The 80:1 Freakonomics Paradox

The Journal reports that there are a slew of Freakonomics-like books on the market. Some of them are actually pretty good, few are selling at all. My guess is that the original has outsold its competitors by about 80 to 1.

That’s not surprising if you talk to people. A good friend of mine who never ever reads books about business or economics just picked up a copy last week. She said, "I think it’s time I read this, right?" When a product becomes a hit, an entirely new class of people become interested in it, largely because it’s a hit.

Which leads to the paradox. The easiest products in the world to develop, option, license and get to market are copycat products. They are beyond reproach. They feel safe. In actuality, though, most markets aren’t big enough for two blockbusters. The first one dominates the little market, which allows it to break through and capture the attention of the big market. The bestseller creates the problem (I haven’t read that/tasted that/been there) and then solves that problem. The second (and third and fourth and fifth) are trying to sell a solution to people who no longer have the problem.

Sure, in the long run, a blockbuster can create an entirely new market that lasts for a long time (The Model T, for example, or Star Wars) but building your own blockbuster is generally a lot easier than copying someone else’s.