Before mechanical reproduction, all culture was local. Culture couldn't travel unless a human carried it and humans could only travel as fast as an animal could carry them.
The 19th century was an explosion of technology and mechanical reproduction. The telegraph annihilated distance. A message could cross the continent instantly, instead of having to be carried by railroad. Improved printing technologies, phonographs and movies enabled the creation of mass culture. By the early 20th century, when they were joined by radio, these technologies allowed people over a wide geographical area to be reading, listening and seeing the same cultural products.
The problem with this model was the cost of production and distribution. If you made a movie, you needed the equipment to photograph and edit it. Beyond that, you need a lab to develop and print copies of your film and an organization that could carry the copies to theaters over a wide geographical area. All those things took money, which meant that once the mass culture industries were established, it was difficult for a newcomer to compete with them. The cost of starting such an enterprise was prohibitive.
Because of the high cost of production and distribution, the culture manufacturers had to appeal to the widest possible audience in order to turn a profit. They needed hits. They couldn't afford to alienate any part of the audience (one reason for the adoption of the Hays censorship code) and they often stuffed something for everyone into a movie whether it fit or not. This is why MGM Marx Brothers comedies have romantic couples, songs and in The Big Store, a fashion show.
TV followed the same model, especially in the years before cable.
At the retail level, where books and records were sold, stores were physically limited by shelf space. Given the choice of an item that would sell 10 copies a year or 20, the proprietor naturally gravitated to the 20 copy item as it generated more cash from the same amount of shelf space. Items that didn't sell sufficient copies weren't stocked. They were invisible to consumers.
With the internet and other technological advances, everything has changed. Production and distribution costs have come down, especially for items that can be created with software and then downloaded. Retailers who sell over the internet are no longer restricted by needing space in a high traffic neighborhood or by the size of the local population. The result is the long tail.
(Image swiped from Slate's review)In a nutshell, the long tail says sales of niche items add up to a significant portion of revenue. Physical limitations (space, number of outlets, etc.) used to truncate the tail, but now it just keeps on going. Where 20% of the merchandise used to result in 80% of the revenue, the proportion is no longer nearly so lopsided.
You're in the long tail while you're reading this. No question that this blog is a niche item. Rather than read or watch Harry Potter, you're here. And because you're limited by the number of hours in your day, the time you spend here and in other niches can only take time away from the hit properties. There will still be hits, but Anderson thinks that in the future they will be smaller due to competition from niche items.
What are the repercussions? If you're a consumer (and aren't we all?), you've got much greater choice than before. Rather than settle for the books or the DVD's in your local shop, you've got a vastly larger choice available to you online. If you're a creator, there are two possible repercussions. If you're working in a company that depends on hits, you may find that budgets will be squeezed if audiences don't turn out in the same numbers that they used to. If you're an independent creator, you've got an easier time reaching an audience that is increasingly seeking out specialized material that's more satisfying to them than the mainstream.
However, the long tail isn't utopia. Sellers will have a much easier time taking advantage of it than creators. If storage space is cheap, sellers can afford to carry an item that might only sell once a year. But a creator can't live on something that only sells one copy a year.
There are lots of creators who do things for the pleasure of it without financial compensation. This blog is an example. For those people, reaching an audience is its own reward though it may possibly lead to paying gigs of various sorts. For animation creators who are looking for the work to pay their way, the business model is still evolving. I've already pointed to Keith Lango's essay on this and he has some good points. I've got some ideas that I'll be tossing out here eventually.
Regardless of your goals, The Long Tail is a book that will help clarify the world you're living in. Anderson's insights are worth reading and as they describe changes to the consumer culture, they are relevant to everybody.