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Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction Hardcover – February 7, 2017
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"Enthralling-- full of 'aha' moments about why some ideas soar and others never get off the ground. This book picks up where The Tipping Point left off."
- Adam Grant, Wharton professor and New York Times bestselling author of ORIGINALS and GIVE AND TAKE
“While giving Lady Luck her due, Thompson studiously examines the myriad factors that make the things we buy, like and follow so irresistible: whether Facebook, TV shows such as Seinfeld, Bumble (the app, not the insect), even favorite lullabies. In Hit Makers, his first book, Thompson tackles this mystery with solid research, ready wit and catchy aphorisms…a wonderful book.”
“Superb.”--Fareed Zakaria, Book of the Week selection
“Hit Makers is thoughtful and thorough, a compelling book …. a terrific look at what makes a hit, from the Mona Lisa to Donald Trump.” — Vox
“This entertaining look at the creation of blockbusters… takes on many creators' and marketers' assumptions… Hit Makers coats science in compelling story” — Inc
"Fascinating ... Thompson has huge enthusiasm for his topic and has amassed an amazing amount of material, including many offbeat and engaging stories. ... [Should] be read for insight and provocation." — John Gapper Financial Times
"[Thompson] has assembled a book in the Malcolm Gladwell tradition: telling great stories to illustrate some fascinating and often far-from-obvious theses." — Daily Mail
"Thompson's diligent research and lively prose ensure that Hit Makers is always informative and entertaining." — Prospect
"Thompson does a really fascinating job of explaining how things become popular, drawing on a wide range of cultural phenomena, from Star Wars to the iPhone, Taylor Swift to Game of Thrones." — Ben East Observer
"[An] engaging cultural study." — Steven Poole Guardian
"Spirited ... An entertaining and informative guide." — The Times
"A useful survey ... Thompson makes lots of snappy remarks and unexpected comparisons." — David Sexton Evening Standard
"Derek Thompson has long been one of the brightest new voices in American journalism. With HIT MAKERS, he becomes one of the brightest new voices in the world of non-fiction books. Ranging from Impressionist art to German lullabies to Game of Thrones, HIT MAKERS offers a fresh and compelling take on how the media function and how ideas spread. As deftly written as it is keenly argued, this book — true to its title — is a hit.” — Daniel H. Pink, New York Times bestselling author of DRIVE and TO SELL IS HUMAN
“Derek Thompson’s HIT MAKERS is a sharply observed history of the megahit, from the 13th-centuy tunic craze to the iPhone, tracing the strange ever-changing mixture of genius, dumb luck, business savvy, and network math that turns an obscurity into a worldwide smash.”
-Jordan Ellenberg, New York Times bestselling author of HOW NOT TO BE WRONG
"What makes one song hit, and another, flop, one book a success and the other, fodder for the discount bins? That's the mystery Derek Thompson probes with his characteristic verve, wit, and insight in "Hit Makers." It's an engrossing read that doesn't settle for easy answers, and one that seems destined to become one of the hits that Thompson so deftly analyzes."
-Maria Konnikova, New York Times bestselling author of THE CONFIDENCE GAME
“Hit Makers blends historical lessons with technological & social insights to explain what makes culture tick, and hits happen.”
—Steve Case, Chairman and CEO of Revolution and Co-Founder of America Online
“Derek Thompson’s Hit Makers is a terrific read—a sparkling combination of fascinating stories, cutting-edge science, and superb business advice. Just as he does when he writes for The Atlantic, Thompson shares more interesting ideas per paragraph than practically any other writer today. Hit Makers is a bible for anyone who’s ever tried to promote practically anything, from products, people, and ideas, to books, songs, films, and TV shows.”
—Adam Alter, New York Times Bestselling author of Drunk Tank Pink and Irresistible
"I always read everything by Derek Thompson I see, and this book was no exception. Why things become popular is one of the most important questions in an ever-more networked world, and Derek Thompson's *Hit Makers* is the best and most serious attempt to take a look at it."
—Tyler Cowen, author of The Great Stagnation and Marginal Revolution
“This book is brilliant, a fascinating exploration of the relationship between artistry and industry, the ways that everything from immigration to distribution helps create the popular imagination. You may never look at your favorite film or song the same way again. It should be required reading for anyone working in the popular arts.”
—Simon Kinberg, producer of The Martian, screenwriter and producer for the X-Men film franchises
“Thompson tackles the daunting subject of how products come to dominate the culture in this interdisciplinary romp that delves into many facets of the entertainment industry as well as industrial design, art history, publishing, and politics…presenting his case with verve and a lightning chain of compact anecdotes ….This book will appeal to readers of Malcolm Gladwell as well as pop-culture enthusiasts and anyone interested in the changing media landscape.”
“How does a nice idea become an earworm, or a fashion trend, or—shudder—a meme? Atlantic senior editor Thompson ventures a few well-considered answers….Good reading for anyone who aspires to understand the machinery of pop culture—and perhaps even craft a hit of his or her own.”
– Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, where he writes about economics and the media. He is a regular contributor to NPR's "Here and Now" and appears frequently on television, including CBS and MSNBC. He lives in New York City.
