We Are All Long Tail Marketers Now

by James Scott Bell

The traditional book publishing industry, God bless it, is hacking and wheezing its way toward the uncertain future. At the moment, the digital transition has given the industry a revenue infusion. Where a hardcover sale has been replaced by an e-book sale, the publisher makes more per unit (under the current industry-wide royalty structure. See also the discussion led by Porter Anderson here). Challenges remain, of course, as authors and their agents press for a larger slice of the electronic pie, and more and more authors head straight for the self-publishing forest. 
But for all who are in the book biz (be they traditional, indie or hybrid) now is the time to understand that we are entering the age, permanently, of the “long tail.”
What is long tail marketing? Very simply, it holds that the profitability of a business (usually small business) is directly proportional to the number of products it has for sale over time. The more products—factoring in quality, of course—the longer the tail. Instead of looking for the next, big thing, a business may sell “less of more.” The term Long tail marketing was popularized in a 2004 article in Wired magazine, and looks like this:

Old school thinking focuses on the red zone of the diagram. The frontlist. The blockbuster. The big roll out. Backlist is largely left alone.
Self-publishing writers, the ones who are making some good money at it, go at it the other way. Volume is the key. That’s what wags the long tail.
Traditional publishing is beginning to recognize this, and thus is asking its A list writers to produce more, faster, and even to supplement front list with shorter works.
In other words, we are all long tail marketers now.
Many self-publishing writers miss something, however. I hear and read laments from writers just starting to self-publish and who haven’t seen substantial sales. They think that means failure, or that the game is really about “luck,” or that there’s no way through the “discoverability” barrier. But that’s old school thinking. The long tail is not about a title or two spiking its way up the Kindle list a month after release. That’s nice when it happens, but the real meat is quality product added over the course of time.
As I put it in my book on self-publishing, the final “law” of success is to repeat the production-publication cycle over and over for the rest of your life. Why not? If you’re a writer, this is what you do until you can’t do it anymore, right?
Yes, you need quality control. That’s a law, too. But here’s another aspect of the long tail: single title “duds” are not fatal to a career. All writers in the traditional world know that they are only a dud or two away from being unemployed. Innumerable are the tales of authors getting nice advances, having the books disappoint the sales department, getting dropped by their publisher and not being able to find another (or having to go to with small, niche publisher) because of lousy numbers.
Self-publishing’s tail is the reverse of that scenario. If a book or two is a “dud” it doesn’t mean that you can’t produce a better book next time. It doesn’t mean “career over.” It is just another opportunity to get stronger. 
Further, you can try out new niches for a spot on the long tail. In old school thinking, you are tied to a single brand. In the new school, you can play. You can create works of any length. You can start a series based on a lark and let the readers decide if it continues. And know this: even something that doesn’t sell all that well can still make you Starbucks money. No harm, no foul!
Some other things the long tail means:
You don’t need to win awards.
You don’t need the approval of critics.

You don’t need co-op or front of brick-and-mortar store placement.

You don’t need blurbs from star authors.
You don’t need to be #1 on any list.
You don’t need a movie deal.
What you need is optimism, a work ethic and consistency. Then you will grow an audience that is fitted for you. You might even make a living at this eventually. But even if it’s only a supplemental stream of income, that’s a nice thing to have feeding your bank account every month.

If you are a traditionally published author, you need to at least set up a footprint in self-publishing. Talk to your agent and editor about this. Think in terms of non-competitive and complementary short-form work. That is platform building of the best kind. 
That’s why all authors need to think long term, long tail. And keep writing. 

[I’m teaching all day today, but I’d love to hear your comments. Have at it!]

33 thoughts on “We Are All Long Tail Marketers Now

  1. “Think in terms of non-competitive and complementary short-form work.”

    Could you go into this one just a little more. I’m assuming by that you mean short forms of fiction that are related in genre to what you’re already doing? Or do I misunderstand?

  2. Two things, BK. Doing a short story or novella in your genre is complementary. It supports the longer works by enticing new readers and showing your stuff.

