How to Write a History Book, Part 2 — Special "Long Tail" Edition


A new article by Anita Elberse in the Harvard Business Review tackles the influential theory, advanced by Chris Anderson (the editor of Wired magazine), of the Long Tail. Said tail refers to the idea that these days, owing to the ease and cheapness of circulating obscure or niche-interest media (music and movies, primarily) on the Web, companies ought to rely less on a few big sellers to make their money. Consumers will be moved to purchase many products that mirror their tastes and interests rather than buy a few homogenized hits pushed by the big powerhouses.

Thus, the once-massive “market” is splintering into tiny shards, and if you, the producer of obscure music and movies, put out enough shards and if sufficient numbers of people are interested in those tiny shards, you can achieve significant profits — even if you never have a hit.

The Harvard Business Review, however, takes issue with Anderson, pointing out that in fact the so-called “blockbuster strategy” still holds. One terrifying statistic cited by Elberse notes that of the 3.9 million songs sold online in 2007 (most through Apple iTunes for 99 cents), 3.6 million of them were downloaded fewer than 100 times. A large number of these were purchased just once (presumably by either the artist or his mother).  The dominance of the blockbuster, she argues, is growing only stronger. 

I’m not going to go into too many details here (make sure to buy Anderson’s book — coming out soon in paperback — or visit his blog), but it would be interesting to apply these concepts specifically to the History-Bookwriting Field.

Publishers, who are very big on the blockbuster strategy as a rule, devote the vast majority of their marketing muscle and advertising dollars to a very small number of the tens, dozens, or scores of books they crank out each year. The others, mostly, sink without much trace. Now, some of the lucky few flop big-time while others more than earn out their large advances and publicity budgets. It’s very difficult to predict which books are going to hit and which miss. Indeed, sometimes a no-name, no-advance book unexpectedly takes off and turns into an immensely profitable phenomenon. This once happened to a book about some boy wizard who flies about on broomsticks, but I can’t remember his name. Beatrix Potter? Harry Lime? Something like that. 

Anyway, in the Harvard article, the author points out that “in 2006 just 20% of Grand Central’s [a publisher] titles accounted for roughly 80% of its sales and an even larger share of its profits.” The following year Grand Central published 61 hardcover titles, each of which turned in an average of just under $100,000 in profits. But two of those were “make” books (i.e., the titles pushed to the limits), one of which cost $7 million to market, produce, and acquire but achieved net sales of $12 million, making for a $5 million gross profit, or fifty times the average. 

Personally, I’d be very surprised to find any trade publisher, let alone an academic one, turning an average $100,000 profit on a history list, so I’m not sure this example truly applies to our particular field. Which begs the question, can historians make money from the Long Tail?

The answer is Yes, But Not Very Much, And With Conditions Attached. The Long Tail only comes in useful, as in profitable in terms of money, once you’ve already had a blockbuster, or at least seen relatively significant sales. At that point, the value of your back-properties jump as readers try to find anything else you’ve written. The key thing is to have those back-properties readily available, which is where the Web comes in. In the old days, a publisher would have to reprint, at no little expense, copies of your previous books and ship them to retailers. Nowadays, Amazon keeps large stocks of used and new copies of pretty much anything, so people can get a hold of whatever they want within a day or so. Your collected works no longer disappear forever, which is all to the good — though keep in mind that if readers are buying used books, you don’t see any royalties. Also, this scenario hinges on you having a backlist of previous books. The Web, nevertheless, offers other opportunities to hop aboard the Long Tail.

Most authors have at least several bits-and-pieces of articles scattered on their hard drives. Now, if you’re an A-Lister, you can eventually clean them up, collate them, add an introduction, and flog them off as “Collected Essays,” but for beginners and midlisters, these dessicated pieces remain skeletons that will never get fleshed out or finished.

Well, that used to be the case. It turns out you can resurrect the dead, for Amazon now runs a program called Shorts that allows historians to package their work and sell it. My contribution, so far, to Amazon Shorts was once a 5,000-word sample chapter for a proposed book on the fate of Benedict Arnold after he scarpered to the British side during the War of Independence. I never quite finished the chapter, and never followed up on the book, so Benedict_Arnold.doc lay forlorn for years in a folder buried deep in Alex/Documents/Book Ideas/War of Independence/Traitors/American/. 

About a year after Washington’s Spies came out I thought, hmm, well, maybe a few people would be interested in finding out about Benedict Arnold, so I rejigged the piece, added some new material, rewrote the beginning, and sent it off to the Shorts people. The only cost, to me, has been several hours of my time making sure the copy read OK. Remember, all the real work was done years before, so it’s long been discounted. Amazon hosts the article on its website and makes sure to link my books to it. The Short itself sells for 49 cents, of which I receive about 20 cents. It’s a pretty good deal, but let’s face it, I’m never going to get rich from it. 

On the other hand, if I had 250 of these Shorts up on Amazon, all of which were based on work I’d previously done and had abandoned, I think we’d be talking about a nice income stream here. Let’s say each Short was downloaded an average of five times a month (some, following the blockbuster strategy, would be much higher, some none at all), then that would net me $250. 

That’s better, as they say, than a kick in the head, but then again, how likely is it that I would have 250 potential Shorts lying around in the first place? I would have to start devoting days and weeks to writing new ones, which would suck up time from that spent writing actual books — which bring with them potentially significant advances. I think the problem with the Long Tail, therefore, is that in the history-writing field it’s difficult to make any kind of living from it unless you have either a gigantic built-in backlist or enjoy a blockbuster hit and readers download any and all Shorts you’ve written.

Should, then, historians stay away from the Long Tail and dismiss it as not being worth the candle? Yes, but only if you think of writing in terms of dollars (as most Long Tail analyses seem to do). Historians, however, often trade in a currency worth more than cash: reputation. A more business-y term would be “brand management.”

Much as one historian will regard another as “sound” and of good judgment if he’s read one particularly sensible scholarly article on JSTOR, readers tend to recognize beloved writers’ names and stay loyal to them — even if their new tome is on a subject initially not of much interest to them. Take David McCullough, one of the finest narrative historians around. Now, that guy knows how to write a book (as did Barbara Tuchman). Specialists may disagree with their approaches and conclusions — Tuchman’s Guns of August, let alone her history of the fourteenth century, A Distant Mirror, are way, way out of date — but McCullough could publish a volume consisting entirely of his macaroni pictures and stick figures and it would still go straight to Number One. With a bullet. So long as it had his name on it in BIG LETTERS. (I mean the book, not the bullet.) 

Historians can run a monetary loss on the Long Tail while reaping greater, intangible benefits by getting their names out in the wide world, creating interest in their work, and stimulating sales of their books by letting readers first sample their work in cheap, or even free, snippets. So, when you’re writing your book, always keep an eye open for material you can use for the Long Tail. 

Posted by Alexander Rose,


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