How Does a Publishing Auction Work?

auctionOne 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

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. John on November 6, 2013 at 3:29 PM

    Great post and very informative. One follow up question: Is an auction for a fiction manuscript something that happens very quickly after your agent submits to a round of editors or can it develop after several weeks (or months?) due to the fact that it might take the agents awhile to getting around to reading the manuscript?

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  3. Robyn on March 15, 2012 at 7:32 AM

    *Sigh* I can dream……. I don’t have an agent yet, so not much chance of an auction.

    But I can dream…….

  4. […] Rachelle Gardner on How Does a Publishing Auction Work? […]

  5. Rachelle Christensen on March 14, 2012 at 12:26 AM

    Excellent article with great insight into the mysterious realm of auctions! Thanks for sharing. It’s especially interesting to note that publishers might tip the scales by their marketing specifics–that is something that I would love to have–a great marketing plan to coincide with my efforts.

  6. Cecelia Dowdy on March 13, 2012 at 11:50 PM

    Okay, I admit it! I’ve dreamed about having my book go to auction multiple times!! I’ve thought about it often, and then imagine myself blogging about the experience on my blog, afterwards, I imagine receiving oodles and oodles of congrats comments from my blog readers.

    Ahhh…I guess I’ll just keep dreamin’

    Thanks for sharing this information with us. It was helpful!

  7. Bret Draven on March 13, 2012 at 6:51 PM

    Does having your book (along with every other item of personal household crap) sold at a public storage auction count? If yes… then my book has been at auction too!

  8. Douglas Thompson on March 13, 2012 at 5:29 PM

    I never even heard or thought about such a scramble to publish a book. But, it does sound exciting an I’d love to have such a problem, of course.
    It sounds like a great scene to include in a story. Hey…I need to get working on that story idea, so I better finish this comment. Thanks

  9. TC Avey on March 13, 2012 at 3:40 PM

    I’m so naive, I have never even thought about something like this happening to me. It sounds exciting though!

  10. HopefulLeigh on March 13, 2012 at 3:12 PM

    This is fascinating, Rachelle! Thanks for filling us in.

  11. Reba on March 13, 2012 at 3:02 PM

    I had no clue this sort of thing went on in the world of writers, agents and publishers. Since I started following this blog I have learned soooo much, and yet there is more. Auctions! :0D It has to be exciting because auctions are exciting. You get so caught up in the action; Who will get that item and for what price? And let’s not forget those bidders who bid only to get the price up. Oh yeah, sounds like fun.

  12. Harriet Parke on March 13, 2012 at 2:28 PM

    Learning something new every day! Well, every Monday through Friday.)Thanks to Rachelle!

  13. Lynn on March 13, 2012 at 2:01 PM

    Great post. Very informative.

  14. Jenny Lee Sulpizio on March 13, 2012 at 1:59 PM

    I had often wondered about these infamous auctions and am so glad you broached the subject and gave us the inside scoop.

    I’ll admit, the thought of going to auction is pretty awesome. a dream if you will. 🙂

  15. Laurie Evans on March 13, 2012 at 1:45 PM

    Very interesting! I’ve learned so much from your blog since I found it.

  16. Ann Bracken on March 13, 2012 at 1:27 PM

    Thank you for this information, it was a possibility I had never heard about before. Congratulations to those of you who’ve had this happen!

  17. Carla Richards on March 13, 2012 at 1:13 PM

    Thanks Rachelle! I always wondered how that worked. How does an agent decide whether to use best bids or round robin? And in the round robin, can the author go back to the lower offer, if it has better terms otherwise? Thanks.

  18. Donna Pyle on March 13, 2012 at 12:54 PM

    I didn’t even know auctions took place – how cool is that?! Thanks for this wealth of information. Good stuff! Now…off to build my platform. 🙂

  19. Lindsay Harrel on March 13, 2012 at 12:17 PM

    Great information. Thanks, Rachelle!

  20. Karen on March 13, 2012 at 11:45 AM

    My first novel went to auction in Germany, with 4 publishing houses bidding, and it’s due for release this July. HUGELY exciting, but it’s great to have an insight into how it works.

    I’m still waiting to find a publisher in my home country though!

  21. Joe Pote on March 13, 2012 at 11:27 AM

    Very interesting! Thanks for the info, Rachelle!

  22. Jenny on March 13, 2012 at 11:23 AM

    What sort of marketing promises might a publisher make to get their offer considered over a publisher offering a higher advance?


    • Rachelle Gardner on March 13, 2012 at 2:29 PM

      It’s usually a commitment to a dollar amount to be spent on marketing with some specifics on how they’ll spend it.

  23. Patricia Yager Delagrange on March 13, 2012 at 11:21 AM

    Thank you for this post. I never knew anything about auctions, especially preemptive ones that I’ve seen on Publishers Marketplace. Thank you.

  24. Cherry Odelberg on March 13, 2012 at 11:12 AM

    Thank you for new information. Frankly, it had never entered my mind; but I hate to be in the dark about possibilities for dreaming big.

