Well, a couple of things. I got the flu (again). The truck died. One of the dogs was sick. Some other unpleasant stuff got in the way. Frankly, I was a little depressed and decided to watch bad horror films instead of be my usual perky self.
But I don't want to talk about that. I want to talk about Lena Dunham. Book circles are buzzing about the $3.7 million advance Dunham just got from Random House for her as-yet-unwritten advice book for young women. Dunham, by the way, is the 26-year-old writer/director of the film Tiny Furniture and the creator/writer/director/star of a show called Girls, which apparently received a bunch of Emmy nominations this year. So yay for her. That's impressive. She also seems really nice.
But this advance. Oy, this advance. I have also been published by Random House. They're home to my Jane Austen-as-modern-day-vampire series. And I can tell you this--I didn't get $3.7 million for those books. I was really happy with what they did give me, but probably not nearly as happy as Lena Dunham is. Particularly considering that this is her first book. My books were my 55th, 56th, and 57th. Not that I'm counting.
A lot of people have asked me if I think Dunham deserves her advance. Well, a publisher decides what to advance you based on how well they think the book will sell. And if Random House thinks Dunham's book is good enough to warrant giving her $3.7 million, they must think she's going to sell somewhere between 500,000 and 750,000 copies, because that's how many they'll need to move in order to make a profit. And even at those numbers, Dunham won't have actually earned back her advance, as she'll presumably be getting the usual 15% royalty rate. If her book has a $27 list price, that means she'll be chalking up $4.05 for each copy sold, meaning she'll need sales of about 913,500 copies to earn out.
That ain't gonna happen. Never. So does that mean Dunham doesn't deserve her $3.7 million? To me, the more useful question is, does anyone deserve a $3.7 million advance?
That's a difficult question to answer. If Random House had offered me $3.7 million for my Jane Austen vampire books, I don't think I can with even a hint of honesty tell you that I would have said, "That's way too much! How about we do a hundred thousand and you use the rest to sign up some other folks?" But I know someone who did just that. When bidding on her novel reached heights she never dreamed of, she called a halt to it and accepted a lower offer. Why? Because she knew that if her book failed, not only would she never receive an advance like that again, no one writing books like hers would receive such an advance. She didn't want that to happen.
Her book, by the way, went on to be very successful, and ultimately she did earn an amount equal to what she would have gotten had she let publishers keep upping their offers for her book. It just took her a lot longer to get there. As in probably twenty years longer. And that brings up a good point: As an author, you're going to earn the same amount for your book whether you get that money up front as an advance or over time as royalties. Unless, of course, you're overpaid to begin with and never earn back the advance. But let's assume you do. Lena Dunham could indeed sell enough copies to earn her $3.7 million over time. It's doubtful, but it could happen. So why throw that $3.7 million at her right away? Why not give her a million now and let the rest come to her in the form of royalty checks twice a year? Then use that other $2.7 million to buy some other books.
My novelist friend Michael Lowenthal pointed out that pretty much every author we know would be thrilled to receive a $50,000 advance for a novel. That's a lot of money for most authors, who generally receive well below that. Using that number, we could give Dunham her million and still have enough left to give 54 other writers and their books a chance at success. That seems reasonable, no?
But of course that $3.7 million isn't just about the quality of Dunham's book. It's about creating buzz. The $3.7 million isn't for Dunham's words so much as it is for Dunham herself. She's the It Girl of the moment. She's funny. She's hip. She's everything Random House wants their readers to think they are. What they're buying in Dunham isn't a book, it's an image, or more precisely a pop culture moment that they hope will live long enough for them to get a return on their investment.
So do I think Lena Dunham deserves a $3.7 million advance? No. But it has nothing to do with her as a person or a writer. I think she's pretty great. And it's not her fault that the world of books and publishing is changing into something that writers like Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner wouldn't recognize. She's just the most recent beneficiary of a publishing world desperately trying to figure out how to stay relevant. But if she wants to donate $50,000 to my Indiegogo campaign for my book, I wouldn't say no.
Speaking of which, I'm at the 1/3 mark as far as campaign time goes, but just under that for actual sponsorship. If you've been thinking about participating, please head over to my Indiegogo campaign page now. And please, please, please keep telling your friends about the project. Word of mouth has been my biggest promotion tool, so hound everyone. They'll thank you for it later.