Last week I was walking past the Salvation Army store on my corner, when I noticed that someone had abandoned a box of books in front of the deposit bin. I assume that things left there are for perusal, so I perused, and found a book I’d always been curious about: Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail”. Andersen writes about how things change when scarcity of access is no longer a factor in what we purchase. He looks at books and music in particular, and at the changes that have occurred in our consumption of those media, now that we have unlimited choices of what to read or listen to. A half century ago, my reading source was my school or town library, and what they had was the limits of what I might read next. I read almost all the John Buchan novels, partially because I liked those prototypical James Bond adventures (if James Bond had been a Victorian upper class Brit), but more because those were the books which our library had.
Similarly, the music I bought was limited to the music that the record stores had; one of the reasons that music was such a bond in the 60s and 70s was that we all listened to the same music. We had to; it was a culture of hits and the hit albums were the only ones that could be found in the big stores. In Montreal, in 1964, I had been fond of a local band called “JB and the Playboys”, but when I moved to Toronto, and from there to Boston, I accepted I’d never get to hear their new music, and none of my friends would be interested in a band of whom they’d never heard and whose albums they couldn’t buy.
Now it’s a market of niches. The long tail (Think Amazon! Think iTunes!) means that stores carry all the books there are, or all the music there is. Since they’re in digital form, it doesn’t cost anything to add another thousand choices, and some of them will sell. Anderson cites that 99% of the books on Amazon sold at least one copy last year, which is all Amazon needs to make a profit. How different from the limited shelf-space bookstores had, on which a book that wasn’t selling (yet, or still) got sent back to the remainderers, its brief shelf-life over.