Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

What Agents Talk About When We Talk about Auctions

STATUS: Finishing up a client manuscript tonight.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? ME AND BOBBY MCGEE by Janis Joplin

Truly a scintillating topic. Kind of like watching golf. Earlier this week, one of my agent friends was conducting an auction so of course that got the whole discussion going about what we preferred—round robin or best bids auctions?

Funny enough, it’s not an either/or question because what is preferred (or what is conducted) always depends on the situation that is unfolding around any given project.

Now what I can say to you for sure is that most editors hate best bid auctions.

Why? Because there is only one round of bidding. That’s it. And if your bid doesn’t come in the ballpark of what other houses are bidding, then you’re knocked out of the running early. I can see why that would be frustrating for editors if they are really keen on a book.

So why do them? It’s a great way to shorten up an auction when the agent has already done a lot of talking to the various editors interested in the work. In other words, a lot of the pre-auction elements are already clear (like the level of excitement, the anticipated advance, what the agent’s expectation is). Then the best bid auction is to simply see all offers at once and then allow the author to choose the best house (and not necessarily a winner based on something like advance alone). Saves a lot of time and energy. Best bids can also work effectively if there is uncertainty on how many houses might participate in the auction. Everyone who attends is supposedly putting best offer forward. Can save a lot of headache if a publisher doesn’t show up to the auction.

Most auctions are probably round robins. This is an auction with subsequent rounds of bidding by multiple publishers until either a clear winner is declared or all houses hit their bid ceiling and only one publisher is still willing to go forward. Round robins work most effectively when there are numerous houses bidding. Not as great a structure if the auction is small—like with only 2 houses bidding. Still, it can be done.

Not to mention round robin auctions can last for days (which is exhausting for everyone involved as nothing else can really be accomplished if an auction is going on). Also, if an author has a clear choice for the editor he/she wants to work with, round robin might knock out the favored house too early in the process. That wouldn’t be good.

Interestingly enough, I have done round robin auctions that then evolved into a final round best bid. Basically when the auction had gone on and on, I let all the editors know that I’m only going to entertain one more round of bids so make it your best and final offer. I think my Grandmother would call that **** or get off the pot bid.

For the most part, I like to negotiate elements of an offer even within an auction and that’s hard to do in a best bid situation so I don’t tend to favor that auction approach. I think a better idea is what I call a two-round best bids. Each house involved in the auction knows it will get 2 rounds of bidding. The first round is for everyone to feel out the field (and it also allows me to say where I think their offer might be lacking). The second round is for everyone to truly get serious about the next offer as this will be the final round of the auction. It feels more effective to me.

And here I’m just touching on the tip of the iceberg but all these different strategies is what we agents talk about when we talk auctions.

Are you still awake? Didn’t think so but if you want to see a group of agents get lively, this is a good topic.


28 Responses

  1. radthorne said:

    Very informative, as always, Kristin. What would also be interesting to know is how often you end up in an auction situation. Does this occur for only a few of the authors/titles that you pick up? Or does it happen rather more often?

  2. Natalie said:

    The fact that you included your grandmother’s quote, “**** or get off the pot” in this post is great example of why I love this blog so 🙂 My granny used to say the same thing. I also love the song choice. Bobby McGee has one of my favorite lyrics ever. Love the part where she says, “I was feeling near as faded as my jeans.” A few years ago, I was at a record store with some friends and we found a copy of Pearl for $2 (!). We brought it back, turned it on, and listened to Janis and a summer storm for the rest of the afternoon. It is one of my most favorite summer memories. Thanks for getting the song stuck in my head!

  3. Chrissy said:

    I’m still awake. I love learning this kind of stuff about the publishing industry. It makes me feel smart! Hopefully, if I ever have a chance to enter the world as a writer, I’ll feel much more comfortable about all the different procedures because I’ll already know what’s going on. Thanks!

  4. Jen P said:

    Great – I have wondered about this recently. This clarifies and enhances the very brief outline in the recent glossary by Nathan Bransford.

    And yes, I enjoy golf.

  5. Ena said:

    Did you see Cheryl Klein’s recent take on the subject of auctions? Interesting that you two tackled the same topic within steps of each other. Then Michael Bourret chimes in, making it VERY interesting!

  6. Scott said:

    I work as a public purchasing agent in my day job. The process you describe is a little similar to some of the bidding processes we go through. In a request for proposals, any firm can bid on the project. An evaluation team goes through and then “short-lists” the top three or four. Short-listing might save you some time on the second go-through, Kristin. Why bother with the houses that aren’t even in the same ballpark?

  7. Michelle said:

    I feel cool now that I know some new agent/editor terms. 🙂

    That was really interesting. Oh, and my husband uses that expression all the time…but he’s only 30!

  8. Haste yee back ;-) said:

    Damn, you give us 30 seconds of Janis Joplin, that’s not enough time for her to down 3 shots of Southern Comfort!

    Entire song please… pretty please!

    Haste yee back 😉

  9. Rebecca Knight said:

    Of course we’re still awake! 🙂 This is the kind of stuff we aspiring authors fantasize about.

    Thank you for this post! After yesterday’s interweb discussion of the “modest proposal” I wanted to know how auctions really work. It’s like you read my mind. Great info!

  10. Sierra Godfrey said:

    I love the concept of auctions. What author WOULDN’T want his or her book being scrambled for by multiple houses? Ever since I read Marian Keyes’ “The Other Side of the Story” which features some outrageous bidding, I’ve been fascinated — and fantasizing!

  11. Agent Kristin said:

    Because I’m new to Imeem, I still haven’t figured out why sometimes I can grab a whole song to embed and other times, your stuck with just 30 seconds.

    Anyone know how that works in Imeem and how I can tell by looking at the selection online how long it will be?

    I’m listening to my ipod but grabbing the song to actually do the link.

  12. D. M. Domini said:

    Imeem doesn’t always have licenses to stream off of their website, or so I read. So sometimes you get 30 seconds, sometimes you get longer depending on the particular song.

  13. Anonymous said:

    I like the two round best bids as well. The only thing i would add is letting the publishers know upfront that only a certain number of them will progress to the next round. For example, if you have five houses bidding, you let them know only the top three make it to round two. That way there is incentive to open with a strong bid regardless.

Denver Skyline Photo © Nathan Forget [Creative Commons] | Site built by Todd Jackson