Blockbusters, blockbusters everywhere

[Boston Globe]

In today’s Ideas section, in the Boston Globe, I’ve got a profile of Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business school and the author of a smart new book called Blockbusters. Elberse demonstrates quite persuasively that blockbusters — whether in Hollywood or music or publishing — aren’t collapsing under their own weight. Indeed, they’re actually thriving. Read the story for more on that.

Elberse also debunks Chris Anderson’s seductive theory of the “long tail” — the idea, which Anderson advanced in a book of the same name, that the online economy would free us to move toward smaller and smaller customized niches. One thing I couldn’t fit into the story — and I’m surprised, given how much attention Anderson’s received, that very few people have pointed this out — is the degree to which The Long Tail was itself a blockbuster. That doesn’t just mean it sold well. To be a true blockbuster, a creative property must be designed with big sales in mind. To wit:

  • Anderson first publicized his theory in a magazine article in the pages of Wired — that kind of pre-publicity publicity is essential to a blockbuster.
  • Anderson and his idea also benefited from his position as the editor of Wired — that kind of platform helps, too.
  • Anderson’s book went through an intense bidding war. The war drove up his advance to $500,000 — and that advance itself became news, in addition to an incentive for his publisher to market and distribute his book. It’s no surprise that Anderson  gave a big talk at the 2006 BookExpo America.
  • Anderson’s book provided plenty of juicy “comp” titles. The Wall Street Journal called it “the new The Tipping Point” months before it came out.
  • And finally Anderson’s book — based on its intriguing premise, of course, but also on all the factors just mentioned — got tons of media coverage in radio, TV, and print.

None of this is to say Anderson’s book was good or bad, right or wrong. (Well, I can’t help but note that Elberse’s data add up to a pretty strong rebuke.) Instead, it’s only to say that to become a huge hit — to become a blockbuster — it’s almost always necessary to have these factors working in the creator’s favor, long before the creative product is due to come out. We live in an age of blockbusters. And strangely enough, it’s hard to find a better example of that fact than The Long Tail.


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