Innovation will Bubble Up from the Long Tail

I recently wrote that the long tail of digital content producers–that is, the vast majority–will make nearly nothing in revenue. This is especially true when compared to the head of the tail, the tiny fraction of content producers that will earn the vast majority of the revenue. By this I did not mean that the long tail was unimportant–in fact, I believe that the long tail is the most important segment, because that is where the future can be found.

Social Trial and Error

Societies progress through continual and parallel processes of trial and error. Small groups adopt products or activities or norms, a subset of which are picked up by larger groups, and even smaller subset of which goes on to yet a larger group. This process continues until only a tiny fraction of the original products, activities, or norms go mainstream.

An enormous number of trials end up discarded before a single one makes it to even a middle level of adoption, much less the favored few that go mainstream–or stay there long.

This phenomena, well documented in the diffusion of innovations literature, is most familiar to people in the fast moving world of consumer technology, where phrases like “early adopters” are used in casual conversation. It applies to anything that could proliferate across groups–for example, art, and content more generally.

A Hotbed of New Ideas and Failure

An unknown, aspiring writer in today’s world faces the same problem as any unknown, aspiring writer did in generations past–obscurity. He has many more tools at his disposal than his equivalents in the past did–he can start a blog, podcast, and connect with others on social networks to promote his work. There are also many, many more places he can submit his work–there are still magazines in the traditional sense, but there are many more online outlets of widely varying audiences.

These tools are available to any aspiring writer, however–in fact, the barriers to putting out your writing in public are so low that huge swaths of people who wouldn’t have even tried in the past are also putting their stuff out there. If anything, the web and the new opportunities it affords have actually reduced the probability that any one aspiring author will make it big.

If they want to set themselves apart, they will have to innovate. Of course, as touched on above, most of these innovations will fail to gain any traction. The new and exciting things happening in writing, however, will come from the successful subset of these innovations.

Scott Sigler is an example of a successful innovator in digital writing. After losing his book deal ten years ago, he learned about podcasting and decided to record and serialize his book himself, and put it out for free. He continued to do this after the first book, and eventually had built up a big enough audience to catch the attention of Dragon Moon Press, a small independent publisher. On the strength of his online following–who helped not only with sales but with marketing the book–the book managed to rocket up Amazon’s bestseller list. This caught the attention of Random House, with whom he currently has a contract. His second book with them was a New York Times bestseller. He isn’t selling Harry Potter-level blockbusters, but he has definitely moved up out of the long tail and into the head.

Sigler wasn’t the sole creator of the podcast novel; others were trying it out at basically the same time. But Kevin Kelly has documented how innovations and ideas tend to occur in parallel in art, as well as in science, math, and technology.

The podcast novel is a great example of how this dynamic works, too, because while it helped launch the careers of Sigler and some of his peers, the form itself has yet to become anything like mainstream. It has grown over time, but Podiobooks.com, one of the largest repositories for podcast novels on the web, still boasts a mere 569 titles, and a registered audience of 83,000. If you asked a random individual, even a random book enthusiast, odds are extremely low that they would have even heard of podcast novels.

Most innovations never make it even this far–but there is still no guarantee that podcast novels will get to the level of mainstream adoption, or even mainstream awareness.

The Head of the Tail is Conservative

The big record labels, publishing houses, and movie studios will never try something truly new. I am confident on this point–anything that is celebrated as being new from these big institutions will in fact just be the first time that big money has been spent on a form that was tried out first by individuals in the long tail.

It makes sense–a lone writer, musician, or filmmaker is working with a very small budget. In a writer’s case, they may pay next to nothing and face an opportunity cost made up primarily of their time. If they try something new and different and it fails, they may be out a few months of work. A big publishing house, on the other hand, has to pay the salaries of its army of editors, not to mention the costs of promoting a work. In dollar terms at least, failure hurts a publishing house a lot more than it hurts the lone, unknown author.

And publishing houses still fail more often than they succeed. They just win really big when they do win, and that subsidizes the failures. Profitably depends on their ability to increase the fraction of the authors they sign on who end up being successes, and minimizing the failures.

For that reason, they are always going to stick to the tried and true. Innovations will have to gain widespread adoption in the long tail–and for a while–before they bubble up to the head.

Consider the movement towards ebooks. The formats that Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple are providing consumers are essentially nothing more than the digitization of the print versions. They do not offer the increased capabilities that digital technology makes possible–of including video and audio files mixed in with the text, for example, something commonly done on blogs. They optimize for the tried and true, because all the money is being invested in the tried and true.

Mechanisms exist for making money from innovations–you could pitch an idea beforehand on Kickstarter, or make an app for smartphones and tablets and charge a price for it. Only after a respectable amount of money has been made by innovators will the institutions at the head of the tail start to take notice.

So while I don’t agree with Chris Anderson’s original hypothesis that the long tail will be of increasing monetary significance to businesses, I do think that it will be an even greater engine of innovation in the digital era than it was in the analog one.

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time. His present research focuses on the ethics of business and work, from the perspective of virtue and human flourishing.

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