All About Auctions

As we all know, acquisitions is complicated, and when I last blogged about the process, I wrote about the editorial board and what goes on in a publishing house when trying to make an offer.

However, that’s all buildup, really. Part I of a three part saga, the middle part of which is when monies are actually offered. (Part III is contracts.) Today I would like to discuss Part II: Offers, and specifically auctions.

The process of offering money can vary widely from project to project: sometimes only one house makes an offer, sometimes several houses make an offer, sometimes a house tries to pre-empt the book, etc. This stage of acquisitions is a bit about game-playing, especially when there are multiple players. Publishing Poker, if you will.

If you are an author fortunate enough to have several houses interested in buying your project, congratulations! Your agent will go out and gauge the playing field and decide whether or not s/he wants to set a closing date (after which the two of you can consider all the offers that have come in) or to take your project to auction.

There are many factors that go into whether or not an agent takes a project to auction. If offers are flying fast and high, then s/he may suspect there’s enough interest to say “May the best publisher win.” A pre-empt, or a very high offer from a publishing house to take the project off the table, is generally a good indicator of whether or not an auction could be in the works. At which point, the agent will set the date and the rules.

Like everything else, the rules of an auction can change, but there are generally two types of auctions: round robin and best bids.


This is the most “traditional” type of auction. Each player puts in an opening bid, and then bidding goes in rounds, increasing incrementally. Bidding increases by increments of X, determined by the agent and the relative “hotness” of the project. For example, the agent could say bidding increases in increments of $5000, $10,000, or even $100,000. In incredibly high profile projects like Lena Dunham’s collection of essays, the incremental increase amount was $100,000, and a floor was set at $1 million. (We’ll get to floors in a bit.) Round robin auctions continue until one by one, the players drop out, and the last publisher is left standing.

As you might imagine, round robin auctions can go on for quite some time. Like cricket, it can theoretically go on forever if no one folds. Sometimes the game strategy can simply be to wait it out: He who has the most patience will win.


Unlike round robins, best bids is quick and to the point. Best bids auctions are exactly what it sounds like: the players have one shot to put together their most attractive offers. Once all bids are in, the agent and author can choose the subjective “best” offer (which can include things such as bonuses and special marketing plans). If two publishers happen to come in with very similar offers, best bids can sometimes progress on to another round, where the publishers are given a chance to improve on their initial bid.

The raison d’etre for choosing round robin vs. best bids is generally up to the agent, who is familiar enough with the parties involved to know which is best for the project. If s/he thinks most of the publishers will come in with similar offers, then best bids might be the way to go. On the other hand, going in rounds can often nudge a publisher to pay more, especially if competition is tight.


Now, there are many  variables and rules that can alter the way an auction is run. For example, as I’ve mentioned earlier, Lena Dunham’s deal came with a floor set at $1 million. A floor is a number set by the agent to indicate that this is the lowest possible bid. In poker, we would call this a blind–a minimum bet. It’s often a way to gauge which publishers are serious enough about the project to commit to the number set by the floor.

The agent can also limit the number of rounds in a round robin by restricting the number of players advancing to the next round. For example, an agent might say that the top 4 bidders will progress to the next round. The agent might also say that the winning bid must be higher than the others by an increment of $25,000, or that publishers must also come in with a marketing plan, or that auctions will consider advances only, etc. There a million permutations to the auction game, which part of what makes them so exciting.

So that’s a basic rundown of auctions for you! If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below, and I’ll try and answer them as best I can!

Oh, and in case you guys haven’t already seen it, y’all should head on over to Sooz’s blog to see the cover reveal of her next book A DARKNESS STRANGE AND LOVELY! 


9 Responses to All About Auctions

  1. Natalie Aguirre Oct 29 2012 at 6:46 am #

    Thanks for sharing all the details of auctions. I knew about them in general but had no idea how they work.

  2. Anna Boll Oct 29 2012 at 9:02 am #

    So helpful. While I suppose a fabulous advance is desirable, it seems like a lot of pressure for a first time author. Both for selling enough books to pay out the advance and for producing/ selling the next project. Yes? (Not really a question, I know, but maybe you could respond. )

    • JJ Oct 29 2012 at 11:15 am #

      Obviously the goal is to earn out your advance, but honestly, for the largest advances, publishers are aware that the author probably won’t make it back; the concern is more about how to minimize loss by selling as many copies as possible, even if it doesn’t earn out. What they DON’T want is for the book to underperform. And many books have, alas!

  3. Loie Oct 29 2012 at 10:32 am #

    Great post! So interesting. I was wondering about marketing plans, if a publishing house buys the book but then doesn’t offer a marketing plan – does the cost of marketing fall on the author? Does it come out of their pocket? Or do publishing houses generally put in money to market this book they’ve just bought? I suppose it would depend on how much they paid for it and how they think it will do in the market?


    • JJ Oct 29 2012 at 11:17 am #

      Each project has a marketing budget in-house, but honestly, whatever the author can do him/herself is extremely helpful! Most projects are a combination of the house and the author’s efforts, even for the biggest projects. But the bigger a book, the marketing dollars get allocated to it.

      Hope that helps!

  4. Beth Christopher Oct 29 2012 at 11:42 am #

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I really appreciate getting the inside scoop.

  5. Sooz Oct 29 2012 at 5:51 pm #

    Wow. I honestly knew pretty much NONE of this. Awesome post, JJ. Thanks. <3

  6. Rita Arens Dec 10 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    Fascinating — I didn’t realize there were different types of auctions. Almost everything I know about auctions I learned from reading novels describing them. 🙂

  7. Dedalo Nov 27 2017 at 8:05 am #

    Hello.. i am a cuban artist ,living in USA… i wan to know if you can make an auction for a painting.. and use the money for the people in Puerto Rico.. is a really beautiful painting.. is 60×48 inch.. oil on canvas.. and it took me more than two months of work.. i can sell it.. but i wanna do something really good with my son (painting) you can see it.. in my instagram.. daedalus1985
    Name of the painting: The Crucifixion.

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