April 27, 2017

Serving the Niche

Viewing libraries through Chris Anderson’s ‘Long Tail’ lens

The increasingly famous ‘Long Tail’ is essentially a modernized version of the 80/20 rule, something with which most of us have at least a passing familiarity. The rule (credited to Vilfredo Pareto, a 19th-century philosopher) hypothesized, for example, that 80 percent of the property in Italy was owned by 20 percent of its citizens. That rule is now turned on its head, Chris Anderson observed in his groundbreaking article ‘The Long Tail’ in Wired magazine (10/05). For instance, he notes that only 20 percent of the films made this year will be released onto the mass market, and only 20 percent of those will become hits. When you and I go grocery shopping in the brick-and-mortar stores in our towns, only 20 percent of the products actually on the market will be on the shelves for us to purchase. The rest will be seen, read, and/or purchased through alternate online or niche avenues.

Since he published his article, Anderson has presented on the Long Tail at an OCLC symposium at the American Library Association’s 2005 annual conference; he’s been interviewed by Marylaine Block for Ex Libris; and, most recently, he has participated at a public forum held at the New York Public Library. It’s clear that the Long Tail has captured the attention of the library world.

Noticing the niches

Anderson uses the Long Tail to describe the economic models of online businesses such as Amazon.com, NetFlix, and Rhapsody, which thrive on selling fewer of a larger variety of objects to more people than brick-and-mortar stores can. Librarians have taken note of Anderson’s work because libraries were, in fact, among the first entities to ever serve niche markets.

When we visit virtual stores like Amazon.com, NetFlix, or Rhapsody, much more than 20 percent of the market is represented. Because online outlets do not have to grapple with the same issues that brick-and-mortar stores do (like limited shelf space, expensive overhead, and shipping for those offering downloadable products), they can afford to offer more selection than the current best-selling brands.

The same can be said for libraries. In ‘The Long Tail,’ Anderson is mainly concerned with the profitmaking possibilities that exist in niche markets. Although libraries don’t strive for profit, they wouldn’t have survived all this time if all they had offered were the Danielle Steels and John Grishams of the publishing landscape. Through their own deep, historical collections and far-reaching services like interlibrary loan and email document delivery, libraries can offer their customers access to an extensive number and variety of materials.

Libraries on the tail

Before the Internet, the consumer market was governed by the 80/20 rule. This meant that the availability of niche market items for the average consumer was limited at best. People had to visit specialty stores, travel outside their hometown, or use mail order to acquire anything other than the items sold in nearby retail outlets. For ‘niche reading,’ as well as for audiovisual, historical, scholarly, or other unique material, a person tapped the vast resources of the library.

It’s clear that libraries have never followed the 80/20 rule, nor been governed by any other economic model that resembles one like that of a retail market. In their collecting habits, libraries were more like Amazon.com before Amazon.com and the other online retailers ever existed. Libraries seek and consistently offer their customers far more than the 20 percent that is represented by best sellers.

Libraries stock more than best sellers in part because librarians know that the demand curve for hits is very short. Consumer appetites are sustained by niche items. While multiple copies of best sellers account for a chunk of library spending, in the long term most of those copies will be discarded as demand wanes.

Another, crucial point of the long tail model: best sellers actually drive demand toward special interests. For example, librarians use ‘read-alike’ lists (or databases) for those kids who come in expecting to find the latest Harry Potter on the shelf. When it isn’t available, we offer the reader an alternative, something ‘like’ Harry Potter.

When librarians make offers like this, we accomplish at least four things: we put a library item – in this case a book – into the hands of a patron; we steer a best sellers reader to a ‘niche’ item (using the ‘discovery’ factor that can only take place in a library); we begin to cultivate in that individual an awareness of the vastness and value of the library’s collections; and, perhaps most important, we satisfy that library customer at that particular moment.

The filter revelation

Today’s online retailers are able to do electronically what librarians have traditionally accomplished manually using readers’ advisory sources like What Do I Read Next? and Genreflecting (both now available electronically), although on a much larger scale. These businesses point users to alternative materials via slick technology described by Anderson as ‘filter’ technology: ‘Filters are people or software that help you find what you want in the long tail, driving demand from hits to niches.’ Filters on Amazon.com made it possible to drive me, during a recent visit to its site, from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to The Chronicles of Narnia to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time to Norton Juster’s Phantom Tollbooth in just four mouse clicks.

