Tuesday, May 16, 2006 at 11:58 AM
Tim O'Reilly, the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, reported yesterday that his company has conducted a study indicating that by giving people greater access to O'Reilly books online (through Safari and Google Book Search), more potential book buyers are discovering older, out-of-print books -- something he says constitutes "compelling support for Chris Anderson's 'long tail' theory."
What's the long tail theory? The idea in the context of book publishing is that online exposure has the potential to capture what might otherwise be lost book sales. As The Economist puts it:
A real-world shop can only stock so many titles on its shelves, so it generally holds those most likely to sell, at the head of the curve: even the largest bookstore carries only around 130,000 titles. But an online store, with no limits on its shelf space, can offer a far wider range and open up new markets further down the long tail...Mr. Anderson's point is that collective demand for obscure items is very large, is growing, and can be aggregated over the internet, so that selling obscure books, music CDs or movies could prove to be just as lucrative as selling hits.
The O'Reilly study is interesting from our perspective because it suggests that Google Book Search helps publishers by helping users discover a wider range of books. O'Reilly observes that "only about 4% of all titles ever published are still being commercially exploited." The universe of books that can bring value to our lives is much, much larger than that. Already, we've been hearing inspiring stories from authors and publishers who've connected with new audiences, as well as "thank yous" from readers who've found books they would otherwise never have known existed. We hope to hear more of these stories as we make more of the vast universe of books discoverable online.