The short head, the long tail and buying expensive scaffolding

Hits are more valuable than ever, mostly because they're more rare than ever.

The Zipf Distribution, also described in Chris Anderson's Long Tail, helps us understand just how valuable hits can be.

A bestselling book/record/movie/consultant/tech startup might make a thousand times more profit than one that's only seventy or eighty rungs lower on the bestseller list.

Simple example: In 2010, Toy Story 3 took in more than $400,000,000 at the US box office, turning a profit of more than a quarter of a billion dollars, while just about every one of the thousand movies below #80 on the list lost money.

While this makes it clear that there's a huge reward to being seen as the one, the best in your field, the current sensation, it also gives us a chance to wonder about how important it is to invest in dressing up your work with the trappings of the inevitable winner. Not for nothing did Toy Story 3 sell more tickets in the first 48 hours than just about any other movie did over its entire run… that's the result of expectation, distribution and marketing, not just in being good.

Shawn Coyne shows us how some of this math works in book publishing. Having the biggest book of the year translated into enough profits for Random House to not only pay for bonuses for everyone, but to bank millions more. We can all agree (I hope) that 50 Shades isn't the best book published this decade, but it's certainly one of the biggest.

The question (sorry it took so long to get here) is this: how much should the author have invested in creating an environment where this was more likely to happen? Shawn argues that she gave up a fortune by selling the ebook rights cheap in order to get a big bookstore push. Which is true. But, and it's a huge but, did the imprimatur of a huge publishing house help her avoid the chasm of being merely popular? Did the bookstore distribution and hype and media attention provide the magic that made her book tip?

Every industry is filled with agents, marketers, promoters, retailers and associations that promise just that–the little bit of magic, the last bit of straw, the finger on the scale that will turn a good product into the biggest hit ever. That celebrity endorsement or joint marketing venture might just work… This scaffolding is expensive, but worth every penny when it works. 

Here's the error and the challenge:

The error is in thinking that once you figure out how to pay for the scaffolding, you're sure to cross the chasm to hitsville. This is easily disproven by glancing at just how many non-wins were published by Random House, represented by CAA or given shelf space at Walmart. There may be some causation, but there's also a lot of credit-grabbing correlation going on as well. (And yes, credit to publishers who take chances and pay money and support authors when they need it most…)

The challenge is in investing enough in the scaffolding of expectation and distribution that you don't damage your chances at the same time you keep overhead low enough to profit even when you don't make the top 100. Which, given the odds, is more likely than not.

Today, it's easier than ever to put your work into the world. Easier to have a blog, to share your technology, to sing your songs, to connect, with no middlemen. So, the question is: how much should you give away/pay for the scaffolding that promises to take you over the hump to the other side of the tail?

The magic of the long tail is that it's open to everyone. The danger in overinvesting in the hype machine and the turboboost of outbound marketing is that it may just distract you from what actually creates viral videos, hit books and freelancers in high demand: genuine excitement from a core group that won't rest until they tell their friends.

My take is that the benefit for winner-take-most markets is that anything you can do that realistically increases your chances of being the winner is a smart move–unless (double emphasis intended) the cost decreases your opportunity to do it again soon, or the compromises you're required to make undermine the very excitement you're trying to create.

No obvious answer, no map. Asking the question is the essential first step in finding a path.