Skip to Content

The long tail has just got shorter

13 August 2012

 It's alarming to read in Publishers' Weekly that unit sales of print fiction backlist titles in the US fell 30% in the period ended 22 July compared to the same period last year, whilst non-fiction was 13% down. American publishers have suffered badly from the demise of Borders and this hasn't been offset by a switch to online backlist sales, as you might have expected.

David Shanks of Penguin said: 'With literally millions of titles available online, the chances that someone will find your book are decreased immeasur­ably. There is just too much to choose from. How many screens do you browse before you get tired and just pick something that you have seen.'

It appears that ebook sales, as well as taking a large slice of frontlist sales, are also taking a large number of backlist sales as well.

According to Bowker, in the fourth quarter of 2011 (after Borders closed) ebooks accounted for 35% of unit sales in the literary classic segment, long a backlist mainstay. In fact though classics would always be affected disproportionately because so many retailers have been giving them away for free as a loss leader.

The situation is also influenced by the way people consume books on ereaders and the instant gratification which is now available. If you discover a new author you like, you can immediately download their backlist titles and keep reading. The decline of bricks and mortar bookstores is also affecting this, as that is where much of the backlist has been sold in the past.

For Shanks the growth in online sales and now the rapid increase in ebook sales means that the promise of the long tail for print books has been permanently reduced: 'There is a long tail, but it is so long the units are small.'

One could also add that the proliferation of self-published books, leading to a major increase in titles available, will have had some impact on this too.