Life on the Long Tail

As an Indie writer a lot of what I do falls under the radar. Call it the blessing (or curse) of the long tail. clip_image002

The long tail is an old concept now. It essentially was supposed to mean the end of “hits” in music, movies and books. The idea, as put forward by Chris Anderson in Wired, was that e-retailers could turn juicy profits by selling “small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers.”

People are going deep into the catalog, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what’s available at Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, and Barnes & Noble. And the more they find, the more they like. As they wander further from the beaten path, they discover their taste is not as mainstream as they thought (or as they had been led to believe by marketing, a lack of alternatives, and a hit-driven culture).

That article sounds dated now, just nine years later. Blockbuster? Tower Records? Barnes & Noble? Oh wait, that last one is still around. It turns out hits are still alive too, but it also looks like low-volume, deep catalog media is here to stay. In fact, the recent surge in e-book publishing has opened opportunities for “long tail” e-books by your coworker, your aunt, your old school buddies. It’s a space where Indie writers like me can thrive.

For anyone doubting my, ahem, long tail cred (what a euphemism!), here are my sales stats for June:

  • 161 giveaways.
  • 13 sales

I’m VERY long tail. In a way, I could view this as a curse and a few weeks ago, I did. But now, I’m feeling better and my perspective has changed.

You see, the key with life on the long tail is lack of exposure. But this is both good and bad. When you succeed it is bad: I feel like “The Library of Lost Books” is a solid work, despite some flaws. It could have benefited from more exposure, a bigger marketing budget.

But the long tail can be kind when you fail. Your failure goes hardly noticed. Case in point: my release last month of “The Man Who Ran from God.” Even by my modest standards, it seems to have been coolly received: less than 100 giveaways, a few paltry sales. This left me discouraged. Wasn’t my second (long) published work supposed to get MORE attention, more downloads, more sales? Hadn’t things gone the opposite way?

Of course, I’ve discussed the reasons why it might not have done as well: wrong genre, new genre, a religious reference in the title. But none of that really helped. In my mind, it was a failure.

So what did I do?

Same thing as always: return to Epictetus. What is in my control? What did I have power over? I dipped back into the Discourses and read through a few. I started to reanalyze and found I had done fine. I had done what I could: wrote a solid manuscript, saw that it was well edited, paid for a good cover design. The rest was out of my control. I went to sleep that night after reading Epictetus feeling much better.

The next day I got up and went to work. Checked my stats on Kindle. Over the night, I had sold two more copies of the new novella in the UK. It’s not a lot, but it made me feel much better. I had done my best and a few people had decided it was worth their hard earned money to buy a book from an author they probably had never heard of. It might sound like nothing to most of you, but to a writer on the long tail, those two British readers really made my day.

It turns out that the holy grail, getting published, might not be all that great either. Or that, at least it will be more of the same. Only it won’t be on the long tail anymore, it will be in full sight of everyone. Successes along with defeats, will be broadcast far and wide. As Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton at Writer Unboxed put it, the only remedy will be to separate author from work, to discern what is truly you and what is not.

The warning is this: If at all possible, as soon as those final edits are in, divorce yourself from your book. You are not your book… You have made art or perhaps entertainment — or a mix of the two — but it is now turning into a commodity. It will take up shelf-space. It will sell wildly or it will sell poorly or, likely, somewhere in between.

That post ends with a final warning to all writers:

Publishing, marketing, being a commodity salesman — all of these things that just became part of your job interfere and sometimes interfere deeply with the creative process. And if you equate yourself worth with your sales figures, you are screwed — even if those sales are good.

Somewhere up there in philosopher heaven, in Dante’s Ante-hell, Epictetus is smiling.

Until next time,


In a continuing series, I’m mentioning each time viewers from a new country visit the blog. This week there are two countries to add to the list:

– Greece.

– Nepal.


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