Just this week, while Penguin was suing one of its bestselling authors for thirty-three thousand dollars, Random House was throwing three-point-seven million into the bank account of a writer who’s never written a book before. (Who hasn’t even written more than the vaguest of proposals for the book under discussion, come to think of it.)
What’s wrong with this picture?
Other than everything?
First, I have no idea why Elizabeth Wurtzel (author of Prozac Nation), has failed to turn in the book that she currently has under contract to Penguin. I would like to think that if I were in her shoes, I’d have gotten the job done and moved on. But that’s just me. I don’t know the specifics of her story—and frankly, I don’t care too much about them. Not after learning that the advance money she got for her next book came to a measly thirty-three grand.
Good God. How many copies of Prozac Nation did Penguin sell? Tons and tons. Certainly enough that they must have had a spare thirty-three thousand kicking around to fund Wurtzel’s next book, strings attached or otherwise. (Even though, as I’ve said, I’m of the opinion that turning in contracted work in a satisfactory and timely manner is a very fine policy. Kind of like honesty.)
Anyhow, I was just getting my head around the notion that one of the Big 6 could go after one of their bestselling authors for an amount of money that would put an American family only four thousand dollars above the poverty line, when I got wind of the 3.7 million that Random House had just thrown at Lena Dunham.
Lena Dunham, it turns out, is the 26-year-old writer and star of an HBO series called “Girls,” which began airing six months ago. In other words, Random is betting that she’s their next Tina Fey. Tina Fey without all those years on SNL and Thirty Rock, of course, Tina Fey without the brilliant Sarah Palin schtick, and Tina Fey without the movie career.
You know—Tina Fey without the fame.
Maybe they can make something out of it. Who knows? In the book business, which is painfully short on glamour to begin with, the first step in making something out of nothing is always to throw an obscene amount of money at it. Money builds buzz. Money gets people talking. People, in this case, like the New York Times, the New York Daily News, and, most insightfully, Salon
People are talking about Penguin’s going after Elizabeth Wurtzel for their thirty-three grand, too—at Business Week, where publishing attorney Jonathan Kirsch says, “Publishing is in so much economic trouble. You have a distressed industry asking themselves, ‘Where can additional revenue come from?’” And at the Reluctant Habits blog, where you can find the details of each suit Penguin is pursuing. (Spoiler Alert: One of the advances is exactly ten grand, and only two of them break the fifty-thousand mark.)
Money talks, all right. And when you compare Penguin’s cashing out Wurzel’s track record for $33,000 against Random House’s $3,700,000 bet on Dunham, it’s easy to hear what it’s saying. It just doesn’t sound good.
What do you think?