No, The Internet Will Not Save You

Today I’m on again about one of my (least) favorite subjects, the “Long Tail Theory” of online selling. For those blissfully or otherwise unaware, the Long Tail Theory says that the internet will overcome the problem of finding audiences for cutting edge, goofy, or just niche type products such as most books. Since things you can’t find easily in the brick and mortar stores are easily accessible online, such items are no longer at the mercy of the gatekeepers, et many a cetera. The internet, in effect, would level the playing field making publishers much less dependent on blockbusters, and authors less dependent on publishers. Instead both would see fewer sales but of many more titles/items (the “long tail.”) and make up the difference in overall numbers volume (ie write more). Promotion through YouTube or its variants would take care of the no longer existent promotional budget.

That was the theory. In practice, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Yes, some authors have done really well going outside the traditional publishing paradigm. Some authors do well, period, regardless of the paradigm. That’s the Law of Averages at work. For other Indies, and in the one area where hard data now exists, the result is: not so much. For indie and online music sales, it turns out like this: 80% of the available items sold no copies. At all. Zero. See the trend? All the revenue came from the remaining 20%. Usually bands which already had a following or were otherwise promoted. One could argue that this is music and we’re concerned about books. I know I am. But think about it for a minute—if there was ever a product that should benefit from internet promotion, it’s music. It takes a minute or less to download sample music from a web site or watch the band’s home-made video on YouTube. You can try lots of new and unknown and indie bands in just a few minutes. I’m sure there are people reading this who have found good new music this way. The rest? No, because most people aren’t going to spend hours and hours downloading unfamiliar bands, any more than they’re going to the trouble to sort through all the ebook samples on Amazon. For most bands, even the better ones, the internet just isn’t working, and I think it’s reasonable to argue that it does not and will not work for writers either, at least and until we learn to leverage it properly. Exceptions? Sure, but how many? Which leaves the 80%.

Just as people buy new music because they hear it on the radio or it’s recommended by a friend, or they see the artist on tv, people buy books because they’re recommended by a friend or because they already know and like the author’s work. Or because they picked up the book in a B&N or whatever, read the jacket, read a few pages, and decided to take a chance. How many “browse” Amazon or the online sellers? I don’t. I generally know what I’m looking for and either find it or don’t. Even the “If you like this you might like that” functions only go so far.

The harsh truth that many a self or Indie/Small Press published author has learned (or stubbornly failed to learn) and the Long Tail Theory completely overlooks is that availability does not equal demand. For most of what’s out there, the fact that it is out there is completely irrelevant. There is simply no demand. For books published through mainline publishers, the fact that the books are in the stores and can be seen by potential buyers is sometimes promotion enough. Which is a good thing, since often that’s the only promotion they get.

As authors and writers, we can’t assume the demand will be there. We have to create it. We try to create it. We all try to self-promote to the limits of our resources and ability but this only goes so far. No one wants to read a blog or twitter feed that consists mostly of “Buy My Book!” variations repeated on an infinite loop. The internet does make promotion easier, but that’s all. It’s not automatic and it definitely ain’t magic. Call it creating a demand or finding a readership, it remains and will remain, save for the fortunate few, a long and difficult road.

So we should despair? Nah. Just understand that, unless you’re in the 20% instead of the more likely 80%, you’re trying to cut your own path through the wilderness. For most of us, there ain’t no roads and definitely no shortcuts. So sharpen your machete and wear a good set of hiking boots, and be ready for the long haul. With a clear head and determination, we can still make it. Go in to this thinking it’s a picnic and the bears will be the only ones chowing down.