    But you can also consider other genres, which by definition are non-competetive.

    • I wonder if a publisher would see it as non-competitive for an author to write a short fiction piece or novella related to the novels the publisher bought if the author is making money on those shorter works? I wouldn’t think it would be an issue and would possibly entice new readers as you mentioned, Jim. But I’m thinking there may be some conflict there simply because the publisher owns the rights to the books does that mean those characters are completely off limits to the author? The more I think about this the more confused I get. Have fun teaching today.

  3. There’s also the factor that if you’re self publishing, you can keep all your titles available forever instead of having them yanked from shelves after a few weeks. So readers who discover you with book #11 can go back and read all your other stuff too.

  4. Very timely topic, Jim. I’ve read a lot about this recently on my writers loops. I’ve got my first novel length indie book coming out soon. Hope to talk about it on TKZ. But instead of sweating over when is the best time to issue it, I’m simply going to release it when I’m ready and not worry over the date, the week, or who is releasing when I do. I’m in it for the long haul and hope to grow my “virtual shelf” offerings.

    Ebook promo is my learning curve. That will take time for me to develop a plan and tweak as I go, but I’m already on to a novella offering, something I’ll do in a pen name/brand that I can develop for this experiment of mine that I had to write. I like having my creative freedom back.

    I’ve also got my agent working two series proposals for me–one in YA, the other is a crime fiction thriller. These are projects that I’ve discussed with my agent and created very detailed synopsis and lengthy writing samples for, giving her two distinct genres to peddle.

    A big change for me is not taking as much time to develop a proposal for every single book idea I have. Those take time from my writing. Instead I write the whole book or novella so I have options to sell through my agent or go indie with it. My agent gets a look at everything I do before I make the decision to self-pub. I’m also giving her a look at material for more than just my Jordan Dane brand. If she thinks she can sell it, I set aside a certain agreed upon time for her to do it. I like having options.

    But having a long term attitude on writing, offerings, and promo are very important to me now. Thanks for the great post, Jim.

    • Thank you for your input. I’ve always thought I would do this, a combination of self publishing and traditional publishing. Some of my ideas are very mainstream and some are not even close, so I’ve always thought I’d write the book and then if it didn’t sell to the traditional publishers I’d self publish it.

      Keep us updated on how this approach goes, and of course, anything you’ve got coming out. 😀

    • It’s great to have options, Elizabeth. Sounds like you have great ideas to pursue. I feel as if I’ve reclaimed my creativity. Not having to fret over what I should develop, for a third party to invest in, has opened my mind to new and fun things to write.

      The business end has always been a drain for me. Self-pubbing involves more than promo (it’s production too) and it is ongoing, but I’m in control and can make pricing decisions or capitalize on promo ops when I want to. Better cash flow potential too. Being a hybrid author, straddling traditional and indie publishing, gives me more options and many “irons in the fire.”

      I will definitely follow up on TKZ. Jim and other author friends of mine have been an inspiration to me. It’s good to share our experiences.

    • Jordan, I echo what Elizabeth said, and look forward to reading your posts as you travel the ebook promo “learning curve.” I would also love to read what process you use for editing, i.e. will the editing process be different for your self published ebooks. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Steve–Editing is the greatest cost of production. It can run up to $1800 for a full novel. My agent and editors have told me before that I only need copy edits. I am finishing that process now. I do my own stringent rolling edits process as I write, so when I’m done writing, the book is very clean. The bus promo side will be tougher. I’ll have more soon. In the mean time, I have links to promo sites on my Jordan Dane Fringe Dweller blog. I’ll have a link to that too.

    • Jordan –
      If your agent looks at it and gives input but you then self-pub how do things work? Agent gets a cut or no?
      Sorry if an ignorant question. I have not experience with traditional or self-pub. Currently deciding which route to go.
      Thanks and good luck with all your endeavors!

