From The Writer magazine, March 2004


Book Auctions Demystified: What happens when your book is on the block

By Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

Last year, when my agent said my book was going to auction, I was delighted—then curious. I’d been to antique auctions and silent auctions, but never took part in a book auction. Did the agent and editors hole up in a Manhattan conference room with paddles and an auctioneer? What exactly went on?

I looked for information and found almost nothing. Here’s what I’ve learned since by talking to agents, authors and editors. (Keep in mind that, depending on the size and style of the agency, there can be variations to the following.)

Why auctions happen

Typically, an auction takes place because more than one publisher wants to bid on your book. “Much as we’d like to, we can’t guarantee that every author’s book will go to auction,” says Los Angeles literary agent Betsy Amster. “The critical ingredient is the interest of more than one publisher.”

Who takes part

Without your agent, there is no auction. “It is your agent who makes the book come alive when she pitches it to the editor,” says agent Julie Castiglia of Del Mar, Calif. “And it is her relationship with the editors that makes them want to listen. How the agent handles herself during the auction allows the best outcome to be realized.”

While your agent usually knows the major players, one or two publishers may pop up unexpectedly come bidding time. “On a few occasions, I have been surprised by how late in the game a publisher declared its interest—like the night before,” Amster says. “The opposite is also possible—sometimes publishers will drop out at the last minute.”


Your agent picks a date when she’ll close the deal—generally a day that works for all interested editors. The day before, she sends out auction rules and requests that first bids be called or faxed in by a specific time. The auction then proceeds in rounds—by phone, fax or e-mail, depending on the agent’s preference—until editors give their top bid.


Sometimes auctions proceed informally, without a closing date, as the agent fields offers over several days from two or three interested publishers. And sometimes an agent will set up a best-bid auction, in which publishers make their best bids at the outset without knowing what other publishers are bidding. Agents like this strategy when competing publishers have very different views of how a book should be published (one might see it as a hardcover, while another sees it as a trade paperback, for example) or when an author is already very successful and can command a considerable sum.


Sometimes editors will offer enough money early on to motivate the agent to take the project off the table. “Editors who are keenly interested in a project will often try to pre-empt it,” Amster says. “Sometimes such bids come in very quickly; I recently got one 24 hours” after the bidding began.

The floor

If an agent feels the amount an editor is offering as a pre-empt isn’t enough to take the project off the table, they may try to turn the offer into a “floor”—that is, a minimum guarantee for the author. The publisher who sets the floor has “topping privileges”— the right to top the last, best bid by 10 percent if the book goes to auction. If no one comes to the auction, the book goes for the floor. Agents will typically get the highest floor possible.

“An agent with experience knows what a project is worth,” Castiglia says, “and knows when asking too much would put the publisher off. Also, you ask the author what they feel they need and go from there.”


While the agent typically chooses the starting and ending times, it can last for days, depending on how interested publishers are in continuing the bidding process. My auction ended the morning of the second day, but some auctions can last a week, especially if the author is well known or big bucks are at stake.


With the exception of Random House, where divisions can bid against each other so long as a non-Random House company remains in the auction, publishing houses owned by the same parent company cannot bid against each other. “It really hit home how much consolidation in the industry has affected the bottom line for writers,” says author Jennifer Lawler of Lawrence, Kan. “My book could have sold for a lot more money with all three original bidders bidding instead of the final two.”

Pros and cons

Editors may spend more than they would otherwise if they participate in an auction. “The momentum keeps you going,” says Andrea Schulz, senior editor at Harcourt, “and with some auctions, you come out blinking in the sunlight, saying, ‘What did we do?’ This is a frequent fallout feeling.”

Authors like auctions because they feel they get a higher advance, but is getting the most money up front a good thing? “It’s perfect for some books,” Schulz says, “but sometimes publishers end up feeling they overpaid. You, the author, can suffer from that later because that’s not necessarily who wants to publish you over several books. Some authors don’t care about that, but for the ones who do, an auction isn’t the best way to find them a home.”

More than money

A winning publisher doesn’t mean the author must go with that house. Do your priorities and the publisher’s priorities mesh? In a recent auction, author Charlene Ann Baumbich of Glen Ellyn, Ill., says, “I accepted the offer I believed to my core would best serve the book—which also happened to be the house that offered the most money. But that was coincidental.” Schulz adds: “Talk to the editor, look at the publisher’s list, see how supported you’ll be by their reputation rather than looking at just their three bestsellers. Gauge how well you’ll be taken care of. Authors finding out as much as they can about the house is their best protection.”


Copyright © 2004 by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

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