When Ms. Fey signed her deal, she had been the head writer for Saturday Night Live for almost 10 years, starred in the commercially released comedy Baby Mama and was Liz Lemon on NBC’s 30 Rock (which she also wrote and created). During its peak, 30 Rock averaged 7.7 million viewers.
“Tina Fey was a very known commodity,” Mr. Spillman said. “Lena is very culturally tapped in, but she has only done 12 episodes of a show that not that many people watched. I just don’t know where that extra audience is going to come from.”
The proposal for Not That Kind of Girl, mocked up to look like a charmingly vintage advice paperback book one might unearth in a thrift shop in an Ohio college town, includes sections on losing her virginity, diet, body image, crying at work, death and travel. The achingly self-conscious tone of the writing and many of the stories will be familiar to anyone who watches Girls, follows Ms. Dunham on Twitter or has read her in The New Yorker.
As demonstrated by the New Yorker Festival panel, Ms. Dunham does have fans who are willing to pay $30 to see her, and probably buy her book as well. Additionally, publishing insiders point out that the young audience she draws is influential, capable of fueling the type of online buzz that has helped propel Dunham’s rise, and thus highly desirable to advertisers.
“I hate to use the word ‘buzzy,’ but the show gets a lot of buzz,” said Casey Bloys, senior vice president of HBO Entertainment. “When a show starts conversations, that’s a good thing.”
But in the case of Girls, media chatter hasn’t translated into a monster hit.
The first season drew an average of 1.2 million viewers per episode, a modest success even by HBO’s standards, especially when compared with True Blood (5.8 million) and The Newsroom (2.8 million).
Its numbers are especially strong in East and West Coast urban enclaves: New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Portland and San Francisco. But the show hasn’t done well in the Midwest and the South.
“The goal of big media appearances is to start a national conversation, and she already has that going for her, so maybe there’s hope,” a publishing insider told us. “But she would have to expand interest in her brand beyond girls who graduated from liberal arts school, and I don’t really think that can be done.”
One book publicist likened Ms. Dunham’s appeal to that of twee writer and director Miranda July, in that “a select group of really talented, really interesting women will buy anything she does.” But, this publicist predicted: “That won’t be enough.”
At the New Yorker Festival talk, Ms. Dunham held court in a demure black dress, veering between talking about a recent appearance on a Fortune 500 panel and her feelings about her thighs. She talked about firing staffers and trusting her gut as a director rather than pesky actors “who haven’t eaten in four and a half weeks.”
Ms. Dunham came across as mature and confident, more bossypants than awkward Oberlin girl. She certainly looked nothing like her rumpled Girls alter ego Hannah Horvath, who also wanted to turn a collection of essays into a memoir, but couldn’t get even a modest book deal. In the first episode, her internship boss refused to even give her pages a look because she’d quit.
It is tempting to wonder what Hannah would think of her no-longer-scrappy creator, with her millions and her big-time book deal. Ms. Dunham and Random House can only hope that the Hannahs of the world buy a copy when it comes out.