    • My agent doesn’t give input editorially on projects like some agents do. We talk about whether she can sell it and to whom, among other career things.

      As for her cut, if I self-pub a project there is no cut since she never sold it. She has the ability to sell subrights to any of my books, ie foreign, audio, etc. But on the proposals I work up for her, she works those without me pulling the plug and going indie. These proposals are in depth and commercial, projects she really likes. Right now she has two, one in YA and one I just sent her that is a crime fiction psychological thriller.

      This indie thing is all really new to both of us, so we are feeling our way through it. If I would cut her into my indie sales, I’d have to develop an accounting method to make sure my production cost, returns, ad promotions, etc would be deducted off the top before any split. Plus some online retailers pay quarterly, which complicates things. And if sales are slow, especially at first, I can’t see sending a small check every month or quarter. Splits with my agent work better for me if they are through a publisher, but with indie, I’m the publisher.

      Then there is the value of that split. If my agent didn’t sell the project and doesn’t sell any subrights, why would I pay for that? With publishers, they have depts who try to sell subrights through their catalog and third party agents. My agent would have to do something similar in order for me to feel comfortable that she’s working my book list for my indie projects too. Right now, that’s not happening. Today’s publishing world is more a la carte when it comes to subrights, or it should be. Everything has value. If an advance is low and not worth tying up copyright, then limit the subrights availability or define the digital limit to 2-3 yrs only or cut back on world rights by retaining digital rights in the U.S. for example.

      Big topic, so have to be brief. I can see a post in this in my future.

  5. This makes so much sense I kind of fell into it unintentionally. When self-publishing, the only chance to get any traction is to hope people will discover your books over time, which e-books are perfect for.

    The long tail principle is where I can also provide best value for when promoting the work of others. My schedule and reading habits don’t allow me to stay on top of too many new releases. I read them when I get to them, and review the same way. The book will still be available a year after release, and another plug might help someone who had been on the fence, or was on the brink of letting the book slip through the cracks.

  6. This is so true. Thank you for putting it into words, Jim. Having just released my first full length indie book (short story collection and nonfiction ebook only books before this) I need all the information I can get on this journey. I can always depend on your posts for that.

    The more I read about self-publishing, the more I hear that the big key is having multiple titles available… and the big benefits are that readers get to decide what succeeds and what doesn’t (versus editors or booksellers) and this point in today’s post.


  7. I like this angle on self-publishing. Informative, as always, Mr. Bell!

    I’ve practically memorized all your books on the writing craft, including Self-Publishing Attack, I’ve been to your fiction-writing seminar (highly recommended), and have had the honor to discuss self-publishing with you over coffee.

    The burning question for me right now is: for authors just getting started, is there still a reason to invest time and energy in pursuing traditional publishing?

    When I do the math, it seems one could possibly complete and publish a novella (and perhaps a full-length work) in the time it might take to get accepted by a traditional publisher. Once accepted, publication is at least a year away, and share of royalties small relative to self-publishing. And, based on what I’ve heard/read, we authors still bear the greater share of the burden for promotion and marketing.

    I would guess there still are benefits to the traditional route, but do they carry enough weight these days to convince a newbie to go that route?

    I would love the perspective from those of you with wisdom and experience — or even an opinion — on this topic.

    • Diane, I have long been the resident curmudgeon in this space when it comes to self-publishing. I’m not against it in principle–in fact I think it’s an outstanding option for previously published authors whose series have been dropped by their publishers–I just think it’s the much tougher road.

      Here’s why: In a traditional publishing contract, the publisher pays you up-front for the publishing rights. What that number may be depends on too many factors to count, but let’s say you’re offered a modest $15,000 advance. With a “standard” contract (as if there is such a thing), you “earn out” that advance at a rate of 10% of the price of a print book, and 25% of the publisher’s net on an ebook. Since the self-publishing paradigm addresses mostly just the ebook side, we’ll stick with that. At an ebook price of $5.00, you’ll earn back the advance at a rate of $0.87 per book sold. ($5 x 70% x 25%) Thus for the first 17,143 ebooks sold, you won’t earn any more royalties. After that, however, the 87 cents per book goes directly into your pocket.

