn’t carry it, and it was slowly being buried under the ever growing pile of newer films at other stores. It would have been easy a decade ago to imagine a time when few people would ever watch “The Conversation” again.

Then came Netflix. The Internet company with the red envelopes stocks just about all of the 60,000 movies, television shows and how-to videos that are available on DVD (and that aren’t pornography). …

The result is a vast movie meritocracy that gives a film a second or third life simply because—get this—it’s good.”

The long tail is about going deeper than just the latest Hollywood summer blockbusters. Netflix demonstrates that people will, in fact, rent a movie that isn’t prominently displayed at their local video store (what local video store could stock as many DVDs as Netflix?), and that came out as long ago as—gasp—1974.

Similarly, people aren’t just reading the recent best sellers. Go deeper into the list, and you see that there are actually a lot of people who are reading the seemingly “less popular” books.

Yes, the top books on LibraryThing are the six Harry Potter books, followed by The Da Vinci Code. But look beyond the top 10. What about number 150? Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin has 621 members. A whopping 358 members have Tender is the Night (clocking in at number 392). Go farther down the list. Even number 1,000, The Stars My Destination, has over 200 members.

Conversely, check out the “you and no other” on your fun statistics page. The amount of seemingly obscure books that other people have in their catalogs is mind blowing sometimes. Someone else actually has Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism? And I don’t know them?**

A lot of people on LibraryThing pride themselves on the obscurity of their library. Tastes are broad, and, as it turns out, when we can reach beyond the popular, more recent stuff, we do. So Hollywood blockbusters and NYT bestsellers aside, maybe the mainstream isn’t so mainstream after all.

* The Long Tail was coined by Chris Anderson, whom, incidentally, Tim and I saw give a talk at BookExpo America a few weeks ago. (We also scored advance copies of his book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, which is coming out later this year).
**I should. They have a great library. Hi aiross!

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