Wednesday, June 07, 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!


Blogger Tim said...

It's impressive that Chris Anderson's book isn't even out yet, but fourteen LibraryThing-ers already have it!

The great thing about LibraryThing's long tail is that it can enable conversation that rarely happen in real life. When a bunch of strangers are thrown together, things usually turn the one of the more likely shared aesthetic experiences, eg., "Did you see the new X-Men?" We know not to strike up a cocktail conversation about whether anyone's read "Tender Violence." Even something like "The Stars my Destination" entails a process of stepped discovery. Do you like science fiction? Have you read any 50s science fiction? What about Alfred Bester?

"Markets are conversations" goes the Cluetrain Manifesto. And Weinberger et al. are right. Corporations need to grasp that dynamic. But screw markets. Conversations are the best conversations.

What are you reading?

6/08/2006 12:01 AM  
Anonymous lorax said...

Now you went and made me look at the obscurity-distribution of my library. (This would have been a heck of a lot easier if the "shared" column had been included in the csv table I downloaded. Oh well.)

My library is dismally non-obscure, with a median sharedness of 48, the consequence of having a heavily fiction-weighted library not balanced by getting to include obscure work-related volumes (all the action in my field's in the journals). When sorted by sharedness, it reaches 10 on the 231st book (out of 1428), 100 on the 981st, and 1000 on the 1395th.

Well over half my books are owned by fewer than 100 other people, out of the 30,000+ on LT -- and that's for, as I said, a dismally non-obscure library.

Noodling around with a histogram and a simple fitting program suggests the "obscurity distribution" is fit fairly well by a straight line in log-log space (fit with two different bin sizes to improve the signal for books shared by many people, where there are fewer books per shared-unit). It's not fit at all well by a power law (which as an astronomer is my first try -- everything's a power law!). It rolls over for books shared by fewer than 20 people, though -- I don't have nearly as many really obscure books as I should.

Interesting. Not necessarily meaningful, but interesting. I wonder what the same distribution for all of LT would look like -- it'll be the same above 3000, since I've got all the Harry Potter books, and be way above mine for the most obscure books. Probably the sense of the turnover would be the reverse.

(And what do you mean when you say this Anderson character coined "long tail"? I talk about long-tailed distributions, and stuff being "out of the long tail of the [whatever]", all the time.)

6/09/2006 12:40 PM  
Blogger Rick Capezza said...

I just found out about Delicious Library:

One of the features they have is the ability to sell your books on Amazon. Do you ever plan to get a similar feature like, say, at

Just wondering.

6/12/2006 1:28 PM  

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