Celebrity-penned nonfiction books have typically served as mutually beneficial partnerships between publishers stars looking to extend their brands — but if the top selling books of 2015 are any indication, that relationship may be on the rocks.
Dunham and Ansari received wide coverage for their sizable book advances: $3.7 million for Dunham's "Not That Kind of Girl," which was released in late 2014 but expected to sell well through the following year. Ansari got a reported $3.5 million for June's "Modern Romance," which is similar in tone to his successful Netflix series "Master of None." Both titles were released by Penguin Random House.
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The great celebrity book bust: Lena Dunham, Aziz Ansari underperform for publishers
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 01: Actress Lena Dunham attends TimesTalks: A Final Farewell to the Cast of HBO's 'Girls' at Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on February 1, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 02: Actress Lena Dunham attends the the New York premiere of the sixth and final season of 'Girls' at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center on February 2, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Steve Zak Photography/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 02: (L-R) Actresses Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet, Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke attend the the New York premiere of the sixth and final season of 'Girls' at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center on February 2, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 07: Actress Lena Dunham is seen on December 7, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Raymond Hall/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 14: Actress Lena Dunham arrives at Glamour Women of the Year 2016 at NeueHouse Hollywood on November 14, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 07: Lena Dunham leaves Lourde's birthday party at ZZï¿½ Clam Bar on November 7, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by James Devaney/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 14: Actress Lena Dunham poses backstage during Glamour Women Of The Year 2016 LIVE Summit at NeueHouse Hollywood on November 14, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Honoree Laurie Simmons, daughter Lena Dunham and Tip Dunham attend ICP's luncheon honoring Laurie Simmons on November 1, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for ICP)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 27: Jennifer Konner and Lena Dunham attend 12th Annual New York Television Festival - Creative Keynote: A Conversation with 'Girls' at SVA Theater on October 27, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Laura Cavanaugh/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 25: Jenni Konner, Lena Dunham, and Jessica Grose attend Hearst MagFront 2016 at Hearst Tower on October 25, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Hearst)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 25: Lena Dunham (L) and Abbi Jacobson pose onstage before discussing Abbi Jacobson's book 'Carry This Book' at Symphony Space on October 25, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by D Dipasupil/Getty Images)
LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Episode 0434 -- Pictured: (l-r) Actress Lena Dunham during an interview on October 11, 2016 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 24: Actress Lena Dunham is seen walking in Soho on October 24, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Raymond Hall/GC Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 02: Lena Dunham discusses Let Girls Learn at The American Magazine Media Conference at Grand Hyatt New York on February 2, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Gary Gershoff/WireImage)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 24: Actress Lena Dunham speaks from the podium at the Lena Dunham and Planned Parenthood Host Sex, Politics & Film Cocktail Reception at The Spur on January 24, 2016 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 24: Honoree Lena Dunham speaks onstage at Variety's Power of Women New York presented by Lifetime at Cipriani 42nd Street on April 24, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for Variety)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - JANUARY 13: Actress Lena Dunham attends ELLE's Annual Women in Television Celebration on January 13, 2015 at Sunset Tower in West Hollywood, California. Presented by Hearts on Fire and Olay. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for ELLE)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 11: Actress Lena Dunham attends HBO's post Golden Globe Awards party at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 11, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 11: Actress/director Lena Dunham (L) and singer/songwriter Taylor Swift attend HBO's Official Golden Globe Awards After Party at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 11, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 05: Lena Dunham attends the 'Girls' season four premiere at American Museum of Natural History on January 5, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 02: Actress/Author Lena Dunham reads from her book, 'Not That Kind of Girl' during the 2014 Ally Coalition's Talent Show at New World Stages on December 2, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Pont/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - NOVEMBER 11: Actress / Director Lena Dunham attends Pen Center USA's 24th Annual Literary Awards Festival at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel on November 11, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)
LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 29: Lena Dunham meets fans and signs copies of her book 'Not That Kind Of Girl' at Waterstones, Piccadilly on October 29, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 14: Actress Lena Dunham signs copies of 'Not That Kind Of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned.' at Barnes & Noble bookstore at The Grove on October 14, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 30: Television personality Robin Roberts (L) and actress Lena Dunham tape an interview at 'Good Morning America' at the ABC Times Square Studios on September 30, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Ray Tamarra/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 25: Actress Lena Dunham arrives at the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on August 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - AUGUST 23: Actress Lena Dunham attends Variety and Women in Film Emmy Nominee Celebration powered by Samsung Galaxy on August 23, 2014 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Variety)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 05: [EDITOR'S NOTE: Image has been digitally processed] Lena Dunham attends the 'Charles James: Beyond Fashion' Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 5, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 23: Director Lena Dunham on the set of 'Girls' on April 23, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Bobby Bank/GC Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 01: Lena Dunham filming 'Girls' on May 1, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Steve Sands/GC Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 07: Lena Dunham attends the 2014 Point Honors New York gala at New York Public Library on April 7, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Nomi Ellenson/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 18: Lena Dunham visits 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' at Rockefeller Center on March 18, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/NBC/Getty Images for 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon')
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 27: Actress Lena Dunham attends the Fox Searchlight Pictures' 'Dom Hemingway' screening hosted by The Cinema Society And Links Of London on March 27, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
NORTH HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 13: Actress Lena Dunham attends an evening with 'Girls' at Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre on March 13, 2014 in North Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 13: Writer/director Lena Dunham poses with Best Actress in a TV Comedy Award in the press room during the 70th Annual Golden Globe Awards held at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 13, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 09: Lena Dunham attends the premiere of 'Girls' season 2 hosted by HBO at NYU Skirball Center on January 9, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)
Cast member Lena Dunham arrives at the premiere of Universal's 'This Is 40,' December 12, 2012 at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 12: Writer/Director/Actress Lena Dunham attends 'Girls' Greenroom Photo Op during the 2012 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Paramount Theatre on March 12, 2012 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for SXSW)
SANTA MONICA, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Actress/filmmaker Lena Dunham, winner of Best First Screenplay for 'Tiny Furniture,' accepts award onstage during the 2011 Film Independent Spirit Awards at Santa Monica Beach on February 26, 2011 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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To be fair, none of the releases are abject failures: Dunham's "Not That Kind of Girl" sold 271,931 hardcover copies, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks retail sales. Kaling's "Why Not Me?" moved 198,889 copies, with Ansari on her heels at 178,925.
According to Milliot, publishers off such high-profile titles should be satisfied "with anything over 100,000."
And other titles have sold well despite more modest advances. Patti Smith's memoir "M Train" has won rave reviews and sold nearly 100,000 copies for Knopf, while Mary-Louise Parker's "Dear Mr. You," an autobiography in letters, has also won praise from critics and sold 16,426 copies.
Middling sales for these titles might by symptomatic of audience fatigue, but Milliot said, "Overall, publishers are happy. Publishers are looking for big platforms. The Mindy Kalings, the Amy Schumers," he added.
Schumer signed a reported $8 million deal with Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, for a forthcoming tome.
While astronomical advances get headlines, Milliot cautioned that publishers don't regard stars as "loss leaders. They know everyone isn't going to hit. These kinds of projects from celebrities are simply something publishing will never give up."
One top agent who specializes in packaging books deals for lifestyle gurus and TV talent said the back-scratching matters more than the bottom line. "For a celebrity, they're looking for a brand extension or to hammer home a message that will land them bigger deals, like selling features or TV shows and various products," said the agent.
Book publishers, which have suffered waves of down-sizing over the last four years, count on stars to come with built-in publicity machines. "With celebrity nonfiction, they've got authors with large platforms to help sell," the agent said. "With most deals they also retain options, if someone wants to spin the book off to a creative project or talk show format. "
The insider said social followings and visibility in the press helps — but talent who has touring built into their day job — including musicians and comics — tend to sell more books than celebrities who are more grounded by TV and film projects.
"Any time you're on a tour, you can sell a book," the insider said. "That's why someone like Lena is a bigger risk to me. If I was a publisher, I'd open my wallet for Schumer or Kevin Hart. You have a meet-and-greet on your comedy tour? You sell them right there," the individual said.
Stars with a toe in the lifestyle pool have an upper hand in moving books, too.
"Someone like a reality star that has a viable consumer fan base, like Kristin Cavallari who was on 'Laguna Beach' but still designs shoes and cosmetics — she'd have an easier time getting a deal to write a memoir than Gary Oldman," they said.