Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What Would You Do With A $3.7 Million Advance?

Book publishing isn't dead. As long as guys like Steve Bodio and Tom McIntyre (via Bodio) can continue to get their work published, there's hope.

Or maybe there's not, at least for some publishers.

From Salon

I like Lena Dunham. But her $3.7 million book deal with Random House, after a bidding war involving all of the major publishers, is emblematic of what is wrong with corporate publishing today. My first publishing job, in 1987, was at Random House. Bennett Cerf’s publishing company, the home of Faulkner, Capote and Dr. Seuss, is now only one of a handful of “major” publishers, by which I mean publishers who are corporate, bottom-line-driven, freighted with massive overhead and generally reactionary. The Dunham deal smacks of a search for the “Barton Fink” touch, as in get me the next “Bossypants” — stat. I realize that Dunham is an easy target — only 26, from an artsy New York family, the creator, star and director of her own HBO show. And there is an element of sexism in the backlash — a young, strong, independent female scores a big deal — but I have no problem with her agent, Kim Witherspoon, shaking down the dinosaurs on her client’s behalf. What the market will bear. I imagine Dunham’s book will kick ass, yet it will also get its critical ass handed to itself because of the advance. If Random House is already hucking it as the next Tina Fey meets Nora Ephron meets David Sedaris (no pressure, Lena), then the critics will be expecting Fey meets Ephron meets Sedaris.

Needless to say, I don't (or at least didn't, prior to reading about her book deal) know who the hell Lena Dunham is. I love both Tina Fey and David Sedaris, so I guess Lena Dunham is some new wunderkind in that mold, only younger?

I don't watch her HBO show (mainly because I don't have HBO). I'm assuming it's about a group of smart, funny, good-looking, fashionable, affluent, artsy, slightly cynical, slightly neurotic (but in an endearing Woody Allen kind of way) New York-based twentysomethings trying to figure out their crazy, complicated lives while having more fun and engaging in more great sex than you or I ever will.

Because, you know, we've just never had a show like that before. I'm sure this one's different. It's probably one of those "voice of a generation" shows that come along only about, say, a thousand or so times every generation...

At any rate, sour grapes aside, the rest of the Salon story is interesting, and goes on to postulate what some publishers could have done with that $3.7 million if they had had it to spread around and perhaps roll the literary dice with some unknown authors. Which I'm assuming is what publishers actually used to do.

The more I read about deals like this, the more I come to believe (and the article points this out) that small publishing companies and presses are the future, and that the Random Houses of the world are like huge, buoyant turds slowly circling the low-flow toilet. It's gonna take a few revolutions around the bowl, but they're assuredly headed for the septic tank.

But it's their money, and if they want to gamble it on such things, more power to 'em. As for me, I will buy Steve's new book and I will buy Tom McIntyre's new book. But I won't be buying Lena Dunham's new book. Mainly because it's going to be an advice book for young women, and I'm a fat, unhip, 41-year-old man. And, well, that would just be kinda creepy, don't you think?


  1. I didn't know who she was either, but Google is a wonderful thing. I now know who she is, and that she has at lease one obligatory tattoo. I suppose her book could serve as a guidebook for where my granddaughter is headed, but then she's only eight; hopefully I've got a few years to head her off.

  2. Just Googled her. Successful authors sure are a lot easier on the eyes than they used to be. Instead of Edmund Wilson, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Conner, we have Chabon, Eggers, Dunham, and some guys named Jonathan.

    Small publishers are certainly MY future, such as it is. I've given up trying to figure out the book/publishing business. My first little hunting book, published by a small, regional press, came out with strong reviews in Gray's and Shooting Sportsman, and even featured a nice blurb from the Mad Bibliophile of Magdalena. With my largest royalty check, I could've bought a 50-pound bag of non-premium dog food and a six-pack of domestic beer. Oh, well, first book and all that.

    After collecting scores of rejections from NY publishers and agents, Texas Texas Tech University Press took on my first novel. Again, strong reviews in the big city papers in Texas and the regional trade pubs. Finalist for the Western Writers of America Spur Award.

    Nevertheless, no one in NY, editor or agent, showed the slightest interest in my second novel. TTUP published it and promptly sold out the first three printings, due mostly to a starred review in Booklist. A nice audio deal followed. More strong reviews in the big-city papers and regional literary pubs. Spur Award Finalist. Runner-up for the TCU Texas Book Award. Sales comparable to respectable mid-list numbers in NY.

    I couldn't get a NY editor or agent to so much as look at my third novel, which, unless something falls through, will be published next fall by TTUP.

    I rarely think about NY publishing anymore, although I do faithfully read the New York Review of Books, which seems to review as many if not more books published by University Presses as by NY publishers.

