In his book describing the science of popularity, “Hit Makers,” The Atlantic Senior Editor Derek Thompson writes that, “To sell something familiar, make it surprising. To sell something surprising, make it familiar.” This in itself is where the genius of his first book lies: “Hit Makers” is both familiar and distinctive.
The book, released on Feb. 7, reads reminiscent of the Malcolm Gladwell works, such as “Outliers,” that defined the narrative-based, pop-sociology nonfiction genre, but with a more informal tone and hint of humor. Its similarity to Gladwell’s writing structure makes it familiar, although Thompson’s distinct voice remains clear. Meanwhile, its inclusive diction engages the reader, drawing them into a lively discussion and introducing remarkable ideas that explains the rise of myriad pop-culture phenomenons throughout history, from Impressionism to Star Wars to the sleek designs of the mid-19th century created by Raymond Loewy.
The book’s surprising quality originates from its novel topic, which aims to answer the question “What makes a hit a hit?” The book explores the various factors behind the greatest blockbusters, bestsellers and smash hits with thoroughly researched and diverse examples. Thompson compiles fascinating content related to history, sociology, psychology and marketing, making complex yet accessible connections.
In order to address the book’s central question, Thompson supports his claims with a prodigious number of modern and historical case studies. By weaving current pop culture into his work, Thompson maintains the reader’s interest and facilitates easy comprehension of the factors that contribute to the rise of a success. It is through these case studies, accompanied with statistics, traditional scientific research and the occasional diagram, that Thompson’s explanations and arguments are the most effective and engrossing. He finds parallels between unlikely subjects, such as pop music and Obama’s speeches, encouraging the reader to extend these connections to their own lives.
One of Thompson’s main arguments is that humans are attracted to creations that push the boundaries of familiarity. This theory can be summed in Raymond Loewy’s design rule: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable (MAYA). Thompson references this concept throughout “Hit Makers,” using it to expand beyond the topic of popularity and into digressive philosophical discussions of human nature.
Thompson’s methodical investigations of singular hits are also at times excessive, often consuming multiple paragraphs to pages before the direct relation to the essential question is revealed. Nonetheless, these perambulatory tangents do not detract from “Hit Makers” because they are just one of the multiple byproducts of the author’s obvious interest in what makes something hit-worthy. It is clear through his informative, humorous footnotes and detailed writing that Thompson has a true enthusiasm for the topic. His zest on his quest for answers is contagious, further piquing the reader’s attention and curiosity.
“Hit Makers” does not simply answer the question that it first set out to explore. It flirts with broad and generalized explanations and pinpoints the specific factors that contributed to certain successes. It enthralls with its fascinating stories and connections, but, unsurprisingly, it does not provide an exact formula for a blockbuster, as one does not truly exist. Thompson is far too intelligent to write a book about a question that could be answered in a page.
While discussing one of his overarching arguments that popularity is often derived from familiarity, Thompson cites Peter Mendelsund, who wrote that a book is an “invitation to daydream.” And it is. “Hit Makers” is a thoroughly delightful invitation.