Where Hits Come From


Dillow and James

Surowiecki both weigh in this week on the subject of where hits come from.

Surowiecki, as you might expect from a man who wrote a book

called The Wisdom of Crowds, thinks that prediction markets are a good

way of predicting hits. But he’s fair to the other side, too:

The process of predicting whether a product will be a hit remains remarkably

haphazard and erratic.

Many people argue that it’s foolish to expect otherwise, and that no

science of success is possible. In the famous words of the screenwriter William

Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.” The fate of a book or a movie,

the argument goes, is determined by too many factors to be predictable—advertising,

reviews, word of mouth, luck, and, in the case of big hits, a simple desire

to see what all the fuss is about. De Vany, for instance, says that the box-office

performance of Hollywood films is “chaotic” in the mathematical

sense of the term. Three Columbia sociologists recently found something similar

in a series of online experiments in which people were divided into eight

groups, asked to listen to songs by unknown artists, rate them, and then decide

which ones they’d like to download—after being told how often

others had downloaded the songs. The highest-rated songs, it turned out, were

not always the most frequently downloaded. And in each group a different song

ended up topping the charts. In the laboratory, at least, success appeared

to be essentially random.

Meanwhile, Dillow seems to think that success is impossible to predict and

yet in some sense written in the stars:

A lot of success in any venture is impossible to predict. Many best-selling

authors – including J.K. Rowling – were rejected many times by publishers.

Even successful entrepreneurs reject profitable inventions. Decca famously

turned down the Beatles…

How many great-selling books, popular bands or successful companies have we

not had because they’ve been turned down? …

If finance is easier and the costs of printing and marketing are lower, fewer

potential successes should be filtered out. In this way, technical progress

and easier finance can promote economic growth.

I’m not convinced by this. I don’t think that JK Rowling would have been a

success in all, or even most, worlds in which she got published. I think that

success on her level is the result of a myriad of uncontrollable self-reinforcing

mechanisms all coming together in the right place at the right time. Harry Potter

books get read a lot because they’re popular, rather than being popular because

they’re read a lot, if that makes any sense.

If that’s the case, then Dillow’s wrong to assume that the more books and movies

get made, the more hits there will be. If anything, the opposite is the case:

the world hasn’t seen another band quite like the Beatles not because no subsequent

band has had the same amount of talent but rather because the amount of choice

facing consumers has increased so enormously. As a result, it’s increasingly

difficult for any artist or author to achieve lasting, broad-based success and

acclaim. Even the longevity of Harry Potter is far from assured in the absence

of hype about the next book or movie coming out: Harry Potter and the Chamber

of Secrets has a sales rank of 118,787

on Amazon.

Now there are still hits, of course, and some of them are worth billions: Google

springs to mind as one obvious example. But if Google hadn’t been formed, other

companies would have made almost as much money monetizing search. It’s like


social value of Microsoft: to find that out, you have to compare the value

of the world with Microsoft to the value of what the world would look like if

Microsoft had never been formed. And that’s a very different calculation to

simply taking the world as it is and subtracting the value of Microsoft in this


To put it another way, all worlds have hits. And I don’t think that the number

of hits is correlated to how much technical progress or financial liquidity

there is in any given world, even if many hits are the direct result of those

two things.

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