The name “The long tail” was only invented in 2004 when Chris Anderson of Wired magazine wrote an article under that title. The thing expanded to book size a couple of years later. It’s always amazing how necessary some neologisms become to us: so necessary that we forget that they weren’t always there. (Sort of like the computer or the Internet.) The OED hasn’t caught up yet — fascinatingly though, one of their definitions for “long tail” is an inhabitant of Kent. But I bet the term “long tail” in Anderson’s sense was probably there all along, quietly grazing in the field of statistics. Publishing Perspectives brings us an account of its history and its e-book applicability. Saying “Even the wealthiest person of the world cannot consume all available books, even though he/she may own them all. It is simply a question of time, not money” seems to me to miss the point. We don’t need to sell all our books to the wealthiest person in the world. With the book set up for e-book or POD distribution, we only need to sell one or two copies to cover our costs. If only one or two people buy the book each year, that’s one or two sales we’ve made which we couldn’t have done before. I fear Mr Vena’s approach is more trade-oriented than publishing-oriented (people will use the word “publishing” when they really mean “trade publishing”).

According to economic theory the web was meant to bring lower, more uniform prices, and abundant supply. It’s done the second part.

The Economist reports on The American Economic Association’s recent meting at which a paper was given using the prices of used books as data. Glenn Ellison and Sara Ellison of MIT collected prices for 335 titles and found that on average books would sell for $17.80 online, 50% more than they would fetch on average in a bookstore. The Ellisons argue than, contrary to what you’d assume, this situation is benefitting online purchasers because they are being better matched to their wishes. “For example, only a few bookshops might carry an out-of-print title such as The Reign of George III, 1760-1815, published in 1960 by Oxford University Press. They may never have been visited by the readers most keenly interested in that book, who are scattered around the country (or beyond). By posting its inventory online, all those readers are now added to the potential demand for the store’s copy. Higher demand translates into higher prices which clearly makes the bookseller better off. But so is the reader since without the internet he would not have found the book.”

Demand forecasting has changed dramatically for publishers. It’s not just in the used book market that its effects can be seen. When you can hoover up every last bit of demand, and then maybe more a year or two later, your incentive is to make the book available at almost any cost, since that’s what your desperate customers will be willing to invest. University Press books are never (well, rarely) cheap, and this makes them ideal for long-tail publishing. If OUP makes J. Steven Watson: The Reign of George III, 1760-1815, part of The Oxford History of England, available through POD (as they have) they can supply anyone who wants the book at the steepish price of £130.00; it is 656 pages long. Books like this do cost that sort of amount, and anyone who buys it (while they might well prefer to be paying less) will nevertheless believe they are getting value for money. Maybe the Ellisons were able to locate a cheaper copy.

Whatever the situation in trade publishing (where I think this POD model remains vulnerable to e-books and the second-hand market) the long tail will continue wagging vigorously in academic publishing — indeed I believe we are not that far from an abandonment of inventory and warehouses in academic publishing and a total reliance on electronic distribution and print-on-demand. A few publishers have already made this leap in whole or in part.