I just finished Chris Anderson’s book, The Long Tail.
The long tail talks about the alternative to top 10 hits. We are so used to thinking in terms of mega-hits — multi-billion dollar Hollywood movies, gold and platinum albums, #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list — that we forget how many works of art are NOT great #1 hits. This hit-oriented culture is the result of distribution channels that make it hard to find niche market works — the movie theatre can only show 20 movies, and needs at least 10,000 people to go see each of them; the music store can only carry 5,000 CDs and the bookstore can only carry 100,000 books. It seems like a lot, but they’re each a tiny percentage of the art works created each year.
But now we have the internet. If you’re interested in lime-green bowler hats, or websites about lime-green bowler hats, or discussion groups about lime-green bowler hats, or books about lime-green bowler hats…. It’s out there. You can get it. And the person who makes it can sell it to you.
The long tail is best explained with his graph of Rhapsody Music Downloads. The number 1 downloaded track was downloaded 180,000 times this month. This is a LOT. But it trails off quickly — the #5000 ranked track is only downloaded a few thousand times / month.
Now get WAY out there into the tail of the graph. The #400000 ranked track was only downloaded 20 times this month. The #800000 song was downloaded only 5 times.
BUT… say the average in that range was 10 downloads/month. That’s 800,000 – 400,000 = 400,000 songs, downloaded 10 times/month, at $1/download. In other words, $4,000,000 in this month. That’s pretty good money for a bunch of pathetic non-hits, eh?
A lot of people are intimidated out of starting a business, or selling their photographs, or writing a novel, because they’re thinking in terms of #1 hits. They think that any project not getting 180,000/month is a failure, and they see no way to get 180,000 downloads in a month, so why bother trying?
What the long tail says is that there’s a lot of room for non-hits to still be successful. Maybe you won’t ever make $100,000/year from your novels or your website. But if you could make $25,000/year doing something you love, wouldn’t that be pretty awesome, also? Even if you had to get a part-time job to cover the difference, it’s still an improvement on 40 hours/week doing something you hate.
You don’t need to find something that 100,000 people will love. You only need to find something that 1 six-millionth of the world’s population will love.