If ABE Books had existed in 1983 when JR Hartley first searched for a copy of ‘Fly Fishing’ he would have been able to avoid trudging the second-hand book shops of Cecil Court (not that such an outing around the heart of London’s second-hand book trade would ever be a ‘trudge’ for some of us). Instead of Yellow Pages, the long tail would have come to Mr Hartley’s help.
The market for second-hand and rare books is one of the best illustrations of the long tail in action. Not only does it enable the JR Hartleys of today’s world to find their out-of-print, rare and vintage books, it also allows savvy book sellers to sell some books for prices above what they would otherwise be worth were they for sale only on the shelves of their shops. And, of course, it enables the existence of booksellers who don’t have shelves and who don’t have shops.
A rare or unusual book on an esoteric subject might only have a potential market of a few hundred, a few dozen, or even just a handful of people from around the world. If that book is placed on a bookshop shelf, lost amidst the hundreds of other titles above, below and on either side of it, it could sit for years unnoticed and, of course, unsold. It might be made a little more attractive to the browsing public if it is offered at a low price, low enough to attract a non-specialist book buyer.
However, placed on an international site such as ABE Books and given a clear description of title, author, condition, year of publication and so on, that book suddenly becomes visible to the handful, or few dozen, or few hundred people around the world who appreciate and understand its worth as an esoteric object. Mouldering on the shelf, it might be worth only a few pounds to the bookseller. Exposed to the long tail online, that book might be sold for tens or hundreds of pounds, because the few aficionados who seek it are in competition with each other to own it.
And it is the long tail that enables a brilliant idea such as Bookdonors to exist and flourish. Bookdonors is a charitable community organization, based in the town of Selkirk in the Scottish Borders, that sells second-hand books through ABE Books and Amazon’s Market Place. They are:
….a social enterprise trading in used books to help people, charities and [the] environment….
and in the three years or so since they were founded, they have raised almost £150,000 for the various charities that gather books for it. But, as a Community Interest Company (CIC), a form of social enterprise supported by local enterprise companies across Scotland and the UK, they have also created more than 30 jobs, 40 training placements and many volunteering opportunities. Founders, Lawrie Hayworth and Rona Strathdee have established an ‘inclusive place of work’ that employs a combination of people with disabilities and able-bodied people. As Rona noted in an edition of the Scottish social enterprise magazine Good Company [downloadable PDF - 6Mb]:
Our underlying ethos is to treat everyone the same. We look at what people can do, rather than can’t do. We all have equal importance, and everyone has to pull their weight to make it succeed.
Lawrie and Rona have grasped the concept of the long tail and are proving the concept’s worth as a creator of value – in this case for the good of the commnunity rather than for profit:
Demand is high for books in English, the major language in publishing, and this is particularly true for specialist non-fiction titles. If you live in Sweden and are looking for a book on watch repairing, chances are you’ll have to find an English language version.
The Bookdonors model is one that did not exist, could not have existed, prior to the Web. It is wonderful to see the concept of the long tail being put to such enterprising and beneficial use.
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