    Of course university press budgets are being cut nearly everywhere, so I don't take anything for granted.

  3. While I completely agree with what you said about the obscene amount of money that was paid for Lena Dunham's book and everything else you said in your post regarding the publishing industry, I have to plead with you to at least rent a few episodes of her show "Girls" on Netflix. It is actually excruciatingly funny --she may look good in her press interviews but she is actually a very homely and overweight young woman who is not afraid to bare (quite literally) all of her insecurities and those of her friends, who are equally awkward--the episode where her virgin Jewish American Princess friend accidentally gets high on crack will have you laughing. And for what it's worth, my 64 year old husband loves the show, and he's not a pedophile. Promise!

  4. PS. Didnt mean to be anonymous. Mary Ann Rose

  5. Who writes well herself, sayeth the Mad Bibliophile of Magdalena.

    Hell, MA, I don't think anybody is blaming the WRITERS-- I would hardly turn that down. But my old Wildbranch colleague Henry just explained why he (and I) are relative paupers...

    You may know New York (I do) but if NY doesn't know you, "fuggheddaboudit". And publishers can be as clueless when they buy you-- I am now fighting the idea that my forthcoming hyperliterate (ahem) "Book of Books" must be blurbed only in the hook & bullet press, though I have all manner of interesting folks volunteering.

    Ask me about the title "Route 60 East of Magdalena" some time...
    Now YOU, Chad, I'd take. I'll even send an electronic ms...

  6. Please reverse last two sentences (;-) It will make more sense.

  7. Really interesting story, Henry, thanks for that. It's always nice (and hopeful) to hear when other regional (or at least non NY-based) writers have success. Maybe there's hope for unpublished authors as well...

    Unknown (Mary), yeah, I probably should try to watch before going all critical on it. Truth be told, after reading a bit more about it, the show does sound like something my sense of humor would appreciate. And I love smart, funny, independent, young female comedians, probably because they seem a bit more real than all those dime-a-dozen smart, funny, independent young male comedians, who always seem to come off as smarmy and, well, a bit wuss-like. But I'm not a pedophile, either...

    Steve, I can only assume that the marketers of your forthcoming Book of Books simply don't read and are utterly unfamiliar with the current hook-n-bullet press? But perhaps it might go over a bit better if you could somehow make it more relevant to today's audience, you know, jazz it up, dumb it down, give it some branding power. I'll think up some awesome marketing ideas and get back to you on that...

    BTW, I've been trying to leave comments on your blog and they've been disappearing. Pretty sure it's on my end so I'll try to figure that out. I love that Aya and it's got me thinking, which is never good for someone in my socio-economic class...

  8. My blog has been weird for readers in Canada, OK, and some others-- fine in most of the Rockies-- for 24 hours, and I DON'T KNOW WHY! Were it not for the friendships I make I would burn the infernal machines...

    Want to read the B O' B's? I am circulating the ms (edited) to friends early-- never too soon, too much, or too weird publicity-- just too little. Fran Hamerstrom's pungent remarks to me on her Letterman appearance (PLUG: IN B O' B's!) comes to mind.

    Unknown MaryAnn is a hell of a writer & blogger but anonymous for reasons of professional caution-- I will send you a link with the Word doc.

    A thought only you would understand-- I wonder if R A Lafferty would get published today.

    The AyA is fine. I have no money and spend it on guns and books and will continue to.

    Oh and: marketers don't f*****g read. You know they wanted to call eagles "The most F word BEAUTIFUL bird in the world" in my subtitle? And what is an ETERNITY of Eagles anyway???

    My title was "The Eagle's Shadow: a Natural and Cultural History of All Things Eagle. My second choice was the Biblical "The Way of an EAgle" [in the air] which I figured had a little sorta Zen feel too. Hah.

    Wanna know what a sub- copyeditor asked me about that "way" line in- text, with ch and verse cited? "What book was it from and who wrote it?" I put "Conventional form of ref, King James version". She replied "but what BOOK and who WROTE it?" A more faithfully Catholic writer friend suggested I say "God" but I was afraid they would think I was a religious nut and reason of sorts prevailed...

    Don't ask about Abercrombie & Fitch unless you get me on the phone with a big drink.

    1. In teenspeak, OMG, Steve! Someone who is actually allowed to TOUCH a book, let alone read it, didn't get your reference to the King James version? Now I am convinced more than ever that there is no future in literacy or education.

      I suppose their cutesy title is a play on that old book of plurals, An Exultation of Larks. But no one remembers that anyway. I am very naive. I had NO idea that an author couldnt title his book whatever he damn well pleases.

      From my old college buddies, University Presses are the way to go, and hopefully will not soon be gone. I enjoy all of your writings, Chad and Steve. Mary Ann