Let’s Hear It for the Long Tail
by Joel Friedlander
One of the most interesting stories in Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual (thebookdesigner.com/2009/09/book-every-self-publisher-should-own) tells how he became a book publisher. As an avid parachute jumper, Dan looked for but could not find a good basic manual for new people coming into his sport. Eventually he wrote one and sold it to other parachuting clubs.
But what was interesting was that for some time Dan had no idea he had become a book publisher. He was just trying to fill a need, and that need could best be filled with an instructional manual. You can see that he used this same idea when he created his Self-Publishing Manual.
In a small way this story demonstrates why nonfiction publishing, including self-publishing, is often a long-tail phenomenon, and was for a long time before the idea of the long tail was introduced by Chris Anderson in Wired magazine ( target=blank>longtail.com).
Let’s back up for just a moment. We’ve all heard of the long tail, and it’s certainly mentioned often enough in discussions of online business.
In the past, when it cost a lot to develop, produce, and market products, businesses concentrated on blockbusters, or “hits” that would appeal to the widest possible audience. This capitalized on the “head” of the purchasing curve, where it was thought that most of the money was to be made.
As the cost to create and distribute products has fallen, largely due to digitization and the ability to market online, it has become apparent that the long tail of the purchasing curve contains potentially as much business as the head. Not only that, but each product in the tail, although it appeals to only a small segment of the population, may be perfectly tailored to just that group of people.
One thing this means is that if you can make those people aware of the product, they are much more likely to buy it.
In a sense, most nonfiction books are market-driven because they are often written for a specific niche. And the more specialized the book is, the more likely it is to find success within the group of people who are intensely interested in that niche.
When I was studying pizza making, for instance, I read almost every book I could find on baking artisanal pizza at home (thebookdesigner.com/2010/03/off-topic-pizza). Here’s how this typical long-tail niche might look as you travel from the “head” to the “tail.”
The Pizza-Book Process
Imagine you are the publisher of a book on serious home pizza-baking. You want to find the keywords that people use to search for products providing the information you have to offer. You start at the top of the curve, at the big end of the funnel, and work your way down the long tail.
Cooking. This is the head of the curve; lots of people are interested in what is a huge market. But it’s too big a designation for sales appeal.
Baking. Here the curve narrows to only one aspect of cooking but still in a very large category. Your expertise is pizza, not panettone or pastries.
Yeast breads. At this point you start to enter the long tail, since this category is much more specific, and people looking here are much more likely to be interested in your book.
Flatbreads. Even farther along in the tail, this subset of yeasted breads is of interest to only a small segment of the cooking/baking population, but the people in the segment are highly engaged.
Pizza. Although this particular tail ends here, another long tail begins with all books on making pizza and grows its own tail, with specialties such as deep-dish pizza-baking, cornmeal crust pizza-baking, and so on.
When publishers were concentrating on the creation and marketing of books that would be “hits,” it was very expensive to create products and market them to a large enough population to ensure success. Then two developments took the inherent long-tail mindset of nonfiction publishing to a new level.
First, Internet marketing made it possible, for very little money, to attract just those people intensely interested in a niche. On discussion boards, blogs, and forums (thebookdesigner.com/2010/02/top-5-discussion-forums-for-self-publishers) and in discussion groups on community Web sites (thebookdesigner.com/2010/01/3-indie-publishing-discussion-groups), people have congregated to talk about every activity you can imagine, from the care of tropical fish to digital photography, to genealogy, to pizza baking.
Second, digital printing eliminated the necessity to pay for inventory, and therefore the risk that involved.
These two developments alone have created a marketplace that rewards publishers and authors who can fulfill the needs of a small group of people. When you combine specialized information that experts in a field commonly possess with very targeted marketing and automated Web delivery systems for either printed or electronic books, you’ve got a long-tail marketing machine.
Of course, the other technology that’s made this targeting possible is search. The ever present search bar, whether it’s Google or Bing or any other, is an invitation to try to find an exact remedy for any consumer’s problem.
The Poison Oak Case in Point
A few years ago, after a pleasant walk in the woods with my son after Thanksgiving dinner, I came down with a nasty case of poison oak. I got it by climbing over a dead tree, so I’ll leave it to you to imagine exactly how much discomfort I was in.
That was when I became a temporary member of a very small niche, people who wanted a cure for poison oak right now and were willing to pay for it. I eventually found a site, through search, for a cream guaranteed to cure what ailed me. A small vial was $45, and overnight shipping was available. This is the ultimate in long-tail niche marketing, and it works.
As publishers, we can use this information to our advantage. Through tools such as Google Analytics, you can find the actual search terms that people type into their search field. This powerful information encompasses the millions of keywords that people use to search the Web.
When you understand keywords, how they are used, and how to target the people who search on them, you can go a long way toward using the long tail to make a nonfiction book a success.
Joel Friedlander is an award-winning book designer and the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, a publishing services company in San Rafael, CA. This article is derived from his book A Self-Publisher’s Companion. To order the book and/or read his blog about book design and the indie publishing life, go to TheBookDesigner.com.