I have a confession to make: I don’t like reading books about consumer culture.
I often find the subject slight, the writing bland and the overall effort insubstantial.
But I read Hit Makers by Derek Thompson. Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, is a distinct voice in liberal American journalism, and Hit Makers, his first book, is a study of popularity. It is a book about hits, about what makes some products and ideas successful – and others not.
According to Thompson, a successful hit is a combination of many elements. A great idea is essential, but it would stall without clever marketing. Talent is a prerequisite, but so is distribution. Dumb simplicity will not get you very far – but there is also little use in a great pop song if no one has heard it.
As people fundamentally gravitate towards comfort and familiarity, the trick is to “tell a familiar story in an ingeniously new way”. This, according to Thompson, creates an aesthetic “aha” moment. He illustrates the concept well with the example of the iconic designs of Raymond Loewy.
Thompson tells some great stories: a story of perseverance, a story of thinking ahead of your time, a story of sheer mad luck. There is an amusing chapter about first names and their fleeting popularity. While it’s clear why parents don’t name their sons Adolf anymore, what have Edna and Bertha – once popular girls’ names – done to deserve their current oblivion?
And do things really go viral? Apparently not. Most news on Twitter comes directly from source or from a “one degree of separation”. So if your Twitter following is modest, all you need to do is make Rihanna or Justin Bieber retweet you to their millions of followers.
In a rare display of ideology, Thompson blames Hollywood for making cinema audiences want to see their heroines vulnerable. This is not the fault of Hollywood, of course, as women have been portrayed as vulnerable for centuries in myth and fiction. Including the women in Thompson’s favourite book, Hamlet. Ophelia drowned, after all, “incapable of her own distress”.
Few of Thompson’s conclusions are groundbreaking, and in the end he concedes that there is no complete formula for making a hit, the nature of success is “semi-chaotic” and the business of creativity is a “game of chance” – essentially bringing the reader to square one. Also, Hit Makers becomes repetitive at times and Thompson’s numerous stories of obscurity-to-success seem self-indulgent.
But despite that, you should definitely, resolutely read this book. Because of Thompson’s genuine fascination with his subject, the strength of his research, the vividness of his examples and the sheer volume and breadth of raw material which he dissects and synthesises into a bold, engaging narrative.
But above all, you should read Hit Makers because it is a fine example of how to write.
Thompson’s text is fresh, vibrant, his words throb from the page, propel you forward, infect you with curiosity and optimism. Thompson’s style is fluid and finely attuned to his subject: his sentences are long and complex when he writes about Brahms and Shakespeare; fast-paced and clipped when he turns to Abba and Taylor Swift. His immense erudition is omnipresent, and when he writes about Heidegger, you can tell that his knowledge of phenomenology is deeply ingrained, rather than obtained through a Google search.
So read Hit Makers if you are thinking of launching a product. Read it if you work in marketing. Read it if you are struggling to understand the modern cultural landscape and need an effective summary. But above all, read it if you want to learn how to write.
Elena Shalneva is a communications consultant and non-executive director. Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular by Derek Thompson is published by Allen Lane.