If you go on Amazon right now, and you look up Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings (Book #1 of The Stormlight Archive!) and you scroll down to see “Customers who viewed this item also viewed:” you’ll see a list of… more Brandon Sanderson books! The guy’s the Stephen King of epic fantasy, he’s written a lot of stuff. But the next page of suggestions is… also mostly Brandon Sanderson. And, as I’m writing this, the very last one is The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch.
Okay, let’s click on that!
What did it get in “Customers who viewed…”?
Not surprisingly, more Lynch books, Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind, and, hmmm, something called The Way of Kings.
I feel kind of stupid pointing this out, because it’s something everyone must have noticed. But we didn’t know back in the early aughts how this would turn out. In his original Long Tail article, Anderson made much of how software would “Use recommendations to drive demand down the Long Tail.” (Emphasis mine.)
He was wrong.
Algorithmic recommendation engines don’t care about helping you find your next favourite book. They’re optimized to get you to click on something, to hit that buy button. There’s no question which is easier – getting people to click on a known quantity, or to take a flyer on something new.
Can you find something new via this process? Yes, you can. But where we were promised frictionless discovery, we got a series of loops back into the same things, over and over and over again. Rothfuss and Sanderson Jordan and G.R.R.M. and Tolkien and Lynch and Abercrombie, and you’re a couple of levels deep before you start regularly seeing names like Fonda Lee or R.F. Kuang. (And many of their recs will lead you back to guess where?).
And the other primarily-online ways of finding out about SFF books? They’re no better.
Check out any of the top SFF booktubers, the ones with 200-400,000 subscribers, and you can see that their most-viewed videos are largely Top 10 lists, Tolkien, Harry Potter, and, of course, Brandon Sanderson. (The Top 10 lists also invariably feature Sanderson.) Because YouTubers live and die by their views, they’re incentivized to post more about things that are already popular, which means they devote less time to mid-list books, which means the more popular stuff gets still more promotion, which means it gets more popular, and so on and so on. And thus goes Goodreads and Amazon reviews and basically every other online crowdsourced/recommendation driven method of book discovery out there.
It some ways, it’s worse than the old, analog methods of book discovery.
Back in the day, if you were a sci-fi writer, and your book got covered in the review column in Asimov’s or F&SF, that was great! If you didn’t get reviewed at all, that was a tragedy.
But at least if you did get reviewed, you’d generally get about the same amount of space and consideration as any big-name author whose book was out the same week.**
So this is where we’re at – more niches, but they remain marginal (or replicate the same Pareto Principle 80/20 problem of a few big winners), and the rewards are spread more unequally than in the pre-Long Tail world.