Tripping on The Long Tail

In today's Wall Street Journal [subscription required], Lee Gomes challenges Chris Anderson's wildly popular "long tail" hypothesis. For example, he points out that Anderson provides no examples of companies in which revenues from less popular "long tail" merchandise" exceeds sales of hit products.

But Gomes does not stop there.

Mr. Anderson told me the lack of an example of misses outselling hits doesn't diminish his basic point, which he said is simply that the role of the tail "is big and getting bigger."

By Mr. Anderson's calculation, 25% of Amazon's sales are from its tail, as they involve books you can't find at a traditional retailer. But using another analysis of those numbers -- an analysis that Mr. Anderson argues isn't meaningful -- you can show that 2.7% of Amazon's titles produce a whopping 75% of its revenues. Not quite as impressive.

Another theme of the book is that "hits are starting to rule less." But when I looked online, I was surprised to see what seemed like the opposite. Ecast says 10% of its songs account for roughly 90% of its streams; monthly data from Rhapsody showed the top 10% songs getting 86% of streams.

Bloglines, the widely used blog-reading tool, lists 1.2 million blogs; real ones, not computer-generated "spam blogs." The top 10% of feeds grab 88% of all subscriptions. And 35% have no current subscribers at all -- there's clearly no 98 Percent Rule in the blogosphere.

At Apple's iTunes, one person who has seen the data -- which Apple doesn't disclose -- said sales "closely track Billboard. It's a hits business. The data tend to refute 'The Long Tail.'