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How the long tail cripples bonus content/multimedia

December 27, 2011
by seth godin

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The Long Tail is Chris Anderson’s brilliant coinage. If you’re not up to speed on it, here you go.

Well, the long tail has hit the book business, and hard. The number of ebooks published in 2012 is going to exceed a million, easily. That’s more than 8 times as many books as were published to the public a year ago, and many times the number twenty years ago.

Most of those books will be in the long tail and by most economic measures, will fail. A few will end up on the short head and do just fine, thanks very much.

But what about the future of the book? When will we see books with seriously high quality embedded video, multiple endings, plot twists based on your pulse rate and significant interactive features that aren’t that difficult to dream about?

Phil Simon sent along this interview with the head of Ingram books. It’s filled with breathtaking visions of the future, and they are economically ridiculous. The Long Tail creates acres of choice, so much as to make the number of options almost countless. But at the same time, it embraces (in every format) much lower production values. For what Michael Jackson and Sony paid to produce the Thriller album, today’s artists can make and market more than 5,000 songs. You just can’t justify spending millions of dollars to produce a record in the long tail world.

[The only reason that movies still cost so much to make is the finite number of movie screens available to the studios (this choke point enforces the scarcity of the short head). Once the world is 100% Netflix, don't expect to see many more $200 million movies.]

The same thing that happened to music is going to be true of books. The typical ebook costs about $10 in out of pocket expenses to write (more if you count coffee and not just pencils). But if we add in $50,000 for app coding, $10,000 for a director and another $500,000 for the sort of bespoke work that was featured in Al Gore’s recent ‘book’, you can see the problem. The publisher will never have a chance to make this money back.

Sure, there will be experiments at the cutting edge, but no, they’re not going to pay off regularly enough for it to become an industry. The quality is going to remain in the writing and in the bravery of ideas, not in teams of people making expensive digital books.

The market didn’t really make a conscious choice here, but the choice has been made: it’s not a few publishers putting out a few books for the masses. No, the market for the foreseeable future is a million publishers publishing to 100 million readers. Do the math. Lots of choice, not a lot of whistles. And no bells.

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