"Insofar as he posits a theory on the quality that most “hits” share, it is that they tend to be novel re-combinations of tried-and-tested elements"by William Skidelsky / January 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular by Derek Thompson (Allen Lane, £20)
The question “What makes a hit?” has often been asked, but no one has ever satisfactorily answered it. As Atlantic writer Derek Thompson points out in his inquiry into the subject, if a “perfect formula” for hit-creation existed, we’d live in a world “awash in similarly successful cultural products,” rather than one in which the vast majority flop. This makes Hit Makers a tricky proposition. If no one—including hit-creators themselves—knows the secret of success, what can meaningfully be said about it?
Thompson’s solution is to avoid grand theorising in favour of an engagingly piecemeal approach. His book, in essence, is a series of essays looking at the process by which certain cultural creations—among them Star Wars, the Fifty Shades trilogy, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and the iPhone—became as popular as they did. Although his conclusion—that their success owes far more to chance than is generally realised—is hardly revelatory, Thomson’s diligent research and lively prose ensure that Hit Makers is always informative and entertaining.
Insofar as he posits a theory on the quality that most “hits” share, it is that they tend to be novel re-combinations of tried-and-tested elements. Star Wars (western set in space) is a classic example; the iPhone (camera, computer and phone in one device) is another. This chimes with another of Thompson’s claims, drawn from psychology, which is that people can’t stand too much originality. Basically, we like what we are familiar with or—failing that—what we know other people like. As companies become even better at tracking tastes and behaviour, this points to a future in which hits become even more derivative. In such circumstances, it seems reasonable to wonder (as Thompson never quite does): where is the next Ulysses going to come from?
Purchase the book here on Amazon