I Have Seen Tomorrow! Part Three

Part Three
August 15, 2012

So, building on the last two blogs, where do all these wondrous technological breakthroughs leave all of us lesser lights? Is it lights out for us?

It’s anything but.

It’s all shades of Chris Anderson’s landmark book, The Long Tail (Hyperion, 2006). If you haven’t yet read a copy, grab one, for it prophesies the tomorrow Terry Bolinger and I just experienced.

The era dominated by mega bestsellers, mega TV ratings, mega music, mega films, etc – is not gone, but it has more than peaked. In its place is the world of The Long Tail. Anderson famously predicted six years ago that the world-wide-web was accelerating the demise of dominant anything. In other words, think of a large animal [perhaps a rat] with a long tail, representing say 2% of its body height. When sales shrank to 2% in that ancent world, it was curtains for those books—not any more!

Let’s back up a bit so Anderson’s premise will make more sense. Up until around 20 years ago, most books, for instance, that were salable at all, could be found somewhere. Bookstores were much more eclectic then: bestsellers, recent good-sellers, classics, and other books that stood the test of time, stayed in print as long as they sold a steady number. But then in roared the mega-everything. Publishers developed the constancy of a rabbit, with no loyalty to anything. As long as a given book or author was selling through the roof, the chain stores would sell it—sell it at cheaper prices than the smaller stores could. The big chain stores gobbled up the bestsellers that had been the life-blood of the lesser chain stores and stand-alones. Even the Christian chain stores. They have all but put them out of business. Just look at how many have closed their doors.

Now comes the Long Tail world. Borders is reeling, and Barnes and Noble is much weaker than it was—and they have been the nation’s dominant booksellers!

We used to be ruled by a world where publishers marketed their books and promoted their authors. They stored their books in big warehouses, from which they shipped out inventory, then accepted all those books back that didn’t sell quickly. Then came the digital age and the decline of print. Now publishers went broke sitting on unsold inventory.

So a new template is rising: print by demand. Terry and I were shown that world: Let’s say I’m a teacher [which happens to have been my career], now I can bypass an academic publishing house and put together my own books, go to a given printer, send it the digital manuscript and illustrations (b/w and color will be same price), then notify printer – I need 300 books by such a date – or 200, or 100, or 50, or 25, or 15, or 5, – or one! Presto! Those books will be printed and mailed to you in such a short time that it will boggle your mind. Price will shock you as well. What makes all this possible? No inventory gathering dust in warehouses. No publisher marketing.

And the Long Tail? As long as a book sells at all, it can stay alive. It no longer has to sell through the roof. Just sell. The book world, like everything else, has exploded into untold millions of small pieces, making possible a Brave New World where anyone, anywhere, can survive—as long as they’re satisfied with a small margin of profit per item.

In parting, I asked our guide about the future of print. He said, “Nothing’s going to destroy print, but more and more of it will be read digitally. But not to worry: books have been around for several thousand years, print for 600. In the future, the educated elite will pride themselves on gathering around themselves the best in printed books.” In other words, those who care enough to surround themselves with the printed bullion of the centuries will be tomorrow’s truly rich people. And you don’t have to have a lot of money to accumulate that kind of inner wealth.

That, my friends, is the new world of the Long Tail.