The New York Times Book Review published an article on publishers' reaction to the Long Tail last weekend (which, coincidentally, mentioned BookFinder.com).
The verdict? Some of the largest American publishers are confused:
"'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."
But contrast that attitude with that of NYRB Classics, a fabulous young press that thrives on long tail bestsellers:
"'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."
Donadio writes that:
"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."
BookFinder.com certainly makes used books easier to find, but it's an overstatement to suggest that we negatively impact backlist sales--and by extension, long tail sales--in any appreciable way. To the contrary...
We help sell new backlist titles. Long tail book sites like Amazon.com and BookFinder.com are some of the best resources out there to find, research, and buy backlist titles; BookFinder.com has worked with new booksellers carrying backlist titles ever since its launch, over nine years ago.
Publishers have always dealt with the existence of used books, and they seem to have been doing fine. According to the article, publishers "rely on backlist sales for a significant part of their business," but goes on to list a wide variety of backlist bestsellers widely available in virtually every brick and mortar used book store in America (e.g. The Lord of the Rings, The Joy of Cooking, books by Beatrix Potter). The online component doesn't change the nature of the game; it just means that consumers can search brick and mortar bookstores in multiple communities, and not just their own. The most profitable of the backlist titles were always easily available used, and there's no change there.
In-print long tail sales are robust. According to Chris Anderson's figures for 2004 (presumably American) book sales, out of 1.2 million books surveyed, 78% of titles in print sold 99 or fewer copies, and 95% sold 999 or fewer copies. The publishing industry as a whole is already delivering the long tail. For every frontlist title or backlist bestseller (e.g. Lolita, The Things They Carried, and A People's History of the United States, each of which have sold about 100,000 copies per year in recent years), there are thousands of also-rans, chugging along with a handful of sales per year. The increased trend toward print-on-demand micropublishing, as covered in another recent New York Times article bears testament to the growth of a vital long tail powered by the publishing industry.
Our tail is longer than that of the publishing industry, lessening overlap. BookFinder.com users' average search "center of gravity" is further down the long tail than the wider publishing industry (which is why we're able to report on the most sought-after out of print books with some authority). Potential overlap between new and used copies of in-print backlist titles might be an issue, but our users' used book purchases don't always compete directly with the offerings of the in-print new book industry.
Worried New York publishers dominate much of the discussion around the future of books and bookselling, but the situation's not always as dire as it's made out to be...
Posted by Anirvan