How Does a Publishing Auction Work?
One of the things that always generates excitement among authors is the prospect of an “auction” between publishers for their book. But there’s also a mystique surrounding auctions, and many writers wonder how they actually work. So let’s pull back the shroud of mystery and peek at what an auction looks like.
Why are auctions so exciting?
The prospect of an auction means that several publishers are interested in your book. That’s exciting in itself, but more than that, the high level of interest means publishers are confident that they can probably sell a lot of copies, so of course that means a higher advance (than if there wasn’t an auction). Knowing people are excited about the book, combined with the prospect of decent money, is one of the best things that can happen to an author. So the excitement is warranted.
When does an agent decide to hold an auction?
Usually when three or more publishers express interest in making an offer on a book, the best way to handle it is an auction. Contrary to myth, this doesn’t mean the book is guaranteed to be a blockbuster bestseller nor does the author have to be a celebrity. It simply means it’s strong enough that several publishers are interested in publishing it. The auction is held to keep things fair — to give each interested publisher an equal shot — not just to drive up the price.
Auctions are most common for non-fiction authors with big platforms, since those are the most valuable authors from a publisher’s perspective.
How does an auction work?
There are different kinds of auctions, and the agent decides how each auction will run. They could be via phone or email, often being a combination with offers coming by phone, followed up in writing via email.
In a “best bids” auction, the agent sets a date and time by which all interested publishers need to have their offers in. They’re expected to put their best offer on the table, so each publisher has the opportunity to figure out what they’re realistically willing to pay for it, without having the price driven up by competing bids. Usually a best-bids auction is held if only two or three publishers are expected to bid.
In a “round robin” auction, the agent sets a deadline date for offers. Once all the initial offers are received, the lowest bidder is given the opportunity to outbid the highest or drop out; then the next lowest bidder is given the opportunity to top the highest bid; and it continues until there is one winner standing.
Sometimes before an auction, the author and agent (or attorney) actually sit down with the interested publishers and talk for an hour or so, to get to know one another. This is extremely helpful for both author and publisher in making their decisions. If a face-to-face meeting isn’t possible, there will usually be conference calls in which the author and agent talk with the editorial and marketing staff at the publisher.
Of course, sometimes big celebrity authors cause a feeding frenzy. This usually happens when memoirs become available from big celebrities; or former U.S. Presidents; or people involved in big news stories such as US Airways pilot “Sully” Sullenberger and recently, the formerly imprisoned Amanda Knox.
Is an auction all about the advance?
Surprisingly, an auction isn’t totally “show me the money.” Especially when the author is a non-celebrity, the agent may be looking at the total publishing package, including marketing plans and perks, bonuses, release dates, royalty rates, sub-rights, how excited the publisher seems about the book and how much they seem to “get it,” and who the editor will be.
What’s a pre-empt?
Sometimes one publisher is especially interested in acquiring the project, and will make a bid they hope is considerably stronger than what anyone else is offering, telling the agent they’re making a “preemptive offer.” If it’s strong enough and the author and agent are excited about the publisher, the project will be taken off the table before the auction has a chance to get going. The book is said to be sold “on a preempt.”
As publishing changes, are auctions changing too?
I don’t have any hard data, but it seems to me that auctions are a bit less frequent then they used to be. In addition, where an auction used to imply a “huge” advance, it doesn’t always mean that now. A book could be sold at auction for the mid-five figures to over a million dollars.
Is any of this surprising to you? Have you dreamed of having your book sold at auction? Do you have more questions about auctions?
Today on the Books & Such blog:
Old-Style Publisher vs. New-Style by Janet Grant