What to Expect When You’re Expecting (A Book Deal), Part 3: Going to Auction

Over the past few weeks, I’ve talked about everything that goes on behind the scenes when your manuscript is “on submission” to publishers. In this third and final post of the series, I’ll talk about what happens when multiple publishers are interested in your book.

Under what circumstances does an auction take place?

Your agent may decide to arrange an auction if several publishers have expressed an interest in your manuscript—after all, an auction wouldn’t be very effective if only one editor showed up to bid.

In general, a manuscript is more likely to go to auction if the author has an impressive platform or the book is particularly timely or “hot”. Non-fiction books are more likely to go to auction than fiction, although an increasing number of novels are selling at auction.

How does an auction work?

In general, there are two kinds of auction: the round-robin auction and the “best bid.”

In a “best bid” auction, editors only get one chance to bid on your manuscript—so there’s a strong incentive for editors to lay their down their highest possible offer in the hopes of scoring your book. For this reason, “best bid” auctions are quicker than round-robin auctions.

Sometimes, an agent will set up a two-round best bid auction, giving editors the opportunity to make a second bid if they “lose” the first round.

In a round-robin auction, each editor submits a bid. After the first round of bids are in, there’s a second, third, and possibly fourth round in which lower-bidding editors are given the opportunity to out-bid the higher bidders.

How long does an auction take?

A round-robin auction can stretch over several days, which can be nerve-wracking for the author waiting at home. A best bid auction can be over in a matter of hours.

In some cases, an interested publisher will make an offer known as a “pre-empt” in an attempt to snap up the manuscript before the auction even takes place. If the pre-empt is attractive enough, the auction will be over before it begins.

Does the highest bidder win?

It might surprise you to know that the publisher offering the highest advance isn’t always the publisher to win the auction. An author may decide to go with a publisher offering a lower advance but a better publicity plan, or an editor whose vision of the book she finds more compatible than the editor with the highest bid.

As literary agent Jonathan Lyons explains on his blog, “The most money isn’t always the best deal.” No matter what a publisher is offering, final say always remains with the author.

Closing the deal

Throughout the auction, your agent will keep you updated through e-mail or over the phone. When all of the publishers have placed their final bids, you’ll discuss your options and come to a decision, at which point your agent will get in touch with your chosen publisher to officially accept the offer.

What happens next?

Over the next few weeks and months, your agent will work with the publisher to draw up the final contracts, which will lay out the terms of the publishing agreement in detail.

From then on, you will be “under contract”—a wonderful and intimidating step in its own right. Congratulations—you’re an author! Now to get started on Book 2…

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