The Bard Press Essays
Week 2 – February 10, 2021
Whenever I get excited about book publishing, I inevitably end up ranting about power laws. Of course, this is made worse by the fact that few have ever heard of the power laws. So, heads around me start to nod like a class full of students on the day they indulge a teacher’s waxing on about their master’s thesis.
My deepest hope is—today, with this essay—to convince you that there is a phenomena that is as true as gravity and requires your understanding if you want to be successful in book publishing.
In July 2006, Chris Andersen, then editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, released a book called The Long Tail. He had pitched the concept to the public as the cover story for Wired two years prior. You have to remember 2004 is the early era of ecommerce when Amazon only sold books, Netflix mailed DVDs and Rhapsody, not Spotify, streamed music. Anderson brilliantly described how the Internet would bring infinite shelf space to the world of retail. Up to this point, shelf space really was the constraint. In this new world, the thousands of items that could be held in a physical store would be usurped by the millions of products that could be offered at online shopping malls.
Anderson was enthralled with how technology would allow a deep cut from your favorite alt-indie band to be streamed directly to you whenever you wanted to hear it. He highlighted data from online retailers that showed customers were delving deep into music catalogs and listening to forgotten tracks as fast as they were added to the streaming libraries. Removing the constraint of a one hour commercial radio playlist or three foot wide retail bookshelf made the entire catalog of products available instantaneously and forever.
Now, Andersen didn’t discover The Long Tail. Industries of all types have long pondered the potential of all the inventory sitting in their warehouses. Book publishers call this category of opportunity the backlist. The traditional industry definition of a backlist title is one that is connected to age—a book that is over one year old. Implied and largely true, books sell most of their copies early in their lifecycle and less units as time goes on. A “good” backlist title defies that trajectory and continues to sell despite waning attention. Andersen’s vision of The Long Tail gave publishers hope that backlist sales would permanently be lifted in the new world of The Long Tail.
In response to Anderson’s work came rebuttals. Anita Elberse, a professor at the Harvard Business School, questioned some of the rosy predictions about what unlocking the long tail would really do for publishing backlists. Elberse’s research confirmed that products that live in The Long Tail stay in The Long Tail and that Andersen’s most interesting Long Tail successes were isolated anecdotes. The companies that ultimately benefited from The Long Tail were the aggregators—the companies that built the portals to bring together the supply and the demand on their limitless shelves.
In April 2007, Nassim Nicholas Taleb released a book called The Black Swan. The concept became lodged in popular culture almost as quickly as The Long Tail. Taleb wrote that a Black Swan event carries three properties:
- “First, it carries upon its occurrence a disproportionately large impact.”
- “Second, its incidence has a small but incomputable probability based on information available prior to the incidence. “
- “Third, a vicious property of a Black Swan is its surprise effect: at a given time of observation there is no convincing element pointing to an increased likelihood of the event.”
In publishing terms, Black Swan books sell lots of copies, but with the huge number of books published each year, their probability of huge success is small. And Taleb says that Black Swans lack any indicator that explains to their oversized successes. Business books like StrengthsFinder 2.0, Five Dysfunctions of a Team, or most recently Atomic Habits lacked indicators. As someone who has lived and breathed business books for almost twenty years, I cannot provide satisfying origin stories that explain the millions of copies those books have sold. I can’t explain Brene Brown’s rise after her TEDx talk. Even The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, a book that I published and has sold over 600,000 copies, lacked early signs for the success it would go on to have. As is often said, if publishers knew how to reliably publish big books, we would only publish big books.
Two In The Same
It’s always been interesting to me that The Long Tail and The Black Swan were published within nine months of each other. What I don’t remember seeing mentioned in the wake of their publications was the critical connection between these two books. You see, these books are about the same thing. They each describe the opposite ends of the same naturally occurring phenomenon called Power Laws.
If there is one picture that I hope you remember from this entire essay series, it is the picture below:
This histogram describes the dynamic challenge of being successful in book publishing. On the left side of the image, you have thousands and thousands of titles that sell a relatively few number of copies. This is the realm of the Long Tail. On the right side, the number of titles is so few and infrequent that they barely register on the graph. This is the domain of Black Swans. Welcome to the crazy world of Power Laws.
The first thing to understand is that Power Laws are quite common. The 80/20 rule is a power law that predicts 80% of your results will come from working on 20% of your problems. The distribution of market value for Fortune 500 companies follows a Power Law distribution with a handful of big companies and lots of smaller ones. Power laws describe the size of cities by population, the magnitudes of earthquakes, and frequency of word use.
The next thing to understand is that you need different metrics comparison in the world of Power Laws. I am often asked what that average number of copies that a business books sales in its lifetime. An average is a good metric when the things you are measuring are roughly the same, like the height of humans or your daily commute to work. In a Power Law distribution, the range is so wide and values so different that averages don’t tell us anything. It is better to look at the range The Long Tail and The Black Swans and measure in orders of magnitude. Most categories in book publishing have sales that range four orders of magnitude—hundreds to millions of copies.
I think the reason I start losing people when I talk about Power Laws is that they have a hard time comprehending what authors have to do differently. Or worse, that there is nothing that can be done.
As we continue to go through these essays, you’ll certainly see a set of key decisions and actions you can take to improve your chances of being successful in a Power Law world.
P.S. Notice that interlinked networks and Power Laws go together.