This series on first novels continues with a look at the book auction: what triggers one, how one is organized, and what running one is like. Previous posts covered how agents fall in love with books and how editors acquire them.
Book auctions are not all that uncommon. As Karen Dionne writes in dailyfinance.com: "For a book to go to auction, all that's required is for two or more publishers to want to purchase it."
There are three basic models for book auctions. Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management – who sold Tara Conklin's first novel, The House Girl – explains them:
The most basic and most frequent is a round robin auction, where publishers submit offers and keep besting each other until there is only the highest bidder left. There is also a best bids auction, where publishers know how many other people are bidding, but they only have one chance to make an offer and the highest wins the auction. Then there's the two-round best bid auction, which is like the best bid but the top two or three publishers get another chance to improve their offer.
As for what constitutes good manners during a book auction, Michelle says, "The main piece of etiquette I can think of as an agent is to keep the rules clear so that publishers know how to participate.["]
At the moment, Chris Parris-Lamb of The Gernert Company may be the most visible agent to the general reading public. He's had two high-profile first-novel offerings: Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding went for around $650,000 in 2009, and in 2013, Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire reportedly garnered close to $2 million. Both sales made news, because — let's face it — mega-prices for first novels are rare.
Parris-Lamb echoes Karen Dionne on why certain books go to auction and others do not, saying it's simply a matter of publishers wanting some books more than others. "I know that's a bit of a tautology," he says, "but that's pretty much it. It's not necessarily that the books that go to auction are 'better' than the ones that don't — though multiple publishers almost always want a novel that is truly great — it's just the ones that go to auction are the ones that publishers want the most."
More from Michelle Brower and Chris Parris-Lamb:
How do you decide how much you're expecting for a first novel gone to auction? Gut? Exhaustive research? Complicated algorithms?
M.B: I'd love to think I could even interact with a complicated algorithm. I go with my gut; sometimes I have a sense of how much a book should be worth ahead of time, and sometimes I have no idea.
C. P-L: It's not a 'decision' — I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a ballpark in mind of what I thought I could get for a book, but my job is to let the market decide; that is, to create a situation in which the publishers who want a book tell us the maximum they're willing to pay for it. Sometimes the final numbers are in that original ballpark, and sometimes they're far outside it, for better or worse. And remember, we don't just sell the book off to the highest bidder – it's about placing the book with the best publisher for the most they'll pay, which is not always more than everyone else.
How do you pick the editors to whom you submit the manuscript? Are they generally people you know? Have had lunch with? Or, do you just know their work?
M.B: I submit almost entirely to people I know, and often they are people that I've developed a relationship with over a number of years. But I always love to take a chance on people I've just met or whose taste I've respected from afar.
C. P-L: Yes to all three! One of the most important parts of an agent's job is knowing editors' tastes, sensibilities, strengths and weaknesses, and trying to get their books in the hands of the best editor for it. That knowledge comes through observing what books they acquire and publish, listening to what people who have worked with them have to say about the experience, and knowing them personally and talking to them about books.
Do you ask other people for advice on price? Including friends, your wife, your PR department?
M.B: I often ask for advice from my foreign rights department, especially as I am preparing to send a book out to editors. They tell me what territories they think would be a good fit for translations.
C. P-L: We don't set a 'price.' But I do confer with the other agents at the agency quite a bit at all points in the process of selling a book, including assessing the offers that come in.
How difficult is it to turn down a hefty pre-emptive bid from a single publisher that would stop an auction before it starts?
M.B: Oh, man, it's very hard. There's something about turning down a great deal of money that is somehow against my inner nature. But again I rely on my gut. I only consider taking a pre-empt if I feel like it's the right publisher and enough money that the author is getting a fantastic deal.
C. P-L: It can be nerve-wracking, but if you actually turn it down, then it's for a good reason — because you're confident that publisher will pay more, or that other publishers you'd rather be with will pay more. If I felt like turning down a pre-empt was something an author would regret doing — because it is her decision, remember — then we wouldn't turn it down! It's also important to note that a lot of authors don't want to snatch their book away from people who haven't had a chance to read, or finish reading, yet. Or they just want to see what different publishers have to say about it. Which is a perfectly good reason to turn down a pre-empt — it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with strategy.
Is running a book auction more a high or an ordeal?
M.B: It's entirely nerve wracking. But somehow really fun at the same time.
C. P-L: It can be exhilarating, certainly, and it's satisfying to see your author rewarded for their work. But it's not all fun — I truly hate having to make calls to the editors who didn't get the book when the auction is over to tell them that we've gone with someone else.
How are authors to work with during this process? Do they have a lot of input or say, you're the professional, you do it?
M.B: The author always makes the decisions, but I offer my advice along the way and lay out the various possible scenarios so that they feel informed about the sometimes byzantine ways that auctions can work.
C.P-L: Every author is different, in all respects. Generally they're pretty anxious, as you would expect. Some cope with that by wanting to know every single piece of information about what's going on, others by wanting to be in the dark as much as possible until it's time to make a final decision. But the decision about who is going to be their publisher is always theirs, and not something I'd ever make for them.
Since I, personally, am always in search of creative ways to celebrate, I ended my conversations with both Chris Parris-Lamb of The Gernert Company and Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management by asking how each of them likes to celebrate a successful auction outcome. Parris-Lamb's classic way of celebrating — "with something bubbly" — is just a teeny bit too staid for my tastes.
Michelle Brower, on the other hand, is a bird of my very own celebratory feather. "I usually do a little happy dance," she says. "Seriously. I hope no one ever has to see it because it's pretty silly, but after the tension of the day it's the perfect way to celebrate."
Martha Woodroof's own first novel Small Blessings will be published by St. Martin's Press in July 2014. Next post in this series: OMIGOD! and other Astute Comments from Writers on the Sale of their First Novels.