The Long Tail of Forgotten Works

I’m currently reading Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail, and he relates a story about how some books find an audience long after they’ve been published.

In 1988, a British mountain climber named Joe Simpson wrote a book called Touching the Void, a harrowing account of near death in the Peruvian Andes. Though reviews for the book were good, it was only a modest success, and soon was largely forgotten. Then, a decade later, a strange thing happened. Jon Krakauer wrote Into Thin Air, another book about a mountain-climbing tragedy, which became a publishing sensation. Suddenly Touching the Void started to sell again.

Booksellers began promoting it next to their Into Thin Air displays, and sales continued to rise. In early 2004, IFC Films released a docudrama of the story, to good reviews. Shortly thereafter, HarperCollins released a revised paperback, which spent fourteen weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. By mid-2004, Touching the Void was outselling Into Thin Air more than two to one.

What happened? Online word of mouth. When Into Thin Air first came out, a few readers wrote reviews on that pointed out the similarities with the then lesser-known Touching the Void, which they praised effusively. Other shoppers read those reviews, checked out the older book, and added it to their shopping carts. Pretty soon the online bookseller’s software noted the patterns in buying behavior–“Readers who bought Into Thin Air also bought Touching the Void“–and started recommending the two as a pair. People took the suggestion, agreed wholeheartedly, wrote more rhapsodic reviews. More sales, more algorithm-fueled recommendations–and a powerful positive feedback loop kicked in.

Particularly notable is that when Krakauer’s book hit shelves, Simpson’s was nearly out of print. A decade ago readers of Krakauer would never even have learned about Simpson’s book–and if they had, they wouldn’t have been able to find it. Online booksellers changed that. By combining infinite shelf space with real-time information about buying trends and public opinion, they created the entire Touching the Void phenomenon. The result: rising demand for an obscure book.

There is something interesting going on here. I’m wondering how many great works of art are simply lost in obscurity. These days, we’ve got the internet and primitive tools to traverse the long tail, so it seems that a lot of obscure works find a new audience when a new, similar work is released. But what happened before the internet? How many works have simply gone out of print because they never found an audience – how many works suffered the fate Touching the Void narrowly avoided?

Of course, I have no idea (that’s kinda the point), but one of the great things about the internet and the emerging infinite shelf space of online retailers is that some of these obscure works are rediscovered and new connections are made. For instance, I once came accross a blog post by Jonathon Delacour about this obscure Japanese horror film called Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People. The description of the film?

After a yacht is damaged in a storm and stranded on a deserted island, the passengers: a psychologist, his girlfriend, a wealthy businessman, a famous singer, a writer, a sailor and his skipper take refuge in a fungus covered boat. While using the mushrooms for sustenance, they find the ship’s journal describing the mushrooms to be poisonous, however some members of the shipwrecked party continue to ingest the mysterious fungi transforming them into hideous fungal monsters.

Sound familiar? As Delacour notes, a reviewer on sure thinks so:

Was this the Inspiration for Gilligan’s Island? …and that’s a serious question. It predated the premier of Gillian’s Island by several years. There’s a millionaire who owns a yacht that looks like the Minnow. On board is a professor, the captain, a goofy (though somewhat sinster in the film) first mate, a pretty but shy country girl named Okiko, and a singer/movie star. There are seven castaways in all. “Lovey” is replaced by another male character, a writer named Roy. The boat crashes into an island where they are castaways… Course on Gilligan’s Island they didn’t all turn into mutated mushrooms monsters. Rent or buy the DVD (one of my favorite films in Japanese cinema, finally getting its due…) and you tell me if Gilligan’s Island isn’t a complete rip-off of this film.

Several reviewers actually make the Gilligan’s Island connection, and one even takes time to refute the claim that Gilligan ripped off Matango:

Actually as stated on this DVD’s actor commentary Matango premiered in Japanese theaters in and around mid 1963. The Gilligan’s Island first pilot (with different actors as The Professor and Ginger)was made in late 1963 thus the Japanese film does not predate Gilligan by a few years as another poster here thinks.Schwartz could have heard about a Japanese film made with seven castaways (as Hollywood and Tokoyo’s Toho were in communication). But he definitely didn’t see the Japanese film before he pitched gI to the networks in early 63.

So perhaps this was just a happy coincidence… A commentor on Delacour’s post mentions that the movie is loosely based on a 1907 short story by William Hope Hodgson called The Voice in the Night, but while it certainly was the inspiration behind Matango, it probably didn’t inspire Gilligan’s Island…

I seem to have veered off track here, but it was an interesting diversion: from obscure Japanese horror film to Gilligan’s Island to William Hope Hodgson… would anyone have made these connections 20 years ago? It certainly would have been possible, but I doubt it would happen as quickly or efficiently as it did on the internet.