Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham: A tale of two multi-million dollar feminist book deals that were met with wildly different judgments

Schumer's lauded for leaning in "like a boss" while Dunham was pilloried for thinking she was worth millions — why?

Published October 2, 2015 4:35PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni/AP/Charles Sykes)
(Reuters/Mario Anzuoni/AP/Charles Sykes)

Yesterday, news broke that Amy Schumer had returned a $1 million book advance, with interest, to HarperCollins in order to hold out for and successfully negotiate a new book deal worth $8-$10 million with Gallery Books.

The working title for the book of essays is "The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo," The Hollywood Reporter confirmed. According to The New York Times, “Some of the sample essays explored heavy themes like her father’s illness and alcoholism and a traumatic sexual experience, according to publishing executives.” The sale’s official announcement on publishing news website Publishers Marketplace described it as “a collection of comedic essays about her life, ranging “from the raunchy to the romantic, the heartfelt to the harrowing” (via Jennifer Sinsheimer on Twitter).

The news of Schumer’s cunning negotiating earned her almost universal praise across the internet. As Erin Cook put it at Marie Claire Australia, “In this instance, Schumer managed to lean in so far that her nose nearly touched the ground. Sheryl Sandberg would be proud.”

John “Roman” Romaniello, co-author with Adam Bornstein of "Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha," gives insight into similar negotiations that helped them land a seven-figure, two book deal with HarperOne:

The first publisher we met with offered us a $400,000 “preempt” (preemptive offer).  This is an “exploding offer” that you have a short time to consider and that usually prevents you from meeting with other publishers. We considered it but decided to turn it down. (We’ll cover the “why” of both events later on in this post.)

The gambit (and gamble) paid off. Our proposal — and, I have to imagine, our refusal of the preempt — made quite a splash. Publishers who hadn’t seemed interested the week before suddenly clamored to set up meetings.

One of the most interesting aspects of this story to me, though, is that nobody seems to be questioning whether Schumer’s advance is outsize, as happened with Lena Dunham’s reported $3.7 million book advance for "Not That Kind of Girl." Instead, Schumer’s business savvy is what’s playing a starring role in most news stories, with headlines like Vulture’s “Amy Schumer Canceled a Book Deal Only to Get an Even Better One — Like a Goddamn Boss.” As Megan Reynolds wrote at The Frisky, “Like everything in life, there’s a lesson here, but this one is clear and strong and true: know your worth. Understand your value. Don’t be afraid to take charge of whatever the fuck it is you want to do, and understand that whatever they’re offering you, you’re probably worth more than that. Follow Amy’s lead. It will be worth your time.”

I’d venture that Schumer’s strategy of believing her book was worth more and making sure she got a higher figure—one that, not incidentally, has made headlines and generated further buzz for the book—is part of what will drive people to want to read it, in part to see whether it holds up to the hype, and in part, perhaps to find out what she’s gone through that’s made her so tenacious.

Clearly, she took the project very seriously, and didn’t want to risk any chance of the content of her proposal being leaked, as Dunham’s was. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “Secrecy surrounding the project was tight. Editors had to go to the offices of Schumer's book agent David Kuhn to read the proposal. Eight publishers bid on the project.”

Flavorwire highlighted the different treatment Dunham received, including having her book proposal posted on Gawker (before being taken down at the behest of Dunham’s lawyer) vs. that of actor and comedian Aziz Ansari, for "Modern Romance," strongly suggesting that gender played a role in the pre-publication press around the deals, much of it questioning Dunham’s writings’ worth while offering praise, or at least neutrality, for Ansari.

When Dunham’s deal was announced, numerous articles crunched the numbers, wondering if Random House would likely earn back enough to cover the large advance. But with Schumer’s deal, that seems almost beside the point. If Gallery Books thinks she’s worth $8-$10 million, then, to put it simply, she is. Even her former publisher isn’t up in arms about missing out on the chance to work with her. Michael Morrison, publisher and president of HarperCollins, told The New York Times, “I can’t say that I was surprised that Amy decided to cancel our contract. Amy is driven, hysterical and really has her pulse on the culture. She deserves all her success and is obviously smart; she knew that delaying her book would reap huge benefits when the time was right.”

Obviously, the rest of us are not going to be following Schumer’s footsteps in terms of bargaining in the millions, but perhaps the praise for Schumer’s financial wisdom stems in part from our desire to similarly stand up for ourselves, especially for women who may see her as a role model. A new study, Women in the Workplace, by & McKinsey and Company of 118 companies and almost 30,000 employees found that these types of workplace negotiations often go down very differently depending on the worker’s gender. “When a woman asserts herself, she is often called ‘aggressive,’ ‘ambitious,’ or ‘out for herself.’ When a man does the same, he is seen as ‘confident’ and ‘strong.’ As a result of this double standard, women can face penalties in the workplace like missing out on hiring or advancement opportunities and salary increases.” These accusations—which, in this instance, aggressive, ambitious and out for oneself are in this instance—haven’t been hurled against Schumer regarding her book, as far as I can tell.

The study echoes what wealth coach Barbara Stanny, author of "Secrets of Six-Figure Women," wrote in an article on salary negotiation: “In my experience, when you value yourself, people automatically put a higher value on you too.” Therefore, it makes sense that, especially since we don’t have any of Schumer’s written work to go on, her decision to get as much as she can while she’s in the spotlight is being so roundly applauded.

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

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Amy Schumer Book Deals Books Lena Dunham Publishing