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BOOK REVIEW:
THE LONG TAIL

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Chris Anderson, (2006) The Long Tail. Hyperion Books.

Although on the face of it this book is Internet-related [which it is], it also covers business from a wider perspective. For that reason it is a 'should read' for business studies students. For Internet marketing students it is a 'must read'.

Having said that, something about the book irked me - but I'm not sure it is the author's fault.

Much of the content - although excellently presented - is about niche marketing, which has been around, well ... forever. That big local chain stores carry a limited range of speciality goods [at low prices] and a wider range of those products is available in smaller, harder to find shops [at higher prices] is the way of retailing. Of course, the Internet has made life easier, but the concept is the same. And the concept of niche marketing is rarely covered in as much detail as it is in the Long Tail. But Anderson doesn't claim to have discovered niche marketing, so that's not my problem.

As for the Long Tail concept, Anderson is gung-ho about the concept. However, he doesn't simply eulogize it - he frequently raises question marks and points out where it doesn't work [comparison between associated products, for example, where it must be an 'apples-to-apples' comparison]. Neither does he claim to be the originator of it, so that's not what irritated me.

Anderson also acknowledges that the music industry is a perfect example - and exponent - of the 'online' long tail, so much so that it is difficult to envisage it working as well with any other industry or market.

So what is my problem? One thing is that Anderson expounds retail theory with such zeal that it comes across as if he had just discovered the concepts - which perhaps he had? And therein lies one of my irritants. Here I am advising students to read a book which - though disguised as something else - is full of basic retail that anyone who has served their time in shop management knows.

But that is hardly Anderson's fault. No, what irritates me about this book is the way it is presented by others. I have already made the point in another of my musings - the long tail - Anderson has done a good job with the book, but it is poor journalists who have reported / reviewed it from a standpoint of retailing - even business - ignorance. Instead of saying [as I wish to do] that it is an excellent analysis of how contemporary technology has affected a traditional practice, it has been reviewed as a 'new' concept that is a child of technology - which requires technology to exist.

Disagree? Spend a while online. See how many of the reviews are by folk from a technical - or non-business - background. See how they are in awe of this new phenomenon - which for folk like me is simply not new.

To sum up then. You should read the Long Tail. It is well researched and presented in an interesting way - as befits a journalist. But do not expect - as I think I did - to read about something that is brand new to the universe.

Footnote: it's a small thing, and he contradicts it later in the same paragraph - but Anderson refers to eBay as a retailer. It isn't, it never takes title of any goods - it only acts as an agent to facilitate transactions between other parties for a fee. Anyone who's studied business would have covered that in law 101.

One final point where I think Anderson missed a trick is this - I'll try to use an example to illustrate my thinking. When I was but a lad I was made keen on model making - you know the Airfix kit type things. Planes, tanks, ships - I made them all. Now you could get the most common - Hurricane fighter, Sherman tank, HMS Hood - at the local Woolworth's store. But if you wanted anything else from Airfix's catalogue you had to travel a bit and go to specialist hobby shop. They stocked more, but not the full range. More travelling took you to a model shop which had the full range. Then one day on a trip out somewhere with my parents I came across a model shop that had the entire Airfix range - plus kits imported from Japan - costing three times the Airfix price I might add.

If you're still with me, here's the point. For Woolworth's, the long tail was everything in the Airfix catalogue apart from a dozen or so products. For the hobby shop the long tail was the full range from Airfix. For the model shop the long tail was the Japanese imports. In other words, from one perspective you could be well down the tail - whereas in fact you are at the head of 'another' tail. Even the specialist model shop might not consider themselves to be at the end of the tail [as others would] because they know that there are thousands of other kits they could import - to them, that is the long tail.

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