Earlier this week, Random House shelled out more than $3.5 million for Lena Dunham’s first book, Not That Kind of Girl. She has an amazing résumé for anyone, let alone a 26-year-old, having directed two feature films and scored four Emmy nominations for her TV show, HBO’s Girls. But what makes the book advance so surprising is that Dunham doesn’t have a track record of selling a lot of books.
Mania for up-and-comers isn’t new.
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Potential won out over actual accomplishment in other domains as well, such as the art world, where subjectivity and hype make people particularly prone to falling for Next Best Thing-ism. When forced to state a preference between an artist who “many critics felt had the potential to win a major award in the art community” and an artist who had just won that very award, participants viewed the up-and-comer more favorably. Even when researchers made subjects choose between someone who might win the award and someone who had actually won four times, subjects preferred the artist who hadn’t actually won anything 57 percent of the time. Even more amazing is that subjects preferred the newcomer while acknowledging that they felt more uncertain about the artist with potential, and that the award-winner objectively had a more impressive résumé.
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A whiff of positive information is all we need to set our minds aflutter. Just take the statement released by Susan Kamil, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Random House. “We’re thrilled to welcome Lena to Random House. Her skill on the page as a writer is remarkable—fresh, wise, so assured. She is that rare literary talent that will only grow from strength to strength and we look forward to helping her build a long career as an author.” Kamil isn’t just excited about the manuscript for Not That Kind of Girl, but about Dunham’s “long career” as an author.
Dunham’s book might fare as well as Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, which has sold a respectable 100,000 copies, according to BookScan. But Dunham’s book would need to sell at least 500,000 copies to break even. There’s a smaller chance that Not That Kind of Girl will sell more than a million, like Tina Fey’s Bossypants and that the $3.5 million-plus will seem like a bargain. If you’re a publishing executive who likes what you’ve already seen, you don’t want to pass up the chance, even though it’s statistically minuscule, of winning the jackpot version of Dunham’s future: that she’ll be a joy to work with, meet deadlines, stay with Random House forever, and be a prolific, best-selling author for the next five decades. The manuscript was as tempting as that second lottery ticket with only one number scratched off; the final winnings are a percentage of Dunham’s sales. Not only is her career skyrocketing right now—the first number is a match!—but this is the only ticket of its kind available.
Link to the rest at Slate