The Tale of the Long Tail

Republished from my Nuts and Bolts newsletter:

My recent article on Amazon resulted in one reader sending me feedback about a marketing book, Write, Publish, Repeat. It had been on my wishlist and I have since picked it up and read it. Thanks, Mike Cody for the suggestion.

One of the terms they introduce in the beginning is the long tail. It’s a term several of the popular Indie marketing gurus use. They describe the benefits of working the long tail in slightly different ways. Let’s explore the long tail of ebook publishing.

What is the long tail?

Remember the link I gave that estimated actual sales based on Amazon sales rank? I plotted that chart on a simple x,y graph. Here is what it looks like.


What we see is a very uneven distribution of sales. The bestseller sell upwards of 4,000 copies a day. The number five seller is half that. As a books sales rank drops, so do sales – by a huge margin. And this is Amazon, the great equalizer.

As far as I can tell, publishing has always been like this. It has always slanted heavily towards a few blockbusters. A few books sell enormously well. Most books sell much less.

In publishing lingo the huge sales at the top of the chart is the big head and the line heading down the ranks is the long tail. This always makes me think of Godzilla.


Traditional publishing has always been focussed on the big head. They are constantly seeking the next big thing. Bestsellers have good profit margins, most other books don’t. It’s kind of that simple.

Traditional publishing has a much shorter tail. There are three important reasons. Retail stores don’t keep books in stock if they don’t sell. Publishers aren’t interested in publishing books that have a limited audience. Publishers only publish so many books a year, and they often limit how many come from a single author.

Ebooks and indie publishing has turned this on its head. Now many indie authors are thriving on the long tail. The reasons parallel the reasons that publishers aren’t interested in the tail.

Joe Konrath’s tail

Joe Konrath’s blog, a newbie’s guide to publishing, is the bible for many indie writers. Joe talks about the long tail of publishing on his blog. He emphasizes the notion that ebooks are forever.

In the old days new releases came out four times a year. For three months, your book was a new release. For that short sweet time you might be displayed at the front of the bookstore for the world to see. When the next set of releases arrived, your book would likely be packed off to the regular shelves, spine out, where almost no one would see it. Worse yet, if your book wasn’t selling the bookstore might send it back.

Books were produced in large print runs from five to fifty thousand books. If your first print run didn’t sell out and the publisher started to see returns, they weren’t going to risk another print run. As little six months to year after your release, your book could be effectively out of print.

Ebooks never go out of print. They kind of, sort of, go to the back of the bookstore, in that they quickly disappear off most lists if they don’t have a great sales rank. But digital shelf space is unlimited and all books are displayed covers out. Your book will be there forever.

And forever, Joe says, is a long time. Most authors will eventually do better on their own, he argues, over time. Let’s say Author A is traditionally published. Her publisher prints 10,000 copies of her books and place them in bookstores all over the country. Over the course of a year, half those books sell. 5,000 sales is respectable but no where near selling out her first print run and it’s unlikely they will keep that title in print for long.

Author B decides to take a chance on the indie market. Over the same time period she sells a fraction of that number, five hundred books in her first year. But because of the long tail of publishing, she may well continue to sell at that rate indefinitely. In ten years she will have outsold Author A and her book is still on the market and selling.

Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant’s long tail

Ten years is a long time to wait for a payoff. Hopefully Author B hasn’t been sitting around twiddling her thumbs and dreaming of the day she will outsell her rival. Hopefully she’s been writing. When Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant introduce the long tail in Write. Publish. Repeat. This is their take on the tail. Indie authors don’t have to wait on a publisher to decide to publish them. They can keep writing and publishing new works on their schedule.

I know a mystery writer who has a book that’s been contracted with a publisher for over two years. It keeps getting bogged down in production issues or pushed off til the next release cycle. That may be an extreme case, but traditional publishing is definitely slow. It takes months for books to get out.

In the past, some publisher would only accept one submission from an author in a year. They felt that authors who wrote three or four books a year were sacrificing quality for speed. Never mind that the paltry advances and poor royalties made it impossible for the average writer to live on one book a year.

Sean and Johnny argue you can live out on the tail of publishing if you just keep writing. Don’t expect sales on one title to pay your bills. Keep working until you have ten or more books out. Modest sales on a number of titles ends up being the same money as huge sales on a single title.

Let’s end with a naughty tale, shall we?

The final great thing about the long tail of ebooks is that it makes really niche sort of books viable. In the past publishers wouldn’t touch certain genres or subjects because there weren’t enough consumers.

The low production cost on ebooks and print on demand, coupled with world wide distribution online, makes some tiny niche genres profitable for some people. So if you write unusual books, take heart.

Erotica has come out of the shadows with success of Fifty Shades of Gray. But what if you write something a little more niche, like tentacle erotica. Yes, that’s a thing.

How many people read those books? I can’t say, but I doubt its a large number. It doesn’t matter. If even a thousand people in the entire world read that sort of stuff, and you can brand yourself as the “best tentacle erotica writer” (there is a title that will make mom proud) you can write and sell a thousand books.

Tentacle erotica fits the quirky mood I am in as I write this but there are hundreds of other, better, more pedestrian examples. From small genres, cross-genre fiction, special interest topics to historical poor selling books, writers are succeeding in surprising ways. A new breed of authors are carving out niches for themselves all over the long tail of publishing.

If you are one of the many indie authors that are struggling to get noticed or get sales, take heart. Be patient. Keep writing. Don’t write what you think people will read, go out and find people who read the kind of books you write. You can make it thanks to the long tail of publishing.


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