Why Self-Publishing Is a Long-Tail Business

by | Mar 8, 2010


From www.longtail.com

One of the most interesting stories in Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual is how he became a book publisher. As an avid parachute jumper, Dan looked for but could not find a good basic manual for the new people coming into his sport. Eventually he wrote one and sold it to other parachuting clubs.

But what was interesting was that for some time Dan had no idea he had become a book publisher. He was just trying to fill a need, and that need could best be filled with an instructional manual. You can see that he used this same idea when he created his Self-Publishing Manual.

In a small way this story demonstrates why non-fiction publishing, including self-publishing, is often a long-tail phenomenon, and has been for a long time before the idea of the long tail was introduced by Chris Anderson in Wired magazine.

The Long Tail and the Niches

Let’s back up for just a moment. Probably you’ve heard of the long tail, and it’s certainly mentioned often enough in discussions of online business.

In the past, when it cost a lot to develop, produce and market products, businesses concentrated on blockbusters, or “hits” that would appeal to the widest possible audience. This capitalized on the “head” of the purchasing curve, where it was thought that most of the money was to be made.

As the cost to create and distribute products has fallen, largely due to digitization and the ability to market online, it has become apparent that the “long tail” of the purchasing curve contains potentially as much business as the “head.” Not only that, but each product in the “tail,” although it appeals to only a small segment of the population, is perfectly tailored to just that group of people. One thing this means is that if you can make those people aware of the product, they are much more likely to buy it.

The Long Tail and Nonfiction Publishing

In a sense, most nonfiction books are marketing-driven because they are often written for a specific niche. And the more specialized the book is, the more likely it will find success within the group of people who are intensely interested in that niche.

When I was studying pizza making, for instance, I read almost every book I could find on baking artisinal pizza at home. This is a typical long-tail niche. Here’s how it might look as you travel from the “head” to the “tail.” Imagine you are the publisher or self-publishing author of a book on serious home pizza baking.

  • Cooking – this is the head of the curve, lots of people are interested in what is a huge market. But it’s too big a designation for actual sales appeal.
  • Baking – here we’ve narrowed to only one aspect of cooking, coming down the purchase curve, but still in a very large category. I’m interested in pizza, not panettone or pastries.
  • Yeast Breads – at this point we start to enter the long tail, since this category is much more specific, and people looking here are much more likely to be interested in your books.
  • Flat breads – even farther down the tail, this subset of yeasted breads is of interest to only a small segment of the cooking/baking population, but they are highly engaged.
  • Pizza – although this particular tail ends here, another “long tail” begins with all books on making pizza and grows its own tail, with specialties such as deep-dish pizza baking, cormeal crust pizza baking, and so on.

Two Developments that Supercharged Nonfiction Niche Publishing

When the development and marketing of products was concentrated on the “hits,” it was very expensive to create products and market them to a large enough population to ensure success. But two developments took the inherent “long tail” mindset of nonfiction publishing to a new level:

  1. Internet marketing made it possible, for very little money, to attract just those people intensely interested in your niche. On discussion boards, blogs, forums and in discussion groups on community websites, people have congregated to talk about every possible activity you can imagine, from the care of your tropical fish to digital photography, to genealogy, to pizza baking.
  2. Digital printing with print on demand distribution essentially eliminated most of the cost of getting a book into print.

These two developments alone have created a marketplace that rewards businesses and authors who can fulfill the needs of a small group of people. When you combine specialized information that experts in a field commonly posses with very targeted marketing and automated web delivery systems for either printed or electronic books, you’ve got a long tail marketing machine.

Authors, Get Your Keywords

Of course, the other technology that’s made this targeting possible is search. The ever present search bar, usually a Google search bar, is an invitation to try to find an exact remedy.

A few years ago, after a pleasant walk in the woods with my son after Thanksgiving dinner, I came down with a nasty case of Poison Oak. It was from climbing over a dead tree, so I’ll leave it to you to imagine exactly how much discomfort I was in.

I became a temporary member of a very small niche, people who wanted a cure for Poison Oak right now and were willing to pay for it. I eventually found a site, through Google search, for a cream guaranteed to cure what ailed me. A small vial was $45 and overnight shipping was available. This is the ultimate in long tail niche marketing, and it works.

As publishers, we can use this information to our advantage. Google and other search engines make available the actual search terms that people type into their search field. This powerful information is studied by internet marketers under the term keywords.

An author who understands keywords, how they are used, and how to target the people who search on them, can go a long way toward making his nonfiction book a success.

Later this week we’ll look at how authors and self-publishers can use this information to help determine the markets, and the marketing, of their book.

Takeaway: Internet marketing combined with digital printing and print on demand distribution make nonfiction books perfect long-tail products.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Barney

    Great photos once again Marie! I aolesutbly love love the one with j and m sitting down and the beautiful leaves in the background! You did a great job of capturing w’s personality!

  2. Stephan

    Hello Joel,

    thank you this was encouraging to read!

    kind regards

  3. Darlene

    I’m a writer by career and it’s totally clear to me that considering that I began blogging, the quantity I compose has boosted significantly, my day-to-day communications with the sights of others have actually never been so frequent, the variety of voices I engage with is much higher compared to in the pre-Internet age– and all this has actually helped me end up being much more moderate as a thinker, more open to mistake, much less focused on just what I do understand, and a lot more considerate of exactly what I do not. If this is a degeneration in my brain, after that much more, kindly.

  4. Jace Daniel

    Long tail! I think I first heard this term in Wired Magazine back in the nineties. A vintage buzzword for sure.

    Great post, and well said. Internet marketing combined with POD has changed the the game. Not to mention ebooks.

  5. Gael McCarte

    Joel you nailed it again

  6. Kimberly Fujioka

    Joel: I am doing just what you advise. Thank you.

  7. Sue Collier

    That’s a great idea, Joel! I will that on my list of upcoming blog topics. =)

  8. Joel

    Sue, those of us who have been involved with self-publishing for years knew this niche-marketing business before it was called “long tail” but the tools we have now make it so much more efficient. I’d love to read about some of your clients, do you ever think of doing case studies? That would be interesting. Thanks for your comment!

  9. Sue Collier

    Another great article, Joel! This, in particular, struck me:

    “When you combine specialized information that experts in a field commonly posses with very targeted marketing and automated web delivery systems for either printed or electronic books, you’ve got a long tail marketing machine.”

    My most successful clients realize this, which is why they are the most successful! And really, it’s the best reason for self-publising.



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