Main menu

"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Bitten by the Head of the Long Tail of Fandom

by Ken Newquist / July 31, 2006

Over at Uncle Bear we've had many a conversation about long-tail fandom, the idea that there's so much good stuff out there -- science fiction novels, games, movies -- that you don't really need be current to satisfy your geeky desires. I tend to stay a little closer to the wave front then Berin -- I've read two or three novels that were written in the last year, and I've got my monthly subscription to Analog -- but at least half of what I read or watch is more than few years old (or, in the case of Conan, the repackaging there of).

Riding the Long Tail means not having to keep up with the latest and greatest releases and a certain choosiness that comes from having all of history to choose from. But that doesn't mean that you still can't get bitten by the Head of the Long Tail. Last week I started reading Pandora's Star, an excellent space opera novel by Peter F. Hamilton which was published in 2004. Not that far down the tail, but still not exactly current. After voraciously reading it -- I probably haven't read a 1,000 page book this quickly in 10 years -- I immediately headed out to Barnes & Noble to pick up the sequel, Judas Unchained.

And was shocked to discover that it was still out in hardcover. And that I'd have to pay $26 to conclude the saga.

Being a geek dad with two kids, one of which is six weeks old, that just wasn't doable. So I had to reluctantly put the novel back on the shelf, and wait for it to work its way down the gullet of the long-tail serpent. Unfortunately, it's going to take a while to digest -- the book won't be out in paperback until early 2007.

So what's the morale of the story? There isn't one really, save this: even when you're working your way through fandom's backlog, you can still find yourself on the cutting edge, without even trying.



The Long Tail can also be the Economy Class ride, but not always. It's mostly just the items closer to the head that get cheaper, due to economies of scale.

For instance, I hate buying single-issue comics and prefer waiting for the convienient (and less expensive) trade paperbacks. With smaller publishers and less-popular series, those trades may never come. Buying single issues as back issues can be cheap, but if you lack a decent comics shop (as I do) and have to get get things from online sources, you'll pay more in postage.

Those single issues may also increase in price, making it cheaper to buy them new. The same can be said of novels, DVDs, and any items subject to the geek collector's market: potentially cheaper to buy it new. It's a gamble.

Where I like the Economy Class ride of the Long Tail is discovering lost gems. For that $26, how many paperbacks could you get at a used bookstore? Older things you may not have noticed before get your attention because you're looking for fun on a budget. They're still new to you, and as I've pointed out, thanks to the internet you can always find reviews and discussions regardless of the book's publication date.

And all of this may or may not help Peter Hamilton, for example. Buying a bunch of his other titles used gains him no money and doesn't let his publisher know there are people reading him. Buying his new book does. Discovering those overlookd authors via the used market, on the other hand, may inspire you to buy newer books from those authors and boost their popularity.

Darn you, you've got me monologuing again.

I've never been one for used books -- sure, I'll buy lots of old comic books, but I never really liked used books. I think it was something about the funky smell of paperbacks that have been moldering since the 1970s.

I'm definitely surfing the Long Tail for economic reasons at this point, but I expect to stay in the frothy waters a few years after the head, where I can pick up paperbacks or graphic novels for less than $10. With regards to Hamilton, I found out he's got another space opera series in print, and I'll be looking for that the next time I hit the bookstore.

That trip to the book store probably won't be until the fall though, so I think my reading list will be on hiatus until then. Instead I'll finish up some books that I've got lying around -- I've still got the Bloody Crown of Conan to read, the Hard SF Renaissance to fight with, and that Delta Green Dark Theatre anthology that I've been meaning to put a stake through.

One thing I've been doing lately, which is both a) cheaper, b) allows you to read HB books (I dislike PB books for a number of reasons, but mainly comfort), and c) has a lot of stuff not on the "cutting edge." I joined the SFBC (Science Fiction Book Club) and have gotten a lot of good books. FREX, on my "to read" is Dan Simmons Illium/Olympos. In HB the books are only like $10-$12 new...

I've always preferred paperback, mostly because of easy-of-transport and weight issues, as I find I'm most likely to read the books that I can easily throw in my backpack or toss in the car. The exception would be books I absolutely have to read when they're first released -- in those cases I buy the book and, for consistancy's sake, usually end up buying the rest of the series in hard cover as well. For ease-of-reading, I'm finding that Analog SF and its pulp kin work well when feeding the baby.