Going Through a Book Auction

by Alison Hart/Jennifer Greene

Author Jennifer Green, aka Alison Hart
Copyright © 2000, Alison Hart, and reprinted with permission from the November/December 2000 issue of the Mid-Michigan Mirror

       Some authors dream of being in a book auction. Not me. Even after writing 60 books, I still couldn't (even remotely) imagine this would happen to me ... and since so many publishing houses conglomerated over the last decade, I also assumed that the days of book auctions had gone the way of the dinosaurs.

       I was wrong on both counts.

       Being wrong, of course, is a familiar experience for me ... but going through the auction wasn't. I had no concept at all of what the auction process was like, so if you've never been exposed to this before, let me share a bit about how it works.

       To begin with ... this was never anything that I'd planned to happen. It was really an accident. I've been a violently happy category romance writer for 20 years--until last spring, when I kept having a harder and harder time sitting down at the computer. I love to write. I wasn't burned out. (And believe me, I know that for sure, because I've been there/done that /bought the 'burned out' bumper sticker a couple times.) This was different. I just couldn't stop worrying that I was going stale, had nothing fresh to offer category readers. My sales hadn't dropped--but I'm well aware that an author with a good reputation can 'ride' for a while--but that wasn't what I wanted to do ... for myself or for the readers I'd built up.

        So, I determined that I needed to make a change ... but I was afraid. My agent had been encouraging me for a blue moon to fly my writing wings in any direction that I want--and for sure to try a single title any time I felt ready. Her support was wonderful but my reality was: there was never going to be a time when I felt 'ready.' Not only do I have the writing confidence of a turnip, but I've never owned even an ounce of guts.

       What happened, though, was something I never expected. I'd call it a miracle--as long as you understand that 'm' had to be my agent's middle name. Anyway, we got an offer from a publishing house before I'd put a saleable story on the table. Yes, I have a good reputation in the industry (I'd sure better after 60 books and all these years.) But having a good reputation, in itself, isn't necessarily worth a price of beans--a writer usually needs something concrete on the table. At that time, I hadn't worked up any kind of serious proposal for a single title. The only thing I had was an old story concept in my closet (or my agent's closet to be specific) that I'd once played around with. I barely remembered what it was when my agent got it out of mothballs--and I was completely stunned and overwhelmed when that scratchy old proposal concept was the source of the initial offer.

       Now, if you know me, I'm not telling you headline news: I'm always stunned when anyone wants to buy a story from me. That's probably going to be true forever.

       But back to the ranch. I thought that initial offer was stupendous. But my agent (after she picked me off the floor) thought we needed to pursue this further. It wasn't as simple as whether that initial offer was financially good. It was. But over the years I'd become an RWA Hall of Fame author, was lucky enough to hit on the NY Times list... the issue being that I'd built up some fair credentials, and we had no idea what this story idea might be worth in the general marketplace. It had never seen the light of day except to that one house--and then, not in a saleable form. Also, I'd been writing for Harlequin/Silhouette for years--the original offer came in before H/S had ever seen the story. They've been good to me and I was troubled at the idea of slighting them.. And last, having the proposal get an airing 'in pubic' was a way to build up interest in it--which hopefully was going to be an advantage for whatever publisher ended up with it. So this was the kind of reasoning that started the auction process.

       Once the ball started rolling, this is basically how it worked ...

       The publishing house who makes the first offer is very much part of the terms of an auction. For one thing, they're known as the 'floor'--and their first financial offer is the base bid. My agent then asked some specific houses if they were interested in seeing the material and participating. Those publishing houses who said yes were given the proposal at the same time ... they were also told what the base bid was ... and given a set period of time (like two weeks) to bid or not bid.

       At the end of that period, the first house (the floor) still has the opportunity to top the highest bid that's been made. And this is one of the critical things an author needs to understand about the auction process. You would never want to just send out your material to a bunch of publishing houses in hopes of raising the price--you could!--but you could also be burned that way. Ideally you only want to send your material to editors and houses that you really want to write for, because you are obligated to take the highest bid. (You can't suddenly say, well, yeah, that offer may be a little more money, but I don't want to work with that editor ... once you're in this, you're obligated to write for the house who wins the auction.)

       Another factor in the auction process--that I didn't realize before--is that the first publishing house, the floor, has the right to make the last bid. What this means is that the first publishing house has the option to top the highest bid made--which gives them the advantage if they really want the story.

       Once the auction process has started--the participating houses all have the material and they all know the base bid--there's nothing left for the author to do for the next two weeks--except sweat blood. It's even worse for the agent, who probably enjoys that two week waiting stretch on a par with holding her bare feet over hot coals.

       Communication lines are open during this time. Any of the publishing houses may call, if they want further information--such as, possibly, they could want to know more about the author's previous sales record or publishing record. But unless the houses choose to call, neither the author nor agent can know for sure if anyone is going to bid until the very last day.

       This waiting is almost as much fun as the labor process in childbirth. Not quite. But close. That last day I lived next to the phone--even took it to the bathroom with me. Didn't eat, couldn't sleep, for damn sure couldn't concentrate enough to work and I threw up once (although, I admit, that could have been the chocolate.)

       By late in the afternoon when my agent called, I'm not sure I even gave the phone a chance to ring. That was it; the process was over. Truthfully, I had no real expectations as to the outcome... but more houses bid than I thought would be interested, and for me there were also surprises on who did and didn't bid. My overall impression of the auction experience, though, was that (1) man, there is a lot to go wrong. I wouldn't even consider doing this without an agent--every step of the way, I felt extremely lucky (and relieved) to have my agent doing this for me, (2) The process is fair. Unnerving. Especially for an author who's allergic to limelight. But I could see why the industry uses the auction process--it's a way to get the same material to interested parties at the same time (and also, hopefully, to raise interest in the book project no matter where it ends up: a benefit to everyone involved.)

       When so many publishing houses conglomerated, I think most authors assumed that auctions were dead ... so many houses are allied with each other now, so why would they want to bid against each other? I'm certainly not an expert just because I've had this one experience, but my impression is that we writers have been both right and wrong on this. Yes, there are likely to be less auctions the way they used to be, where books could get bid up to fabulous amounts. But the auction process is still viable and isn't likely to die altogether, ever--simply because it still works at too many levels, both for the author and for the publishers.

MMRWA member Alison Hart who writes contemporary romances as Jennifer Greene seems to have done (and deserves) it all: RITAs by the armloads, a Hall of Famer, and NY Times list maker to name a few. Thank you for sharing this new adventure and milestone with those of us still dreaming.

Copyright © 2000, Alison Hart, and reprinted with permission from the November/December 2000 issue of the Mid-Michigan Mirror. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without written permission of author.

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