What we're now starting to see, as online retailers begin to capitalize on their extraordinary economic efficiences, is the shape of a massive mountain of choice emerging where before there was just a peak.... By necessity, the conomics of traditional, hit-driven retail limit choice. When you dramatically lower the costs of connecting supply and demand, it changes not just the numbers, but the entire nature of the market. This is not just a quantiative change, but a qualitative one, too. Bringing niches within reach reveals latent demand for noncommercial content. Then, as demand shifts toward the niches, the economics of provided them improve further, and so on, creating a positive feedback loop that will transform entire industries - and the culture - for decades to come.
In fact, as these companies offered more and more (simply because they could), they found that demand actually followed supply. The act of vastly increasing choice seemed to unlock demand for that choice. Whether it was latent demand for niche goods that was already there or a creation of new demand, we don't yet know. But what we do know is that the companies for which we have the most complete data - netflix, Amazon, Rhapsody - sales of products not offered by their bricks-and-mortar competitors amounted to between a quarter and nearly half of total revenues - and that percentage is rising each year. in other words, the fastest-growing part of their businesses is sales of products that aren't available in traditional, physical retail stores at all. These infinite-shelf-space businesses have effectively learned a lesson in new math: A very, very big number (the products in the Tail) multiplied by a relatives small number (the sales of each) is still equal to a very, very big number. And, again, that very, very big number is only getting bigger. What's more, these millions of fringe sales are an efficient, cost-effective business. With no shelf space to pay for - and in the case of purely digital services like iTunes, no manufacturing costs and hardly any distribution fees - a niche product sold is just another sale, with the same (or better) margins as a hit. For the first time in history, hits and niches are on equal economic footing, both just entries in a database called up on demand, both equally worthy of being carried. Suddenly, popularity no longer has a monopoly on profitability.
What Vann-Adibe had discobered was that the aggregate market for niche music was huge, and effectively unbounded. He called this the '98 Percent Rule.' As he later put it to me, In a wordl of almost zero packaging costs and instant access to almost all ocntent in this format, consumers exhibit consistent behavior: They look at almost everything. I believe that this requires major changes by the content producers - I'm just not sure what changes!... Everywhere I went the story was the same: Hits are great, but niches are emerging as the big new market. The 98 Percent Rule turned out to be nearly universal. Apple said that every one of the then 1 million tracks on iTues had sold at least once (now its inventory is twice that). Netflix reckoned that 95% of its 25,000 DVDs (that's now 90,000) rented at least once a quarter. Amazon didn't give out an exact number, but independent academic research on its book sales suggested that 98 percent of its top 100,00 books sold at least once a quarter, too.
There's a value in that space - rent, overhead, staffing costs, etc. - that has to be paid back by a certain number of inventory turns per month. In other words, the onesies and twosies waste space. However, when that space doesn't cost anything, suddenly you can look at those infrequent sellers again, and they begin to have value. This was the insight that led to Amazon, Netflix, and all the other companies I was talking to.
The three main observactions - (1) the tail of available variety is far longer than we realize; (2) it's now within reach economically; (3) all those niches, when aggregated, can make up a significant market - seemed indisputable, especially baked up with heretofore unseen data.
What people intuitively grasped was the new efficiences in distribution, manufacturing, and marketing were changing the definition of what was commercially viable across the board. The best way to describe these forces is that they are turning unprofitable customers, products, and markets into profitable ones. Although this phenomenon is most obvious in entertainment and media, it's an easy leap to eBay to see it at work more broadly, from cars to crafts. Seen broadly, it's clear that the story of the Long Tail is really about the economics of abundance - what happens when the bottlenecks and stand between supply and demand in our culture start to disappear and everything becomes available to everyone.
... the emerging digital entertainment economy is going to be radically different from today's mass market. If the twentieth-century entertainment industry was about hits, the twenty-first will be equally about niches. For too long we've been suffering the tyranny of lowest-common-denominator far, subjected to brain-dead summer blockbusters and manufactured pop. Why? Economics. Many of our assumptions about popular taste are actually artifacts of poor supply-and-demand matching - a market response to inefficient distribution.