Late yesterday, in an email exchange, I asked Lee Gomes what he thought of Chris Anderson’s response to his Wall Street Journal column on the Long Tail. (Which I discussed here.) In particular, I wanted to know whether he thought (as I do) that Anderson made a valid point in explaining why summing up sales in percentage terms might obfuscate the Long Tail effect. Gomes sent me a long and thoughtful reply, which he said I was free to post. In hopes of furthering the debate about the extent of the Long Tail phenomenon, I will do that:
Yes indeed, Chris has a very valid point in measuring head and tail the way he does. But so do I. I had that paragraph in my column to tell readers that saying that Amazon gets 25% of its revenue from its tail (everything past the 100,000 best-sellers) is just another way of saying that 2.7% of its titles represent 75% of its sales. (It has 3.7 million books.) I made it clear in the column that this was MY method, and that Chris did not approve of it. (By the way, it is simply NOT true that his economist told me my approach was wrong, as he says on his blog; the exact opposite occurred. I also spoke to the head of the statistics department at a UC college who said my approach was the more “natural” one.) Readers, though, are free to pick the method they like. Please note, though, that I at least clearly laid out the two approaches; nowhere in his book does Chris let on how small, as a percent of sales, his tail really is.
While I am at it, I’d like to correct an extremely serious misrepresentation Chris made at the end of his blog posting, to the effect that Anita Elberse of Harvard “urged” me not to characterize her work the way I did. This is manifestly false. Chris is either misremembering or deliberately conflating two separate issues. Prof. Elberse did indeed in an email remind me that the data she had for Netflix was under NDA, and I could thus not report it. But the comment had nothing to do with what Chris says it does. Let Prof. Elberse herself describe whether I got it right; below is the full text of an email she sent me after the story ran:
“I just read your article, and just wanted to thank you for being so careful in quoting me. I wish all journalists stayed this close to what was actually said! :-)
“You did beat me ‘to the market’ with your article, but I hope our academic article (which should be ready in a few weeks) will further clarify the long tail phenomenon (or lack thereof).”
She also posted a comment on Chris’ blog implying much the same thing, and correcting Chris on another matter; I urge you to read it.
More broadly, when you attend Mainstream Media Community College, you are taught that if you say something in your lede, you need to back it up. My lede was that “I don’t think things are changing as much as he does,” and I think I backed it up four different times.
1) While Chris seems to have repealed the “98 Percent Rule” in his interviews with me, he didn’t do as much in the book. This is how he begins the book, and any reader, after hearing the “Rule” described as “nearly universal,” would, if nothing else, assume that it was true at all the examples the book describes. Chris defended the fact that it’s not by noting to me that his book wasn’t titled “The 98 Percent Rule;” does this mean that any sentence without “Long Tail” in can’t be assumed to be accurate? He also complains in his blog comments that I didn’t mention the 95% play rates at Netflix. But I wasn’t trying to show the “Rule” was NEVER true; he is the one who said it was “universal.”
2) The book’s showstopper notion about the possibility of the tail possibly being greater than the head is a fine idea; it is just not happening anywhere in the world, despite the impression the book leaves. (Incidentally, I described the book’s treatment of this possibility in my column in the same future conditional tense as Chris described it in the book; I never said he said it was happening now, as Chris implies on his blog.) And nowhere in the book does Chris say that Netflix and Amazon won’t reach Long Tail nirvana for at least a decade – not by his definition of head and tail, and certainly not by my alternative one. I can’t believe readers wouldn’t want to have been told all this; they weren’t.
3) The notion that “hits matter less,” which is explicit in the book and implicit in the Long Tail idea, was rebutted just about everywhere I looked. The 90/10 rule was pretty constant. And iTunes looks like Billboard, not some paradise of niches.
4) Other economists are reaching very different conclusions from Chris. After I started asking Chris questions about his findings, he gave me the names of three economists who he said would back him up. One of them I ran out of time to call. One of them was Prof. Elberse. The third was MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, who told me that there indeed is a shift occurring as things move online, but it’s on the order of an 80/20 distribution moving to a 70/30 one. Had I had more space, I would have mentioned this as well, for it too is less earth-shattering than what the book leads readers to believe will occur.
Nick, I would never say that the Internet isn’t changing a lot of things, including perhaps consumption patterns. But in case I haven’t made myself clear, I don’t think it’s changing things as much as Chris does.
PS Feel free to post any or all of this.