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The long tail and the fat head

There’s a lot of talk about the long tail–for example, there are a zillion books out there, each selling a few copies a week (hey–those are my books out there in the tail!), and a zillion blogs out there, each getting a few hits a day (hey–that’s our blog out there…). We’re no longer in the era of mass consumption, etc etc.

I was wondering: who are the consumers of the long-tail items? I’d conjecture that the people who buy books in the long tail are, on average, buyers of many books. Similarly, I’d conjecture that the rarefied few who read our blog read many other blogs as well. In contrast, the average buyer of a bestseller such as The Shangri-La Diet might not be buying so many books, and, similarly, the average reader of BoingBoing might be reading not so many blots.

Or maybe I’m wrong on this, I don’t know. I’m picturing a scatterplot, with one dot per book (or blog), on the x-axis showing the number of buyers (or readers), on the y-axis showing the average number of books bought (or blogs read) per week by people who bought thiat book (or read that blog). Or maybe there’s a better way of looking at this.

The question is: is the “long tail” being driven by a “fat head” of mega-consumers?


  1. tom s. says:

    Who are you calling a fat-head?

    I have no facts of any kind to support your argument, but it sounds persuasive to me.

    In a world with many products, asymmetric information problems mean that the predictable products drive out niche products. For many people, the rational decision is not to invest the time and/or money needed to obtain reliable information about niche products. Those who do invest the time are those to whom the product has a high value.

    I wrote an essay about this not too long ago regarding microbreweries and the CAMRA consumers' organization in the UK, which would qualify as a fat-head group. It can be found at Learning By Drinking. It doesn't make the argument you do, but I do think it is consistent with it.

  2. b says:

    I always thought of the long tail as cat fanciers, trekkies, and statisticians, who may or may not be well read beyond cat books.

    My own mental model is that everybody has a range of interest that includes a bit of the center and then digresses in a haphazard direction from there. In such a setup, products in the center don't necessarily drive out products out on the various fringes. Sure, people have limited cash to spend either on mainstream books or their pet fringe topic, but no amount of Da Vinci Codes will replace a stats monograph.

  3. fk says:

    I'll bet I'm one of the very few equity traders that reads your posts regularly. I'm a bit of a stat/quant finance addict.

    I agree with tom s. Of the blogs I read daily, many converge around a small number of topics that are, at least in the realm of finance, "in the center". This is definitely far from the center and all the more valuable to me for it.

  4. Albyn says:

    I hardly ever read blogs other than this one. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that people who read one popular blog read many of them. It seems a bit like a lifestyle choice. I would not be surprised to learn that other folks who read the blogs in the tails of the blog distribution are much more selective.

  5. OneEyedMan says:

    One place to test this is on Netflix. They have a huge database of the ratings of movies by their customers and they are giving away access to the database as part of a contest to discover an improved method of recommending movies. The prize is a million dollars

    You could check if movies that don't appear much in the data, that is are in the tail, are predominantly watched by fans that see a large number of movies.

    While the thesis makes sense to me for blogs due to the one time cost of learning about them and computers, I doubt this holds for books. My understanding is that the largest category of books read in the US is paperback romance novels, so the archetype of a book reader is someone who reads a large number of trashy romances which sell very well.

  6. LinesMaker says:

    Hey, the "long tail" link is broken :( it points to a mailto: with google as the recipient lol :P

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