The Problem With the $1 Million Book Proposal
1:30 pm, October 2nd | by Sarah Devlin
A snitch in the publishing industry did a little clandestine email forwarding, which is how we know the following: Lena Dunham is shopping around a memoir wearing the skin of an advice book, and her agent is hoping to snag at least $1 million for it. Slate has the details:
A detailed proposal for the book, with some sample chapters, was included, and the email mentioned that the literary agency had set “an in-house floor of $1 Million” for U.S. rights to the book…
The (presumably tentative) title is Not That Kind of Girl: Advice by Lena Dunham. In the intro, Dunham is self-deprecating about the idea that she has any wisdom to share, but says that if the book can help anyone avoid some of the mistakes she’s made it will be worth it.
The trouble with this is not that Dunham is writing a funny memoir in the same vein as Chelsea Handler, Mindy Kaling or Sloane Crosley — more female essayists are a good thing. The problem with a $1 million advance is that it is so comically above the ceiling for all normal nonfiction advances, which gives Dunham’s detractors a chance to pile on her again (even though it’s her agent’s job to sell that book/get that paper), and they won’t be completely wrong. Think about how many modest $50,000 advances could have been given to a diverse group of up and coming nonfiction writers instead, especially given that the old strategy of betting big on a celebrity’s name is no longer the most successful publishing model out there.
But the problem is bigger than Dunham, and it has to do with enormous advances for books that are not yet written. When Chad Harbach got $665,000 for The Art Of Fielding, it felt well-earned, given that it took him ten years to write the darn thing. Giving Dunham $1 million for a 60-70 page book proposal, however detailed, and several “sample chapters” feels like a mockery of the time and sacrifice it takes for people who are no less talented but much less connected to get their books made. For the $1 million promise of a book from Dunham, whichever publisher takes the bait could have had two Chad Harbachs. Why not make a commitment to paying all writers handsomely for their work, even if some of them happen to be established celebrities in other media?