Chris Anderson's The Long Tail (Hyperion, 2006) is one of the bestselling books we note in this week's issue, and its sales are well-deserved. The editor-in-chief of Wired magazine shows how the internet is changing media, business, and much besides by making it possible for people to learn about and order products that don't sell enough to take up space in brick-and-mortar stores and movie theaters, or on television and radio schedules where time is money.
Anderson's point is that many sellers look for the few products that will sell an enormous number of units, but that there's gold to be prospected among the many that will sell few. Over 1 million tracks on iTunes sell at least once. Over 95 percent of Netflix's 55,000 DVDs rent at least once per quarter, and it seems that 98 percent of Amazon.com's top 100,000 sell at least once per quarter.
Sure, 20 movies or 50 CDs or 100 books are at the head of the curve, but the vast majority form the tail. Even though the sale of one tail product doesn't bring in much revenue, a person or company can become rich by selling tens of thousands now that fast internet connections have reduced the need to pay for shelf space and mountains of inventory.
This opportunity underlies some principles of the new commerce, such as: Move inventory way out, let customers do the work of selection and promotion, remember that one distribution method/product/ price doesn't fit all. But it's also relevant to thinking through the next stage of President Bush's faith-based initiative. That's because compassionate conservatism in the United States has a small head and a very long tail.
At the head are several national organizations like the Salvation Army, Prison Fellowship, and CareNet, and others that received justified praise for their work following Hurricane Katrina, such as Southern Baptist Disaster Relief. But the tail is very long: Over the past 17 years I've visited over 100 small groups in most of the 50 states, some of them little more than mom-and-pop operations, and most of them started by one person with a dream or a passion that soon grabbed others as well.
The Bush administration in 2001 could have chosen a decentralizing strategy based on vouchers for the needy and poverty-fighting tax credits. That would have allowed citizens rather than officials to decide which poverty-fighting charities were worth supporting. Instead, the administration chose largely to maintain the centralized grant-making strategy of the previous 40 years, but with some funding redirected to allow theologically conservative groups to compete for grants that had previously been monopolized by secular or theologically liberal groups.
Creating a level playing field for the big groups of various kinds that make up the head was an improvement over the previous liberal tilt, but it still didn't do much for the small groups that make up the long tail. The Bush administration set up conferences to teach some groups how to enter the government grants sweepstakes, but many small ones that do the best work want to spend their time in hands-on help rather than conforming to Washington's rules.
Politics will largely dominate the news during September and October-let's pray that no disaster takes precedence-and if early November brings a Democratic resurgence, the opportunity to move away from the centralized grants system will vanish. If the GOP holds on, we still might not see any improvement. "There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, and the same goes generally for presidential administrations. The last two years of both the Reagan and Clinton presidencies were like the prospect for the elderly described in Psalm 90: "We finish our years with a moan."
George W. Bush's presidency, though, has a chance to escape that common decline, particularly when it comes to the concept the president ran on and still wants to make his chief domestic legacy, "compassionate conservatism." In the past three months two people aware of the entrepreneurial potential of the long tail, Karl Zinsmeister and Jay Hein, have joined the Bush administration as chief domestic policy advisor and director of the White House's faith-based office, respectively. Maybe they can act in decentralizing ways that for once will help the little guys.