  25. Les Edgerton on March 13, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    Had my first novel go to auction in the ninetees. The auction itself was exciting. Began with 8-9 publishers and my agent (Jimmy Vines) kept phoning me every 5-10 minutes to tell the latest offers and who was making them. Publishers were messengering offers and Jimmy was doing the same with them. Finally got down to two: Random House and St. Martin’s. Final offer was S.M. at $50,000 and R.H. at $45,000. Jimmy said it was up to me and I made the mistake of my life. Took R.H.’s lesser offer… because they were R.H. Had all these images of Bennett Cerf in my head. Turned out, Bertlesmann bought R.H. a week later and dozens of books were jetisoned, including mine. If I’d gone with S.M. it would have come out. Ended up getting it finally published by an epublisher last year. Exciting during the auction… kind of sucked afterwards…

    • Richard Mabry on March 13, 2012 at 1:05 PM

      Les, Thanks for this real-world example that it’s not always just about the money.

  26. Colin Smith on March 13, 2012 at 10:33 AM

    I think it would be cool to have a novel go to auction. And it’s not the potential to make a decent advance. It’s the knowledge that a number of publishers are that excited about my work, and are willing to “fight” over it. That can’t help but make a writer feel good about himself. 🙂

  27. Emma Cunningham on March 13, 2012 at 9:59 AM

    Very interesting! I wasn’t sure how that worked, either.

  28. Jeanne T on March 13, 2012 at 9:55 AM

    Thanks, Rachelle, for the informtative post. It’s interesting to read how publishing auctions work. How often do fiction authors find themselves involved with a book auction?

    • Rachelle Gardner on March 13, 2012 at 2:27 PM

      Not very often.

  29. Richard Mabry on March 13, 2012 at 9:49 AM

    It’s sort of disappointing to learn that the agent doesn’t turn the whole thing over to Sotheby’s to conduct the auction, first giving out paddles to the pub houses for use during bidding.
    Thanks for the information on how these things actually work.

  30. Susan Rocan on March 13, 2012 at 9:24 AM

    Thanks for clearing up my misconceptions. I really had no idea how that worked. 🙂

  31. carol brill on March 13, 2012 at 8:50 AM

    Thanks Rachelle, takes some of the mystery out of reading PW carol

  32. Sue Harrison on March 13, 2012 at 8:30 AM

    It’s a sweet dream, Rachelle.

  33. TNeal on March 13, 2012 at 8:02 AM

    I read “Vanity Fair’s: How A Book is Born” a few weeks ago. That was my first intro to a book auction. I’ve dreamed of a lot of things but my book going to an auction (not even in my hand for a local farm auction)hasn’t been one of them. Small island, lots of fruity drinks, and a hammock? Yes. Book auction? Nope.

  34. Neil Ansell on March 13, 2012 at 5:11 AM

    I had an auction for my first book a couple of years ago, for a part-written book of narrative non-fiction. My agent sent it out to five publishers and they were all interested. It all got a bit exciting then, as my agent taxied me between publishing houses and they all tried to convince me to go with them, it was like I was interviewing them for the job of publishing me. After 3 rounds, there were still 3 publishers left in, and my agent asked them to make their final offer. Then I made my choice – and it is worth saying that my agent avoided giving me her opinion on which was the best to go with, except to say that the biggest advance should not be my only consideration.

  35. Clementine on March 13, 2012 at 4:21 AM

    This is eerily relevant to me today, as it’s happening today for me! thank you so much, it’s helpful.

    • TNeal on March 13, 2012 at 7:57 AM


    • Julie Nilson on March 13, 2012 at 2:12 PM

      Awesome, Clementine! Best of luck to you!

  36. Gabrielle Meyer on March 13, 2012 at 3:20 AM

    Thank you for the inside look at publishing auctions – all of this is new to me! I am so thankful I found your blog – I have learned so many valuable things. Keep it coming!!

  37. P. J. Casselman on March 13, 2012 at 2:54 AM

    How many auctions have you been involved with in your career? Also, did a book’s trip to auction ever shocked you (i.e. a surprising reception from publishers)?

  38. Zillah Williams on March 13, 2012 at 2:34 AM

    Thanks for explaining this Rachelle. I’ve got a cousin in the UK who told me her book(s) were being auctioned. I was awestruck – not knowing anything about the process. She writes fiction, so I guess her work must be considered special.

  39. AM Swan on March 13, 2012 at 1:44 AM

    Thanks – I did always wonder about auctions – because why yeees, I might have fantasized just a tiny bit about that. Who doesn’t? A girl’s gotta dream- right?

  40. Rachel Pudelek on March 13, 2012 at 12:31 AM

    Thank you. I had wondered how that worked.

  41. Julie Daines on March 13, 2012 at 12:11 AM

    Thanks for this. I didn’t know exactly how auctions worked so I was very interested in this post.