The Long Tail [pdf]
Hit-driven economics is a creation of an age without enough room to carry everything for everybody. Not enough shelf space for all the CDs, DVDs, and games produced. Not enough screens to show all the available movies. Not enough channels to broadcast all the TV programs, not enough radio waves to play all the music created, and not enough hours in the day to squeeze everything out through either of those sets of slots.
This is the world of scarcity. Now, with online distribution and retail, we are entering a world of abundance. And the differences are profound.
[...] We’re stuck in a hit-driven mindset - we think that if something isn’t a hit, it won’t make money and so won’t return the cost of its production. We assume, in other words, that only hits deserve to exist. But Vann-Adibé, like executives at iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix, has discovered that the “misses” usually make money, too. And because there are so many more of them, that money can add up quickly to a huge new market.
With no shelf space to pay for and, in the case of purely digital services like iTunes, no manufacturing costs and hardly any distribution fees, a miss sold is just another sale, with the same margins as a hit. A hit and a miss are on equal economic footing, both just entries in a database called up on demand, both equally worthy of being carried. Suddenly, popularity no longer has a monopoly on profitability.
[...] Just compare online and offline businesses: The average Blockbuster carries fewer than 3,000 DVDs. Yet a fifth of Netflix rentals are outside its top 3,000 titles. Rhapsody streams more songs each month beyond its top 10,000 than it does its top 10,000. In each case, the market that lies outside the reach of the physical retailer is big and getting bigger.
When you think about it, most successful businesses on the Internet are about aggregating the Long Tail in one way or another.
Later: Slashdot’s The Long Tail
Much later: Scott Rosenberg’s Tail gunning