Have you ever had regrets about your business negotiations? Maybe you committed yourself to a difficult partner or got involved in a venture that wasn’t paying off as expected. Or maybe, as appears to have been the case for comedian Amy Schumer, you couldn’t stop thinking about the better deal you might have gotten. Such examples of business negotiations remind us of the importance of business negotiation skills.
In 2012, David Hirshey, senior vice president and executive editor of publisher HarperCollins, saw Schumer’s stand-up comedy act and was so impressed by the rising star that he offered her a $500,000 advance to write a book, reports Alexandra Alter in the New York Times. Schumer accepted, saying she wanted to write a collection of personal essays.
Several months passed, however, without Schumer signing her contract. Eventually, Schumer’s literary agent told Hirshey that Schumer wanted to consider bids from other publishers. When one of them offered her $1 million, HarperCollins matched the bid. Schumer finally signed a contract with the publisher in the spring of 2013, around the time her TV show, “Inside Amy Schumer,” launched on Comedy Central.
In spring 2014, Schumer’s agent informed Hirshey that Schumer was too busy to work on the book and wanted to cancel the contract. The comedian returned her advance with interest, according to the Times, and also parted ways with her agent. In a GQ interview in July 2014, Schumer said of the book deal, “I decided to wait. I thought I would make more money if I waited.”
Book deal, take 2
By early 2015, Schumer’s career was red-hot. Her TV show had been nominated for seven Emmy awards, and the film she wrote and starred in, Trainwreck, was a critical and box office hit. Meanwhile, thanks to the literary success of comedians such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Mindy Kaling, publishers were eager to sign comics to write autobiographical books.
The comedian hired a new literary agent, David Kuhn, to help her engage in business negotiations for the autobiographical essays she’d begun for HarperCollins. Interest in The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo was so intense that an auction was in order. Kuhn “stoked the competition and interest” by requiring potential bidders to meet with him and review the confidential proposal privately, according to the website Deadline Hollywood.
In the lead-up to the 2015 Emmy Awards, the bids for Schumer’s book came in fast and furious. On September 21, the day after she won an Emmy, a last-minute frenzy spiked the bidding well above $5 million. Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, ultimately won the prize for an undisclosed figure estimated in the $8–$10 million range. Schumer had topped her earlier book advance by $7 million or more and also set a new record among her comic peers for the highest advance.
Getting the deal right the first time
Schumer was able to cancel a disadvantageously timed contract and negotiate one that suited her better when conditions were more favorable. But this type of redo is tough to pull off in most business negotiations. To avoid the need for a do-over, we need to increase our odds of getting the right deal from the start.
In business negotiations, our decision making is often marred by impulsivity, which leads us to give too much weight to intuition, emotion, and immediate concerns. Only on deeper reflection do we become capable of grasping the long-term implications of our choices. The clearest path to reflection is to give yourself plenty of time to make decisions and negotiate. A methodical pace will allow you to build trust and rapport with the other party, take stock of her merit as a long-term partner, assess the best deal you can get, and thoroughly assess your alternatives and the potential risks.
Schumer’s story reminds us of the importance of negotiation techniques in business, particular the need to take steps to improve our satisfaction in business negotiations so that broken contracts aren’t necessary; it also suggests how to get out of a weak deal with grace and courtesy.
Adapted from the January 2016 issue of the Negotiation Briefings newsletter.