Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The long tail: not the author's friend

Picture by Hay Kranen/ PD. 
The long tail is that of the demand curve of products versus sales. The best-sellers are all at one end, but as we move to the other sales drop off in a long slow curve that never quite hits zero. Traditional retailers draw a line only part-way along this curve, because slow-moving items return less profit than the cost of stocking them. But online retailers backed by huge warehouses and fast stock deliveries can easily afford to keep them permanently available. Helped by clever search engines that can suggest possibilities for customers with special interests, these niche items suddenly become profitable. (World Wide Words)
Chris Anderson popularised the concept of the long tail in his 2004 Wired article, The Long Tail. He was talking mainly about cultural products—books and music—and he believed that digital supply and demand would turn the retail landscape upside down.

Almost ten years on, it's clear that the metamorphosis does not help writers much. (ETA: By 'writers' I mean those who write fiction, novelists in particular.) 

For sellers, Anderson's theory works. With digital products, words or music, it doesn't matter to retailer or a publisher whether a million writers sell one novel or song each, or if one writers sells a million. With no cost (or very little) to store and ship the story or song, the aggregator makes money. Lots of money. They aggregate the payments on an essentially limitless supply of product and walk off with a goodly chunk of change.

For consumers, it works. Imagine you live in a neighbourhood of Denver where there's no book or music store. If you're okay with reading or listening digitally you have millions or perhaps tens of millions of products to choose from, to suit any mood, mode, or model. And those products—that album, that book—are as pristine today as they were when they were first available. One keyword search and, boom, you've got what you need. You listen to a song in five minutes or gobble an ebook in four hours. You find another. There's an essentially limitless supply to meet your almost endless demand—almost endless demand for music, that is.

A music consumer can listen almost anywhere, almost anytime. She multi-tasks: listens to music while she drives to work, or has sex, or washes the dishes, or reads email. I'm guessing some people listen to music 18 hours a day. However, while I can imagine (if I must) a reader who can drive or have sex or wash the dishes while reading, I'm guessing if they're doing both at the same time, they're doing neither well.

For creators—especially writers*—it's different again. If you live in that neighbourhood of Denver and have spent a year writing a novel that sells only 3,000 copies, you can't survive on the proceeds. Readers might be able to discover and buy your novel for the next fifty years but it won't do you much good. Why? Because your book will be competing with an ever-expanding numbers of blockbusters—new ones, every week, with decent-to-massive publicity budgets. Reader hours are not a limitless resource. The limiting factor is time.

Every day we feel as though there's less time to read, even for those of us who love books. We are easily distracted: That lyric, that conversation, that TV show, that article snags our attention. And because skimming an article or vegging out in front of the screen demands less attention, less energy, less focus, we take the path of least resistance; the book lies unread. And next time we want a book to read, we'll pick up the novel we just saw reviewed, or heard/saw talked about; we won't try recall the title of that other book we were interested in.

In other words, for books, supply overwhelms demand. The long tail works in favour of publishers and retailers but not writers.

On balance, I think publishers make a greater percentage on sales of digital books than on hardcover books**. No returns, no shipping, no cost of production after initial costs—which are only a small add-on to the fixed costs of the print development: plant, overhead (editorial and design), marketing, and so on. Writers make less—about half on a digital sale of what they get on hardcover.*** So the long tail works brilliantly for publishers that have an enormous back list and for online retailers with listings for millions of individual items. It does not help authors.

The long tail will always work for retailers. It will continue to work for publishers—for a while. But publishers need a supply of fresh product in addition to their long tail income and if authors are dying of starvation, that supply line will fail.

My conclusion? It's time for the author to get a higher royalty rate for ebooks. Both online retailers and publishers who rely on the long tail can afford it. For starters, I'm thinking 40% of net...

* Musicians at most levels can derive income from ancillary products—t-shirts, posters—and performance. Writers rely on the writing itself—except mega-authors who can earn (comparatively) low appearance fees.
** It's hard to be sure because retailer and wholesaler terms are a moving target. 
***ETA: I don't know what terms my US publisher has with each retailer and my royalty statement doesn't list royalty per unit for ebooks. So I divided Net Earnings by Net Units and came up with $2.32. That comes to about 57% of what I earn on hardcovers.
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