Audio Books: ‘The Long Tail’

“The Long Tail,” by Chris Anderson. Read by Christopher Nissley. Unabridged, 8 hours. Hyperion Audio Books. $39.98.

Anderson’s book-length expansion of the 2004 article he wrote for Wired, where he’s the editor in chief, offers a compelling argument for the vitality of his theory of the Long Tail, or what he calls the rise of “niche markets” in economy that has traditionally been based on “hits.”

What’s the Long Tail? Imagine a graph that plots the number of songs sold against their sales rank, so that the No. 1 CD would be on the left. As the graph moves toward the right, it plots a falling number of CDs sold for ranks No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 and so on. While a big-box store like Wal-Mart might have shelf space for only a few thousand songs, an Internet retailer like Rhapsody has more than 2 million songs.

What the graph shows is that as the ranking moves beyond what Wal-Mart can offer and into a zone of what is available only on the Internet, the number of units sold never reaches zero.

This is the Long Tail: beyond the hits (or the “head”) of the graph is a much longer area (the “tail”) that new technology has tapped into. Though no individual title in the tail sells as much as a hit, the cumulative amount of sales of all titles in the tail (the niches) represents a rising market force, with an easily accessible wealth of choice, that is challenging traditional retail.

But Andersen doesn’t stop there. He applies the Long Tail theory to other situations such as the news media, in which the dominance of newspapers and TV network news is being challenged by niche media best represented by bloggers.

Anderson’s fascinating book is full of telling statistics not only about how the tail is being used (as in legal music downloads) but also how it could be used (there’s 31 million hours of original TV programming a year, but most of it is never seen again). He also sees Long Tail economics at work in the past, as in the rise of the Sears and Roebuck catalog at the end of the 19th century. He also sees the Long Tail at work in the growth of “peer production” and “user-generated content,” as exemplified by

What isn’t adequately addressed, though, is the human element: people burdened by choice, burned out by technology or left behind because of technology’s costs.

Nissley’s reading is assured and confident, though at times he comes across like a young Casey Kasem, inspired by Anderson’s overly optimistic diction in phrases like “infinite choice” or “on the infinite aisle, everything is possible.”

Nonetheless, the book offers a convincing way of synthesizing how the Internet is altering economics and how many of us live.


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