      By comparison, in the self-pub model, you’ll have to sell 4,286 copies at $5.00 to make the same $15,000, but that doesn’t count the money spent out of your pocket on all the production, marketing and promotional stuff. (No matter what you hear, after a writer has earned his stripes, publishers really do pay for marketing and promotion.)

      At the $15,000 price point, the decision is less challenging than if the advance in play is $50,000 or $100,000 (yes, they do happen, and they happen for first-timers).

      For me, it all comes down to whether a writer wants to focus primarily on the writing, or if they want to learn the business of publishing all on their own dime.

      Having just re-upped for another two books with my brick-and-mortar house, I don’t have to weigh the decision anymore, but as JSB wrote, like any other author, I’m only one or two flops away from no longer having a publishing home. That suits me, but clearly other mileage may differ.

      John Gilstrap

    • John — I’ve always appreciated it when you’ve chimed in on these discussions, because you do a very good job of representing the traditional (opposing?) view. The added perspective is very helpful to people like me.

      Thank you for taking the time to break down some numbers. Most of what I read in these discussions is very general. Your numbers were very helpful.

      Your point is well taken about the burden of self-publishing authors to learn the business — and run a business. I’ve spent the better part of the past two years doing just that. I don’t know all there is to know, but I’m reasonably educated on the process, and I have an LLC through which I operate my own freelance writing and editing business. So I’ve at least gotten my toe in the business of it already, and have developed some of the necessary habits.

      Thank you, John, for taking the time to give me more weight to add to the scale!

    • John, the one thing I question on your statement is the example of a $15,000 advance. I have been hearing that a newbie these days is lucky to be offered $5,000. This would make a significant difference on the benefits of traditional publishing. Can you please enlighten me? Thanks so much.

  8. On the one hand, self-pubbing and focusing on the long tail takes pressure off the necessity of signing with traditional print pubs and suffering deadlines, anxiety over print runs, and scrutiny of immediate sales figures (not to mention low ebook royalty rates). On the other hand, the “write more, write faster” urgings increase the pressure for self-pubs. Hybrid authors may have the best situation, with one foot in each yard. I’m thinking of going in that direction myself.

  9. The points on quality of book/writing is of great importance. Unfortunately, there are too many self-published books out there that are very low quality due to lack of editing,proofreading etc.

    There is always a market for quality and developing a solid offer of e-pub-books that deliver the goods, will ensure that readers come looking for you. Sean

  10. At a Novelists Inc conference many moons ago, I was introduced to the concept of long tail by none other than Chris Anderson himself. It made a huge impact upon me (along with the fact, as Chris happily showed us with his data, even minor selling novelists sell many more books than non-fiction authors :-).

    Thanks to that awesome long tail discussion, I was better able to understand the implications of the ebook that never disappears from the virtual shelf. I was also able to understand that publishers had chosen not to take advantage of those implications for minor novelists, and when Amazon changed the came, I could see the writing on the (virtual) wall. Minor novelists, like me, haven’t won awards. But we continue to receive fan letters begging us to continue the series that our publishers abandoned (or to help readers find out of print books…which used to be a rather heartbreaking mission for most of us).

    Being of almost purely Irish descent, however, I cannot entirely silence the doubtful whisper in the back of my mind: long tail, huh? Just how *long* is it that it won’t get caught under the door and cut off?

  11. Thank you for an excellent piece. I had no idea I was engaged in Long Tail marketing for the past ten years until I read your post. I’ve published 14 titles over the past ten years under a more general marketing principle I formulated from my entrepreneurial background. It’s really exciting to know this is one of the things I’ve gotten right from the beginning!

  12. Thanks for another excellent, informative post, Jim. I hope you’re enjoying the workshop you’re presenting this weekend – I know your participants are!

