Last week, Random House offered a whopping $3.5 million for Lena Dunham’s first book, Not That Kind of Girl. The 26-year-old has directed two feature films and accrued four Emmy nominations for her TV show, Girls, but a book author she is not. So why the huge outlay on the publisher’s part?
Slate argues that, although logically it does not make sense to pay up before an up-and-comer has proven that he or she is a worthy investment, our fascination with the Next Big Thing is understandable when viewed from a scientific perspective, and it happens all the time.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, for example, subjects were asked how much money they’d offer two NBA basketball players: a five-year veteran with impressive stats and a rookie with only projections for his numbers. For Player A, participants, on average, said they’d offer $4.26 million, but for Player B, who had never stepped foot in a pro arena, they amped the amount to $5.25 million.
This same finding pops up again and again in reasearch, Slate explains:
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.
Uncertainty, scientists conclude, acts as a sort of amplifier, intensifying our response to incomplete information depending upon our interpretation of it, whether positive or negative. Slate:
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.
The statistics are a bit more sobering. In order for Dunham’s book to break even with her advance, she’ll need to sell at least 500,000 copies. If she reaches a million, Random House’s $3.5m investment will seem like a bargain. Whether Dunham’s film and television fans also enjoy reading, however, is yet to be seen. However:
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.
Slate argues that this phenomenon also applies to the presidential election. While Obama fans were head-over-heels in 2008 when their partiality for potential allowed them to freely imagine that the new president could solve all of the country’s problems overnight, today we’re forced to confront his actual accomplishments, which don’t stand a chance when measured against our hopeful, boundless imaginations.
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