July 30, 2006
By RACHEL DONADIO
“The mass market is turning into a mass of niches,” Chris Anderson writes in “The Long Tail,” his best-selling new book on the economics of entertainment. A handful of blockbusters may dominate at the multiplex and the megastore, he argues, but there’s untapped potential in the vast number of books, movies and recordings that sell relatively few copies — the so-called “long tail” of the sales curve — potential that can now be tapped through online retailers.
Since Anderson first introduced the concept in a 2004 article in Wired magazine, where he is editor in chief, the “long tail” has become an oft-cited buzzword for anyone trying to connect products and consumers. At first glance, the theory would seem perfectly suited to the publishing business, which is built on a foundation of the “backlist,” those books kept in print because they continue to sell steadily over the years, usually in paperback. Not to mention that publishers are always looking for niche markets for specific titles, be they backlist or “frontlist” books, the term for titles less than one year old.
Yet so far publishers remain wary of the long tail theory, largely because they haven’t figured out how to make money off it. Books require storage, and it quickly becomes impractical for publishers to keep low numbers of thousands of titles in their warehouses. “The costs associated with printing small quantities of many different titles and of warehousing those many different titles and of fulfilling single-copy orders . . . are so onerous that it’s not a model that I feel works for publishing today,” said Terry Adams, the director of trade paperbacks at Little, Brown. Susan Moldow, the executive vice president and publisher of Scribner, agreed. “It only works if you’re employing some kind of print-on-demand,” she said, referring to a technology that allows publishers to print a few books at a time, as they are ordered. Although Anderson and some others believe print-on-demand will change publishing history, the technology is still imperfect and costly.
Paradoxically, the online sales technologies on which the long tail depends may actually be undercutting backlist sales by squeezing them between the two poles of the market: new frontlist titles and used books, which are easier to find than ever thanks to the rise of online booksellers and search engines like BookFinder.com. This is a potential problem for most publishers, who rely on backlist sales for a significant part of their business. Titles more than one year old — including best sellers with staying power like “The Da Vinci Code” — account for 62 to 68 percent of annual sales at Barnes & Noble, said Robert Wietrak, the company’s vice president for merchandising. “It’s what the business is built on,” he said.
Unlike new titles, which involve a writer’s advance and promotion costs, backlist sales come without too much new investment. “When you’re selling a backlist book, each dollar is almost twice as valuable,” said Jane von Mehren, the publisher of trade paperbacks at Random House. “Because there are so many fewer costs associated with each sale, that much more of what you bring in is going straight to the bottom line.”
Each house has at least one title that seems to buoy the rest of the list. Warner Books’ edition of “To Kill a Mockingbird” sells in the “robust six figures” annually, said Beth de Guzman, the company’s paperback editor in chief. “The Catcher in the Rye,” a major title in Little, Brown’s backlist, sold more than 200,000 last year, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks sales in 70 to 80 percent of the domestic market, but doesn’t include books assigned for college courses — a major source of sales for some books. Penguin Classics — an almost all-backlist imprint that has 4,000 titles, some from the public domain and most with a newly commissioned scholarly introduction — sells “hundreds of thousands” of copies of its most popular titles, including “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Crucible” and “The Odyssey,” said Elda Rotor, the imprint’s executive editor. Some frequently taught newer titles also have steady sales. Tim O’Brien’s 1990 Vietnam War novel, “The Things They Carried,” routinely sells more than 100,000 copies a year, as does Howard Zinn’s left-leaning “People’s History of the United States,” originally published in 1980.
The backlist can also drive business acquisitions. Simon & Schuster bought Macmillan in 1994 partly for its backlist, which included “The Joy of Cooking.” The cookbook’s heavily updated 1997 edition has sold 1.7 million copies. (Several earlier editions also remain in print.) In 1984, Penguin bought a small English publisher, Frederick Warne, largely for one author on its backlist: Beatrix Potter, whose children’s books sell millions of copies a year. “We bought the company and isolated the key treasure in there,” said Peter Mayer, who was Penguin’s chief executive at the time and is now the president and publisher of Overlook Press.
Some publishers say retailers are more interested in the backlist when publishers can pay to promote an old book like a new one. In the past decade “there’s been an ever greater emphasis on frontlist on the part of retailers,” Mayer said. “The phenomenon of big new best-selling titles selling bigger and using up more space in a store has led to backlist not being seen as income-productive as that area of the market was in the past.” Mayer said he didn’t think online booksellers — which stock virtually every title in print — made up the difference in terms of revenue.
Publishers are forever searching for new ways to “revitalize” the backlist. Sometimes that means issuing a special edition, as Vintage did to fete the 50th anniversary of “Lolita” last year. (Sales rose to 100,000 copies, up 30 percent from 2004.) And then there are the movie tie-ins. In 2004, Vintage shipped about 50,000 copies of “In Cold Blood”; this year, after the movie “Capote” appeared, it shipped 400,000. Houghton Mifflin saw sales of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy rise 1,000 percent — to 25 million copies — when the movies were in theaters from 2001 to 2003. Surprise endorsements also help. When “The Letters of Abelard and Heloise,” was mentioned in an episode of “The Sopranos,” Penguin Classics saw a spike in sales of its edition.
Some small presses build their business entirely on the long tail, bringing back into print esoteric titles that are in the public domain or had been abandoned by other publishers as unprofitable. “We’re like scavenger birds on the back of hippopotamuses,” said Edwin Frank, the editorial director of New York Review Books Classics, which was founded in 1999 and is affiliated with The New York Review of Books. Top sellers among the imprint’s 200 titles include Richard Hughes’s dreamlike novel “A High Wind in Jamaica” and historical novels by J. G. Farrell that revolve around Britain’s colonial rule. “We’re happy with any book that sells over 5,000 copies” during its sales life, Frank said.
There are certainly many titles that sell fewer. In “The Long Tail,” Anderson notes that in 2004, only 10 titles sold more than a million copies, while 67,000 sold from 1,000 to 4,999 copies, 203,000 sold from 100 to 999 copies — and a whopping 948,000 titles sold 99 copies or fewer. But given the realities of the publishing industry, many of those low sellers may soon fall out of print. With the exception of art books and other expensive single volumes, says Little, Brown’s Terry Adams, it becomes unprofitable to keep a book in print when it sells only about one or two thousand copies.
Indeed, so far, the winners in the long tail scenario aren’t publishers but the online booksellers and the databases that aggregate their titles, making books stranded on the dusty shelves of local used-book stores readily available to buyers around the world. Online used-book sales rose 33 percent between 2003 and 2004, to $609 million, in a $2.2 billion used-book market, according to the Book Industry Study Group. But publishers don’t profit from used books. Even Anderson acknowledges this. Online retailers may have unlocked the fuller potential of the used-book market, but “that doesn’t benefit the authors or the publishers, because the revenues don’t go to them,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “But it does benefit us as consumers.”