Numberscruncher: The Long Tail and The Big Head

Written by Current Events, Numberscruncher

The shift to electronic media not only means that fewer CDs and paperbacks will end up in thrift shops, but it also means that we can forget about that crazy time when owning a Vanilla Ice CD seemed like a good idea.

In 2006, Chris Anderson published The Long Tail , in which he proposed that the real action in retail sales takes place in a large number of low-volume items. Book stores, for example, need to carry a deep inventory to generate sales, because relying on best-sellers alone won’t cut it.

What I’ve noticed in recent trips to the library and the thrift shop is the opposite of the long tail: how long the big head sticks around with us. It’s almost uncomfortable, the shelves of U2 Achtung Baby CDs and the number of copies of The Celestine Prophecy and The Bridges of Madison County. Did that many people really like The Five People You Meet in Heaven? Or did they just receive it as a present from someone who had no idea what to get but felt obliged to send something.

What you see on the library shelves understates the problem. Many libraries rent their best-sellers; they subscribe to services that send them multiple copies to use to meet short-term demand. After that initial burst of enthusiasm for Going Rogue or The Audacity of Hope, the library just doesn’t need to have all those copies on the shelves. When the lease is over and interest has waned, these books end up being sold at bargain-basement prices to used bookstores, new libraries, and institutions. They don’t go away, even if you only see one copy at your local branch when there used to be 25.

This is the big head of distribution: the big best-sellers that captivate us for a while, then go away. No matter how long the tail is, our buying is led at the top.

Every year, Oxfam, the U.K. based charity that operates 686 thrift shops in that country, compiles an annual survey of both the most donated and the best-selling authors. Some of them are decidedly UK personalities, such as Jeremy Clarkson, who made both the 2010 most-donated and best-selling lists even though I have no idea who he is. But plenty of the ranking writers are global: Dan Brown, the author of the most donated in 2009 and 2010, is a global phenomenon.

People give stuff to thrift shops for all sorts of reasons. Our houses can only hold so much stuff! Nothing clears the brain like clearing out crowded shelves and cramped closets. The real measure of buyer’s remorse, then, isn’t in the donating; it’s in the repurchase. Do other people want your stuff? When they see it on the rack at the Goodwill, do they think “Score!” or “Yuck!”? Or are your cast-offs so pitiful that they are shipped off to poor people in developing countries or sent to be recycled into industrial rags or toilet paper?

The Oxfam survey has an interesting section part: the list of best-selling authors. Either everyone in England has already read The Da Vinci Code, or they cringe when they see a copy of it whether they have read it or not. The best-selling author in Oxfam’s used-book departments is Ian Rankin, a U.K. detective novelist.  Number two? Stieg Larsson, of the Lisbeth Salander series. Neither Rankin nor Larsson are among the ten most donated authors, so they are in high demand.  Are they less embarrassing to keep on the book shelf at home, or just more current than poor Dan Brown?

(Rankin, by the way, is incredibly gracious about his lost royalties. In the Oxfam press release, he said, “Just looking at the terrible scenes from Pakistan and West Africa on our TV screens at the moment it is clear how important the work of organizations like Oxfam is, and I’m really glad that my books are going some way to help this vital work.” How cool is that?)

Many things that are popular are popular for a reason; I’ve never had patience for the idea that just because a song is in the Top 10 or a book is on the New York Times bestseller list, it is automatically bad. Some popular stuff is good (the Beatles) and some is terrible (Miley Cyrus). Because we have used physical objects to transmit the ideas in books and music, we’ve been left with the discards that show us just how much or how little we were thinking once upon a time.

The shift to electronic media not only means that fewer CDs and paperbacks will end up in thrift shops, but it also means that we can forget about that crazy time when owning a Vanilla Ice CD seemed like a good idea.  I have the Stieg Larsson trilogy loaded on my Sony Reader; it can never be donated but it can be deleted.