Upon meeting Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson at the Condé Nast building in New York, he apologizes in advance for a niggling matter he must attend to sporadically during our talk.
Still, despite having broken out his laptop, he is a very attentive, forthcoming interviewee on the day his book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, has hit the stores.
The Long Tail is both easily explained and difficult to delineate. The term actually represents the downward slope in a mathematical model where the sales of items rank from most to least popular.
The crux of his argument is that as distribution and storage costs trend toward zero (through the digitization of content and the create-on-demand technology), the sum of less popular, or long tail, items outperforms market hits. It predicts a world of niches where hits exist - but with less impact - and niches are the sweet spot.
Of course, our meeting happened to coincide with the release of the Pirates of the Caribbean Part Two, which had the highest-grossing opening weekend of all time. When asked if anyone e-mailed him about the data, he said, somewhat defensively, "Only one."
"The book never says the hits are dead," Anderson says. "As a matter of fact, it says there will be more hits than ever. "
He goes on to explain how the power of blockbuster will wane due to the abundant choice, and grassroots hits will proliferate as the ease of access to those hits continues to increase.
The story of the Long Tail is fabled, if not completely an Anderson invention. But he is credited with branding the concept and giving it the traction for others to compare from everything from beer to food. Anderson is somewhat understanding of the long tail drain; he mentioned relief that eyes didn't roll when he brought up the long tail of auto parts.
Anderson's theory easily extends to marketing, where Long Tail acolytes have interpreted the environment to mean everything from understanding how niche blogs drive mainstream coverage to how targeting niche markets can provide broader impact than marketing.
"Chris Anderson is one of those gifted writers who are able to describe complex contexts in a language that is broadening the understanding of the wider public," says Georg Kolb, Text 100 EVP, in an e-mail. "He has helped PR pros understand that they increasingly have to deal with fragmented audiences and how this can be facilitated by new-media platforms."
Though he tried to avoid journalism, as it was his parents' profession, he ended up spending most of his career in the field. Anderson began his career as a research assistant to physicists at both the Department of Transportation and Los Alamos, but he talks about that time as his "failed physicist" period. He worked at Science and Nature, before spending seven years at the Economist, covering the Internet in its nascent phases. He became EIC at Wired in 2001.
Anderson's original long tail article ran in the December 2004 Wired and became the most cited article in its history. He started a blog to cover the ever-changing, long tail environment and got a book deal with Hyperion.
Long Tail editor Will Schwalbe, Hyperion SVP and editor-in-chief, said the book proposal was the first he'd ever heard of the long tail, but he was instantly "blown away."
Hyperion admitted nervousness with regards to Anderson using a blog to try out theories about his book. At that time in 2004, Schwalbe was a newcomer to the understanding the blog environment.
"It became apparent to me he understand what he was doing. He wasn't writing the book on the blog; he was researching the book on the blog," Schwalbe says. "He was confining the blog to the media portion of the story," while ensuring the book would contain a lot of exclusives.
Anderson says of the 80,000 words in the book, only 3,000 appeared directly on the blog, and that some of the data never appeared on the blog.
"Chris went away and did his thing, for a relatively long time," Hyperion said. "We worked very intensively when he was down to the book."
When asked if Anderson was sending 3 am e-mails during that crunch time - given his multiple daytime duties, Schwalbe let in a little secret: Anderson times all of his e-mails to go to recipients in the morning, no matter what time he actually wrote them.
When recalling his work with Anderson on the book, Schwalbe kept focusing on the former physicist-in-training's analytical mind.
"[Anderson] is, in the best possible way, obsessed with data," he says. "He's very rigorous."
Schwalbe says that Anderson also fought tooth and nail for every chart that was in the book, a passion that the Hyperion editor now appreciates. Indeed, even the rare lukewarm review (there were scant negative reviews) has cited the charts as why the books works.
Anderson's dual existence (as editor at Wired and an everyday blogger) causes him no conflict of interest. He doesn't run ads on his blog, and he cares more about the quality of his readership than its numbers - an unorthodox view in traditional publishing.
"Here we sit in the cathedral of the media elite, and I'm also shaking my fist at the media elite," Anderson says, adding that he doesn't see a contradiction. "I feel like I can very happily entertain these different worlds."
Anderson notes the difference between the two.
"Blogs are great for smaller ideas, observations, and bits of news, where it isn't all polished off and you're not saying it's the final draft of history," Anderson explains. "Magazines are fantastic at taking ideas, packaging them with long-form journalism, lavish photography, and high-end design."
He adds, as if it's not obvious, "I love them both; I live in both worlds equally."
Different worlds are an Anderson specialty. At the book-signing party at the Tribeca Cinemas, his draw on both traditional and new-media celebrities is undeniable. Who but he could comfortably court both former Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne and Gawker Media head Nick Denton?
At the release party, much talk centered on the recent news to come from Condé Nast. It turns out that the small detail he needed to address was Condé Nast buying back WiredNews.com from Lycos for $25 million that night. (Wired sold its online properties to Lycos for a reported $83 million in 1999.)
After a bizarre eight years, where Wired could not truly maintain its own digital presence, it could finally have a comprehensive online publishing plan. His publication would finally get to pursue its own long tail strategy.
Tech editor, Asia business editor, and US business editor, The Economist