Obviously, filters are meaningful for online business because they drive sales. For libraries, the effect is similar. When circulation statistics are viewed in terms of sales instead of simply the number of ‘circs’ the library has produced, the long tail distribution may appear. Where once I may have checked out just Harry Potter, I may also take home any of the other three titles mentioned above, about which I may not have had any previous knowledge. And as libraries get better at using readalike software like that of Amazon, etc., the potential for patrons will get even better. (To see more on new software for libraries see LJ netConnect, Summer 2006.)

Amazingly, Amazon.com’s total sales for niche items – traditionally thought of as the least popular – collectively make up a higher percentage of its overall sales. In other words, niche sales are sustaining Amazon, although best sellers sales are thought to account for a more significant portion of consumer interest.

And thanks to filter technology – despite its intrinsic privacy issues – it is now possible to measure meaningfully consumer demand for niche items. In turn, these measurements have revealed, as Anderson says, the true market demand. They have exposed a consumer sophistication that many librarians have always known existed and have tried to satisfy.


Katherine Mossman is Information Services Librarian, Washoe County Library System, Reno, NV. This article is the result of a presentation given by the author at the New York Library Association’s 2005 Annual Conference in Buffalo

Eight Lessons from the Long Tail

  1. Be responsive to your consumers, the library’s patrons. Libraries are operating in a highly competitive information marketplace, and it behooves us to begin thinking competitively. We can begin with the acknowledgement that libraries are just one option for our patrons in the information marketplace – and they expect proactive, innovative service.
  2. Locate, define, and reach underserved (read: untapped) communities (read: markets) Libraries have traditionally reached underserved or underused markets by developing innovative programming in public libraries; bringing library services to any classroom or information commons; and, in academic libraries, stepping up efforts to reach out to university or college faculty members. We’ve also tapped an underworked market by implementing the now widespread use of digital reference services, or so-called ‘virtual’ reference services. We need to do more of this type of creative outreach.
  3. Find ways to solve all problems relating to access The available tools dictate or directly affect access to information. The ‘available tools’ in the library’s tool kit are our online library catalogs; the location of our search boxes on our web sites; or, simply, the search technology itself. Librarians should continually strive to respond to patron behavior patterns and expectations formed by exposure to new technologies outside libraries and to improve our services accordingly.
  4. Librarians are not ‘information brokers,’ but we can be information ‘filters’ Anyone who has used eBay or Craigslist knows that a broker’s days in the marketplace are numbered. Librarians have been aware of the need to keep library services viable and cost effective, arguing that this could be achieved by marketing ourselves as information brokers. More accurately, what librarians do is add the ‘personal touch’ to the cold world that is information retrieval by bringing an expert’s guidance to an information marketplace that is filled with junk.
  5. ‘You can compete with free’ Anderson’s simple statement may shed light upon the reasons why libraries are not the first choice for information seekers, according to OCLC’s Perception of Libraries and Information Sources, 2005. The monetary cost of libraries is largely invisible to the average library user, but what type of capital do they have to spend in order to get what they want from us? The popularity of Rhapsody and iTunes has proved that it is possible to compete with free (albeit illegal) online music vendors. Similarly, Google has usurped much of the ready-reference business that used to come to libraries. Libraries were once thought to be immune from marketplace competition, but this is no longer the case, despite these alternatives not offering the free resources that we do.
  6. Embrace the paradox that the Internet (Google, Wikipedia, etc.) is both our competitor and not our competitor Librarians have an ambivalent relationship with these companies and that relationship on some level produces a paradoxical approach to our work. If we can truly define where we fit with this technology, we’ll be better positioned to improve our services, our products, and therefore our market position.
  7. Capitalize on all types of service points, ‘real’ and virtual, to the patron-consumer’s greatest end For example, implementing folksonomies (semantic language search technology) might be a legitimate way to access good information (rather than sticking with our current taxonomies that are based on a reliance on 19th-century subject headings and entry points). Librarians shouldn’t kid themselves that people are sitting around their keyboards, unable to find what they need, just wishing that a librarian was there to help them. People are actually thinking, ‘I wish everything worked like iTunes and NetFlix.’
  8. Using Google for research is like ‘working for less than minimum wage’ Apple’s Steve Jobs has compared the process of searching for and downloading free, pirated music files to ‘working for less than minimum wage’ – just as Anderson describes it as an ‘it’s not worth it’ moment. Jobs meant that the time spent searching for and downloading illegal music files – whose quality is more often dubious than not – ends up costing the user more than 99¢. For 99¢, the individual gets a quickly downloadable, guaranteed, high-quality music file. Libraries are often perceived as inconvenient, if they are considered options at all. Libraries will regain market position when we deliver more than Google can, for less than the Google equivalent of 99¢ – when we are ‘worth it.’
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