Bookmarks Issue: 

Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More

A-The Long TailIn a 2004 article, Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, argued that the rise of the niche market is slowly but surely fracturing common popular culture. "The era of one-size-fits-all is ending," Anderson claims in this expansion of that idea, "and in its place is something new, a market of multitudes." He devised the term "long tail" to describe the dwindling end of a line on a standard bell curve, and he applied it to how many units of a particular item are sold out of an inventory. Just compare the limited "hit" CDs at Wal-Mart to the nearly infinite inventory sold though Netflix, iTunes, and eBay. Niches, Anderson shows, have an economic logic: consumers buy what they want and "onesies" and "twosies" sales add up quickly for retailers. The long tail, he concludes, "is nothing more than infinite choice."
Hyperion. 238 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1401302378

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"If The Long Tail has one limitation, it’s that Anderson doesn’t explore fully his theory’s social implications. … Who would deny there’s a long tail for people as well as products, and that we just may be more free than ever to design ourselves as well as what we eat, read and wear? That’s the sort of choice that really scares a lot of people." Nick Gillespie

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Anderson acknowledges that other scholars have worried about the dangers of hyperindividualization—already evident in the self-reinforcing polarization of political Web logs—but blithely dismisses their concerns by arguing choice is more likely to open minds than close them. … In immensely readable prose, he has offered a road map to the future of business, one likely to enlighten many confused travelers—merchants and customers alike." Chris Sheridan

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Anderson’s publishers … are using their Disney-honed promotional prowess to market The Long Tail as ‘the most important business book since Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point,’ though it is not quite as felicitously written as that blend of science and sociology. … But like The Tipping Point, Mr. Anderson’s book does an excellent job of spotting trends and fitting them into an easily accessible theoretical framework that helps explain the changing culture around us." Lorne Manly

Houston Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"I’ll definitely embrace the long tail when it comes to music, DVDs, funky-colored kitchen mixers and hard-to-find replacement parts for charcoal grills. But when Anderson turns to ‘media’ and glories in how the rise of the blogosphere and Wikipedia, for example, will revolutionize information-sharing, I get queasy." Fritz Lanham

Rocky Mountain News 3 of 5 Stars
"I was left wishing that the book was twice or three times as long and went much deeper on a variety of topics. … That said, there’s no doubt that the concept of [the book] will rewrite much of how we approach applied economics, and this book is an excellent primer." Scott C. Yates

Wall Street Journal 2.5 of 5 Stars
"In Mr. Anderson’s telling, the long tail swings wildly, slashing through all the old paradigms, reducing to rubble the music and movie industries, for instance, or threatening to pulp the print form of major newspapers, supposedly done in by the Internet. But are the old paradigms really so fragile? Mr. Anderson is prone to making arguments that assert the fact of a long tail rather than show its ultimate effects." Steven Zeitchik

Critical Summary

In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson offers a visionary look at the future of business and common culture. The long-tail phenomenon, he argues, will "re-shape our understanding of what people actually want to watch" (or read, etc.). While Anderson presents a fascinating idea backed by thoughtful (if repetitive) analysis, many critics questioned just how greatly the niche market will rework our common popular culture. Anderson convinced most reviewers in his discussion of Internet media sales, but his KitchenAid and Lego examples fell flat. A few pointed out that online markets constitute just 10 percent of U.S. retail, and brick-and-mortar stores will never disappear. Anderson’s thesis came under a separate attack by Lee Gomes in his Wall Street Journal column. Anderson had defined the "98 Percent Rule" in his book to mean that no matter how much inventory is made available online, 98 percent of the items will sell at least once. Yet Gomes cited statistics that could indicate that, as the Web and Web services become more mainstream, the 98 Percent Rule may no longer apply: "Ecast [a music-streaming company] told me that now, with a much bigger inventory than when Mr. Anderson spoke to them two years ago, the quarterly no-play rate has risen from 2% to 12%. March data for the 1.1 million songs of Rhapsody, another streamer, shows a 22% no-play rate; another 19% got just one or two plays." If Anderson overreaches in his thesis, he has nonetheless written "one of those business books that, ironically, deserves more than a niche readership" (Houston Chronicle).