BROOKE GLADSTONE: These are nervous times for the book biz. Bowker, a bibliographic information agency, released a report this month that shows that the industry is printing fewer books for the first time since 1999. Bowker's CEO, Gary Aiello, says he sees that trend continuing. Quote: "The price of paper has already gone up twice this year, and publishers, especially the small ones, will have to think very carefully about what to publish." Or do they? Maybe the question isn't what to publish but how to publish. A 50-year study of the book industry, produced by a self-publishing house called Lulu, suggests that there's a whole new way to build a bestseller. Clive Thompson writes about science and technology for Wired and The New York Times Magazine, and blogs at collisiondetection.net. He's here to talk about the book biz and the Lulu study. Clive, welcome back to the show.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Good to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So can you describe the study that prompted this look at publishing trends?
CLIVE THOMPSON: It was a really interesting study, because it was done by lulu.com, which is a publish-on-demand website. You send in your book and they'll publish it when they get requests for it. And they decided to look at the fate of the bestseller over the last three or four decades, and what they found was very interesting. They saw that back in the '60s, there were very few bestsellers, but they were on the charts for three or four months at a time, and they were big, dominant books. And you fast-forward to the '90s and to the 2000s, and it was reversed. There are a lot of books that make it to the bestseller charts but they're only there for a very short time, a few weeks. The inference was that the sort of age of the big, huge bestseller that dominates the national attention span for, you know, an entire season or an entire year is passing into history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I understand the study said it shrank from a high of 21.7 weeks in the '60s to just 3 weeks in the third millennium.
CLIVE THOMPSON: That's right. Exactly. That's the new attention span of the nation -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
CLIVE THOMPSON: - as it were.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That means more books get to be number one, albeit for a much shorter time. Has the kind of books that reach the top of the bestseller lists changed, too?
CLIVE THOMPSON: That's a good question, because if you talk to publishers and if you look at the books that Lulu found that were there, they're more niche-focused, I mean, because basically what's happening is that they're going after something that is either a short-term trend or it's a niche audience where you've got, you know, 50, 60 thousand, 200 thousand people who really, really want to read about this and no one else. So they rush out and buy the book, and for two or three weeks, you get huge sales, and then it's gone. Everyone who wants a copy of the book has got one, and it doesn't spread to the rest of society. If you think about what the mediasphere looked like back in the '60s, I mean, you have three TV networks, you have a very small number of publishers, a very small number of newspapers. You have no Internet. You have no cable. So of course it's easier for something to come along and dominate the national attention span because it's so hard even to get into the public attention span at all. So even if the books today are just as big and just as interesting and rich as they were in the '60s, it's just harder to dominate in a cacophony like today's mediasphere.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's actually harder for the publisher to dominate.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, as you've argued and as others have argued, it's a lot easier for the people to make those choices. It's very democratic.
CLIVE THOMPSON: That's true. I mean, what you see, if you look at the way things become popular now, it's very influenced by the Internet. And on the Internet, word of mouth rules - I mean, ranging from someone just e-mailing something to someone else, saying, look at this, to a blogger linking to something else and saying, check this out, and then his or her audience goes there and they link to it, and on and on again, to the fact that once someone's got a whole bunch of links, Google picks up on it and starts returning it as a top result. And then you'll have Amazon, once a book becomes popular, will start saying, well you know, people have been buying this book, and so it gets a cascade of popularity. And that's very interesting. That's very new.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On your blog, you cite Clay Shirky, the New York University Internet theorist, who has written about how the Internet has inspired what he calls "the big flip." So what's the big flip?
CLIVE THOMPSON: Well, the big flip is that in the old days, and we'll call that [CHUCKLES] the '60s, the way that media worked was that you filtered, then you published, which is to say if you were a publisher, you sat there and you got your 30,000 manuscripts sent to you, and you read over them and you picked the best 10 and you published them. And on the Internet, it's exactly the reverse. Anyone throws out their idea on their blog or records their music and puts it online or writes their manifesto and puts it up there, and then the public filters it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you translate this into marketing, and you come upon this other term, that's been around for a couple of years, called "the long tail." And it has to do with assembling, say, a million audiences of one, rather than one audience of a million. Right?
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, exactly. It's an idea that came out from Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired, and he was very interested in the shape of popularity. Because, again, in the old days, in - the '60s, to be popular, something had to physically get out to its audience. And so you either made it out to the audience or you died. You know, there's 100 movies produced every year. There's ten theaters. The 10 that make it into the theaters are seen by the audience. The other 90 vanished, never seen by anyone, you know? The same thing with books. Either they make it into the bookstores or they vanish. In an age of digital media and online infinite warehouse bookstores like Amazon, which can keep anything on its infinite bookshelves forever, the stuff never needs to vanish, and that means that it can build an audience gradually and slowly or find a very profitable niche. And Chris calls that "the long tail," which is that if you were to chart that out, there's a very small number that are really popular. As things get less popular, it's a steep drop to where things are, you know, really not that popular, and then it goes off into the distance. There's just an infinite number of things that are not that popular. In the old days, we would have looked at that long tail and said, there's no money there, we need the hits. That's where the money is, in the hits. And Chris is saying, no -- in the modern world, there's actually money in that tail. You can put a book out and slowly, over years or even decades, get an audience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So can you give me a concrete example of how the long tail works?
CLIVE THOMPSON: Well, one example that Chris Anderson found was the book Touching the Void, which is about a couple of hikers that went up the Andes and had a catastrophic accident. And this came out in the '90s, and it didn't do all that well. A few years later, a book called Into Thin Air came out, and that was about another catastrophic climb, this time of Everest, and it was a bestseller. It went right up the charts and it stayed there for a while, and then it came down again. But what started happening was that when people went to Amazon and they looked for Into Thin Air, it would say, oh, you know, people who liked this book also liked this other book, Touching the Void, and so they started buying that. And it turned out that it got a little galloping popularity, such that several years later, Touching the Void had sold -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
CLIVE THOMPSON: - many more copies than Into Thin Air. It was actually a bigger seller.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you were an editor, say, at Knopf or Simon and Schuster, how do you use the long tail to make money when you need quick hits to keep the money flowing?
CLIVE THOMPSON: One idea might be rather than, you know, parsimoniously figuring out a couple of books and sending them out, you get the rights to a whole large number of books, and they're all publish-on-demand. You don't have to have a warehouse full of books sitting there that you've taken a bet on, hoping they move. To a certain extent, maybe it might be more interesting for an author to more easily get their book, quote, unquote, "signed on for" by a major publishing firm, and then say, okay, well, I'm going to basically create my audience online, you know, and I'm going to do a better job of that than the publishers do, and I'm going to sell more copies of it. I'm making this up. I don't actually know what the answer is. But I do know that the nature of popularity is changing in a way that is immutable. It's not going to go back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much, Clive.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Take care.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clive Thompson writes about science and technology for Wired and The New York Times Magazine and blogs at collisiondetection.net.