Martin at Aardvarchaeology has written up a brief post in which he comments on the possibility of being able in the future to visit a suitable retail outlet, and have them print you up a copy of a desired book which itself may no longer be in print, hopefully at a price significantly lower than had you tried to purchase the original and potentially expensive ‘collectable’ version. As he comments…

Lately I have come to think of books as computer devices, combining the functions of screen and backup medium. All texts these days are written and type-set on computers, so the paper thingy has long been a secondary manifestation of the text. People like publisher Jason Epstein and book blogger the Grumpy Old Bookman have predicted that we will soon have our books made on demand at any store that may today have a machine for making photographic prints. The texts will reside on the net, on our USB memory sticks or on our handheld computers/cell phones. The paper output/backup-storage device we call “a book” will be produced swiftly in the store by a dedicated machine.

As many of us will be aware, there are vast numbers of books out there, particularly in the fields of anthropology and archaeology, no longer in print, and so prohibitively expensive that any thought of ownership is the stuff of dreams, partly because the book itself might have a high ‘rarity’ premium attached, regardless of whatever the text may comprise. Here’s a quick look at the post to which he refers at Grumpy Old Bookman, who in turn introduces us to the ‘long tail’…

In brief, the long tail is a term used to describe a feature of statistical distributions when illustrated in the form of a graph. For instance, there are a few words which are used very often — the word ‘the’ being an example — and a very large number of words which are used very seldom — words such as ‘disintermediation’. If you plot a graph showing this kind of distribution you get a sharp peak on the left of the graph and a long flattish line tailing off to the right. This is the ‘long tail’ (aka heavy tail, power-law tail, or Pareto tail). See our old friend Wikipedia for details.

Whether you can visualise this picture or not, all you need to remember is that in publishing there are a small number of individual titles which sell in huge numbers, perhaps a million copies each; and there are also a large number of individual titles (approaching 200,000 a year in the US) which sell in small numbers, perhaps a few hundred copies each.

The “long tail” refers to the hundreds of thousands of products that are not number one bestsellers i.e. all those products that form a line that tails off down any company’s sales graph. But in the digital and on-line world, these products are booming precisely because they are not constrained by the demands of a physical retail space. In the autumn of 2004 Chris Anderson identified this trend in “Wired Magazine” and called it “the long tail”. The term has since caught fire in tech and media circles. He says that in an era of almost limitless choice, many consumers will gravitate toward the most popular mass-market items, but just as many will move toward items that only a few, niche-market people want…. In this new digital era, the long tail is a new and powerful force.

The rest of his article is very well worth reading, and there are some good comments included which examine the idea from other angles, including indications that some of the larger book-sellers are already becoming alarmed at a method of printing and distributing content in ways with which they could find it difficult to compete – the publishing world is particuarly sensitive to changes and innovations within associated technologies, but one way or the other, the book-buying public look set to be the long-term beneficiaries of ideas such as these. (TJ)

Image from here.

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