Thursday, February 19, 2009

Long Tail of a Comet

We all know how comets are chunks of dirty ice in extreme orbit around the sun, which pass close enough to Earth every so often to be seen from the backyard, or possibly a half-decent amateur telescope, and that when these dirty ice chunks approach the inner solar system and the warmth of the sun, some of that ice melts, releasing trapped materials and gases in a trailing streamer stretching behind the comet's main body, and often making some of the most beautiful visual effects of the comet's passing.

There's a long tail in publishing, too, where the economies of scale and the costs of mass distribution limit the presence of the tail--it can only be seen at certain times and in the right conditions, and then briefly in the life of the comet, but perhaps spectacularly so. This publishing long tail consists of stories and subgenres that don't have the same wide appeal as the current Hot Thing, but still have an audience. Perhaps a larger audience, if they were only as widely available as the main body of the publishing comet.

The internets have become a great equalizer (of a sort--until everyone, everywhere has access to the internets and tools to interact in it with, and power to run them, the internets will still have a limit that doesn't quite reach 'global.'). With more people on the internets today than ever before, more ways to use the internets are shaking themselves out into consciousness and culture. People are Finding Things on the internets. Like a great archaeological dig, people are discovering what they've lost--old friends, old movies, old songs, old news. And they are discovering things that they never knew they missed. Like Bollywood movies or subtitled anime that would never have otherwise made it to western shores. Or books dealing with certain subjects considered "unmarketable" when compared to the fare found on the bookstore shelves. On the internets, the long tail has found conditions that let it glow.

One of the reasons for this is that the internets are actually bypassing the cultural gatekeepers that have been present in our culture. In order to see a movie in the theater, the studio has to distribute it and the theater owner has to agree to show it, and you have to show up at the theater according to their schedule. A movie without distribution (indie films) usually doesn't see the light of day beyond a few "art houses" or very limited runs and showings. The internet changes that--creating the opportunity (not necessarily the reality, but the potentiality) for the audience to make the first and last judgment on the cinema. Indie music is the same way--music stores have limited shelf space, music labels filter through the potential musicians and grant chances to the ones they believe will have the best chance of striking a chord (pardon the pun) with a large audience. But the folk singer, barbershop quartet, acapella group, comedy rapper may be the best in class, only the class is too small for the economies of scale to kick in and make it profitable to a large studio. The gatekeeper is bypassed when the small group reaches out directly to the audience via the public square of live performance.

So too, is this happening in the book publishing world, and it's an exciting time for it to be happening, as the audience is just really becoming aware of all the possibility out there, and all the ways they can use it.

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