    I’ve published two books myself on Kindle and CreateSpace and am presenting a workshop in about 3 weeks on self-publishing. I’ll be passing on your ideas about the long tail and will also promote your book, Self-Publishing Attack, which I found to be an excellent resource.

    Jodie Renner, http://www.JodieRenner.com

  13. Thanks for the positive post Joel,
    I’m still getting over being a mid-list best selling author who has been in print but neglected by one of the ‘big six’ for the past 14 yrs.
    It has been a dispiriting experience – one where I was ‘branded’ as a niche genera author whose further works weren’t wanted.
    Fortunately I was smart and got back my digital rights before the publisher thought they were any use to them.
    So now I’ve published my ebooks and more. I aim to finish all the novels I have started but didn’t finish because I knew I couldn’t sell them – because now I can.
    Also these books I write will generate an income for my daughter and grand-daughter – that’s the true meaning of long tail…… it’s LONG.
    However I look at my publisher this way:- they are still interested in at least looking at my book proposals – and if they are keen to go ahead with publication of anything I will negotiate a contract which doesn’t give away all my rights and those of my kids to a corporation. Because of my locality print distribution is all my publisher does best in NZ and Australia. We agree on that.
    So print rights is what they get. I’ve already negotiated a deal like this with them last year so I encourage everyone to insist on limited time – print only contracts – it can be got now because we authors are choosers – not beggars anymore.
    I will do the digital publishing – so that will work as promo for the print books when they come out – and I let the publishing house take their time because I have my options covered nicely. I don’t have to fret about when the books come out or how long it takes – I will still critique their book covers if they are hopeless (as they sometimes are) but I can let them alone because all my books aren’t in one basket.
    So I’m a hybrid author and it’s working for me – I’m working on another genera novel which will be offered to my publisher and if they don’t want it:- it’s their loss and I’ll publish it myself.

  14. Thank you for this interesting post. Jordan makes a good point about the cost of editing. And John also about the self-publishing writer’s other out-of-pocket expenses.

  15. I found this article through a Facebook group of writers I belong to. As a new author, the traditional publishing world scared the heck out of me!

    E Book publishing, once the technicalities are mastered is a lot less threatening. I love the freedom to write short, long, fiction, non-fiction, series or one-offs! Yes, at present it is only Starbucks money, but your article has given me the encouragement to continue.
    As you say, if writing is your craft/job, then WRITE! It is fantasy to imagine one book, best seller or otherwise will set you up for life.
    Thank you for a very informative article, and a great new site for me to visit and learn from..bookmarked now!

  16. Excellent info, Jim, and very reminiscent of what academic publishers (my day gig) have prided ourselves on for some time: keeping books in print for the long haul and “farming” the backlist. I’m sharing this with my colleagues and taking note of it for myself!
    Thom Lemmons

  17. The long tail is the name of the game, and since I am so late to this post I will test the long tail of this blog post by singing an ancient song of my people:

    Oh Jim,
    Oh Jimmy Jim
    Oh Jim, Jimmy Jim Jim Jimmy
    You got it right
    Oh Jimmy Jim Jimmy Jim Jim

    On that note I sit back in comfy chair of writing and weave the extension to my long novelate tail of tales.

    auf wiedersehen

  18. Excellent post, JSB. Like many others here, I sort of fell into this same plan. In fact, I’ve gone entirely to ebooks because it’s the best way to keep the good times rolling. I have dozens of “what-ifs” I haven’t even touched, so I have migrated to the plan that allows me to continue a high rate of production, always with an eye on good storytelling, of course. Maybe it’s the blarney in me, but I can hardly wait to get the next tale out to entertain readers. Your plan is my plan and I recommend it for anyone who loves writing.
    One point, though. Long tails in probability theory are due to unlikely events (deviations from a normal distribution, speaking technically): I think it’s wrong to say you don’t need a wee bit of luck to strike it big in this business. If we need another motivation for our plan, it’s that we can’t win the lottery if we don’t play the game. And playing the game is so damn much fun!

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