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Now in author mode, the young TV star and filmmaker Lena Dunham is promoting her book of essays on a tour that includes literary authors and performances by “remarkable, special weirdos”
Last month, writer, actor and producer Lena Dunham started an ambitious project. Nearly 600 people responded to an open call for video auditions on her website, including a sand artist, a ukulele player, cappella singers, gymnasts, performance artists and stand-up comics, even some exceptionally charismatic babies.
The seven who made the final cut won’t be making cameos in Girls, Dunham’s HBO show about Brooklyn 20-somethings. Instead, they’ll be the warm-up acts on an elaborately produced, 11-city tour to promote Dunham’s new book, Not That Kind of Girl.
“Three of the videos were disturbing, but the rest were super awesome,” Dunham said, adding that she spent several hours screening the auditions in bed.
In an era when author tours and splashy book parties have grown increasingly rare, Dunham has organised a travelling circus of sorts that seems more like a roving Burning Man festival than a sober, meet-the-author literary event. Prominent comedians and writers, such as Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein and novelist Zadie Smith, have thrown their weight behind Dunham and will appear on her tour as part of a carefully curated cast of artists, along with live music, poetry readings and, naturally, food trucks.
“I found the idea of a traditional author tour, where you go and stand behind the lectern, a little bit embarrassing, a little blatantly self-promotional and a little boring,” Dunham said. “I wanted it to have an arts festival feel, which is why we now have all these remarkable special weirdos who I found on the Internet.”
Dunham’s critics are likely to see these spectacles as an over-the-top marketing stunt or yet another example of her inflated sense of self as an artist. Her fans are lining up, though. In less than a week, the tour sold around 8,000 tickets, which are selling for $38 at most locations. Tickets include a $28 signed hardcover of Not That Kind of Girl. Dunham said she tried to buy a scalped ticket to an upcoming event in Brooklyn herself, so that she could give it away, but the ticket holder wanted $900 in cash, and “My mama taught me the word no,” she wrote on Twitter.
The tour is also a way for Dunham to shed her TV persona and rebrand herself as an author. By putting her onstage alongside seasoned writers like the memoirist Mary Karr and the novelist Vendela Vida, Random House hopes to cast Dunham as a major new literary talent, not just a celebrity who leveraged her fame for a big book deal.
“We’re trying to establish her as a writer, a very serious literary writer, so we put her in conversation with authors who are very literary,” said Theresa Zoro, director of publicity for Random House.
Dunham reportedly received more than $3 million for the book, a collection of personal essays detailing her struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder, her string of emotionally abusive boyfriends and humiliating early sexual experiences, and her creative evolution. Although the book touches on universal issues like the challenges of becoming an adult, those themes are filtered through her very particular sensibility, and her stories might not have the broad appeal of popular writers she has been compared to, like Nora Ephron and like David Sedaris, who gave the book a glowing blurb. Random House is planning a first printing of 2,25,000 copies, a big first run in today’s sluggish publishing climate, but still a relatively small number given the size of the advance. Tina Fey’s 2011 best seller, Bossypants, had a first print run of 7,00,000 hardcover copies. It went on to sell more than 3 million copies and was hugely profitable for Little, Brown, which paid somewhere between $5.5 and $6 million for the book.
To break even, Random House probably needs to sell at least 500,000 copies of Not That Kind of Girl, publishing sources say.
Memoirs and essays from TV personalities have been a publishing industry staple for decades, but the stakes have gotten higher lately as publishers compete for a handful of titles with blockbuster potential. Nineteen publishers bid for Not That Kind of Girl in a frenzied two-day auction. Publishers aren’t just fishing for hits; they’re also struggling to remain culturally relevant in an era in which TV dominates popular culture.
The tour for Not That Kind of Girl, which started in New York on Tuesday at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square with comedian Amy Schumer, was one effort to form an army of evangelists for the book. Random House chose some cities, like Seattle; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Oregon, because they are areas where Girls fans are concentrated.