November’s BBL: Smart, Strong, and Funny? Yes Please!

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november bbl 1On Friday, November 21st, 2014, YPG members met in HarperCollins’ still relatively new downtown office to celebrate girl power. Okay, so November’s Brown Bag Lunch wasn’t technically related to the Spice Girls’ feminist mantra, but it was related: the panel was called “Smart, Strong, and Funny? Yes Please!” and we were there to discuss women writers and the space they’ve carved out in the industry with their (often humorous) non-fiction work. The panelists specifically discussed books written by Lena Dunham, Katie Heaney, and Amy Poehler, though they also gave recommendations for further reading at the end of the panel (don’t worry, their list of recs is below!).

Moderator Alex Arnold (HarperCollins) amassed a well-rounded panel: Katie Heaney, writer for BuzzFeed and author of Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without A Date (Grand Central Publishing, and a 2014 Little Big Mouth mailing); Allison Hunter, Heaney’s agent at Inkwell; Erika Seyfried, Senior Marketing Manager for Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl at Penguin Random House; and Carrie Thornton, Editorial Director of Dey Street Books and editor of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please (Dey Street Books/HarperCollins).

The panel spoke to a room of 75 attendees from AAP member publishing houses about the writing process, the acquisition/scouting process, the editing process, and the genre as a “trend” (or not).

Scouting Talent/Acquiring the Project

Carrie Thornton, who’s specialized in editing pop culture and humor writing for her whole career, said she often looks to Twitter to find new talent—that’s where they found Kelly Oxford, author of 2013’s Everything Is Perfect When You’re A Liar (It Books/HarperCollins)—and that YouTube is quickly become a new talent source. She thinks it’s replacing the “blog to book” model that’s been so popular over the past few years, and that YouTube is especially fertile because of the high levels of fan engagement—but the YouTuber has to have a voice that will translate well to the written format, which can be a challenge.

Allison Hunter, who co-agented Lena Dunham’s book in addition to representing Katie Heaney, said she doesn’t really look to YouTube but agreed about Twitter. She also looks at BuzzFeed, The Hairpin, and XOJane—she noted that BuzzFeed is extremely supportive of their staff writing other projects. Allison found Katie via The Hairpin and reached out to her about writing a book because she loved her voice.

Both Carrie and Allison noted that some comedians are writers and some aren’t—it’s important to find an author who’s honest about their comfort level with writing.

As for selling and acquiring the project, the panelists agreed that a hefty amount of buzz about the project or author certainly doesn’t hurt. For example, when Dunham’s proposal leaked on Gawker during the submission process, Inkwell starting receiving requests from publishers to see the submission. The leak generated even more buzz for the already much-talked about Dunham.

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Writing the Book

Katie Heaney, the only author on the panel, worked on her book while simultaneously attending graduate school. After she and Allison nailed down a theme, Katie would send essays to Allison (she tried to write the stories in chronological order), and at one point, Allison sent a few of them to an unnamed editor for feedback. The editor felt they needed more in order to sell the project, so Katie kept writing and had a full draft in roughly ten months.

The Editorial Process

After Carrie bought Amy Poehler’s book and Poehler came in to Harper’s offices to meet the team (according to Carrie, Poehler was delightful, normal, and funny—if you’ve read Yes Please, this is no surprise), Carrie then flew to LA to storyboard the book with Poehler for a week. Once they’d figured out the format and storytelling arc, Poehler got to writing while simultaneously sending boxes of childhood mementos to Carrie’s office for the editor to sift through (there’s a very visual component to Yes Please). Carrie described editing Yes Please as very much a one-on-one, organic process—and she also added a piece of advice: you never write or fix jokes for funny people. Their ideas re: humor will always top yours. So she edited Poehler, yes, but she didn’t try to “fix” any of the jokes in the book.

Katie Heaney said her editor often pushed her to go deeper (“act like you’re taking yourself to therapy”). It took them about six months to get the final product, and at first, she revealed, it was hard for her to receive notes, but after she sat with them for a day she accepted and loved the feedback. She also mentioned being very cautious about how much she was sharing in relation to who would be reading the book (some names and identifying details are changed, etc).

Marketing the Finished Product

Erika Seyfried said it was important to Lena Dunham for the book marketing and publicity to feel organic, not like forced promotion, and the team at Random House wanted to reach her legions of female fans. Dunham would come into the office a few times a week to work with the team. They came up with the guest opening act idea for her tour (a call for local talent in the tour cities went up on Dunham’s website, so that local artists would serve as her “opening act”) and the “Ask Lena” video series to engage her fans. The questions Dunham answers in those videos were submitted by fans over a two-week period, and Dunham saw them ahead of time, but her responses are totally off-the-cuff.

An audience member asked if the panelists feel there’s been any response from male readership to these books, and Erika noted that for Dunham, they focused on women. Men still engaged with their marketing efforts, but the obvious audience for this book is female; she felt it resonated more with women. Carrie added that they didn’t focus on women specifically, except for a Smart Girls at the Party essay contest. While Amy Poehler has no personal social media presence, they did use social to promote the book via a Yes Please homepage, contests, teasers, and events hosted by Amy on Reddit, Twitter, and Google.  Carrie did note that the core book buyers in the United States are women, so the focus when marketing/selling a book is naturally going to be on them.

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The Genre: Trend or Not?

When asked how the trend of women writing funny non-fiction began, Allison pointed to Sloane Crossley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake as a watershed moment, because she wasn’t a celebrity and the book still reached bestseller status. Then there was a backlash against the genre, she said, and then a shift—to books by Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, etc. Yes, these are all celeb authors, but Allison thinks the success of their books shows that people care about young women and what they have to say; people want to hear young women’s voices.

Carrie jumped in to mention Chelsea Handler as a founding foremother of the genre, and also pointed to the larger trend of women kicking butt* in comedy, and running their own television shows. She added that Sex and the City did a lot to show that there was irrefutably an audience for female-centric, funny work.

Erika noted that she feels the books in the genre have to empower women in some way, have to feel like there’s a shared experience between author and reader.

One audience member asked if the panelists think this is a trend, meaning the tide will turn away from it, as happens with all trends by definition. The panelists unanimously disagreed with this notion. Their feeling was that the popularity of this type of writing/book is not a blip—rather, it’s the showing up of an audience that’s finally being reached.

*My words, not hers.



Here’s a list of recs of further reading from our esteemed panelists:

  • Heaven & Tracy Clayton (BuzzFeed)
  • Brittany Gibbons
  • Meredith Haggerty
  • Rebecca Harrington
  • Heather Havrilesky
  • Jazmine Hughes
  • Jenny Lawson (The Blogess)
  • Kelsey Miller (Refinery29)
  • Heben Nigatu
  • Laurie Notaro
  • Meaghan O’Connell
  • Mallory Ortberg
  • Anne Helen Petersen
  • Beejoli Shah
  • Julieanne Smolinski
  • Pilot Viruet
  • Caity Weaver


Special thanks to HarperCollins/Dey Street Books (Yes Please), Random House (Not That Kind of Girl), and Hachette Book Group/Grand Central Publishing (Never Have I Ever) for donating books for this event!  

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