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This book is more a historical accounting of how well-known products became popular, which often had more to do with serendipity than planning. The Mona Lisa wasn't all that until it was stolen, recovered, and then copied and ridiculed by other artists. About halfway through the book I just lost interest, because it's more of a huge collection of stories.
I will say that Thompson is an excellent writer and storyteller, but he buries the lead in almost every chapter so that I'm held in tension waiting for his point. He also is sometimes too clever. For example, he describes George Lucas's habit of snipping locks of his hair in frustration while writing. Thompson writes, "Overliteral emulators could be forgiven for thinking the secret to inventing the most iconic franchise of the twentieth century is compulsive barbering." Cute, but gratuitous.
Here is an example of his writing when describing how the song Rock Around the Clock became popular:
"The Ford family lived in a twenty-room house in Beverly Hills that had previously belonged to Max Steiner, the Hollywood composer who'd scored Casablanca and Gone with the Wind. The home's jewel was the China Room: a four-hundred-square-foot music room decked out with the latest high-fidelity technology by Steiner. The walls gleamed with gold leaf and wide Chinese murals ran the length of a wall with rivers snaking between skinny green hills. Three-foot-tall speakers anchored two corners of the room, and Peter Ford would sit on a green chintz couch and listen to the bird bands."
Every chapter contains numerous such stories to make a particular point. Frankly, I don't care about the interior decorating of Ford's house. I have ten more books waiting for my attention. But I can understand why others rate this as a 5-star book. So if you enjoy good writing and storytelling, have time on your hands, and like historical accounts, then you'll probably enjoy this.
Thompson leverages the sciences of economics and psychology to shine a light on why people like what they like. The common assumption is that what is most popular has reached that level because of its excellence, but that simply isn’t true. While luck may play a part in why some things rise to fame, it’s really better understood as a combination of distribution, networking, familiarity, timing, and genius. The most valuable currency that we have to offer today is our attention. And capturing that attention is the way politicians, writers, artists, advertisers and app developers have been able to achieve widespread recognition. Thompson starts with Brahm’s Lullaby and Impressionist era art and walks us all the way through to SnapChat and Buzzfeed to give a comprehensive look at popularity.
Have you ever wondered why the movies you like have a similar story arch? Or why so many songs you like sound so much like other songs you like? Although it’s not part of the book, an example of this is Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s huge hit Uptown Funk which borrowed from a large number of early 80s hits, so much so that they have been forced to expand the list of songwriter credits to include the writers of these earlier hits, and a large number of lawsuits followed. The question is, was familiarity the real reason for the song’s popularity? Yes and no. As Thompson explores why we are drawn to certain products, he explains that when you are developing a new product, people don’t want entirely new things. They want new things that remind them of familiar things. In other words, we should consider whether there is something in this new idea that I can relate to something I already know or like? This design concept is called M.A.Y.A., which stands for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. Creators should develop works that are a step ahead of everyone else, but not so far ahead that it becomes confusing or worse, distasteful, to the intended audience. Think of Michael J. Fox shredding a Van Halen solo during Johnny B. Goode in the ‘50s. It is possible to be so cutting edge that no one wants what you are offering. When you understand the way people think and the reason why we are drawn to certain things, you are better equipped to develop something that really connects with the culture at large.
The second part of the book dives into popularity and the market. Do you remember the Pokemon Go craze from 2016? That was an example of how “nothing really goes viral,” at least in the way that we think of virality spreading from person to person to person. Instead, for the most part, what seems to go viral is a matter of widespread distribution from the right source to a connected network. Not long ago, we would play the hits, now due to modern technology, the hits play us back. Music curators like Shazam, Pandora, Spotify, and Apple Music create specific playlists based on what we already like to introduce us to other songs we will probably like. In fact, video streaming services such as YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix are doing the same thing. How do they know what we will like? They know because we tend to like things that are similar to what we are already familiar with, as well as what others like us are enjoying. Tastemakers know exactly what we are listening to, and for how long. And they are much better at producing exactly what we want to see and hear.
I always enjoy books like Hit Makers, though there are not enough books as compelling as this one. It is filled with a wide range of fascinating stories from every area of culture. In this way, it is as enjoyable of an experience as Malcolm Gladwell‘s “The Tipping Point.” Maybe it’s due to my own attention deficit disorder, but Thompson’s storytelling that moves from ESPN, to Facebook, to Disney, and even Star Wars, kept it interesting from start to finish. Thompson details the reasons behind their success and why it matters. It’s also filled with useful principles to help creators understand how to connect with people. With so much competition clamoring for people’s attention in the marketplace of products and ideas, what is the secret of breaking through the static? This book will help you better understand why people are drawn to certain things and uninterested in others.
If you’re looking for a thought-provoking non-fiction book, I highly recommend Hit Makers. If you are a creative, it will not only hold your interest, but it will stimulate your thinking about how you create, and maybe offer you some encouragement as well. At the end of the day, we don’t create simply for popularity’s sake, but it helps to know that you are able to get your work out to the largest number of people possible. Thompson also reminds us that us fast and furious as our world is changing, people are still people with basic desires and needs that change very little, if at all. You can purchase the book from Amazon here: Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction
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