Saturday, July 21, 2018

Manuscript Auctions are anti-literature

A phenomenon that is distorting our reading lists

As publishers narrow the number of titles they select to put their promotional dollars behind, there is a disturbing phenomenon that is distorting the allocations of funds in book marketing, and consequently, influencing what we read. Let’s talk about the manuscript auction.

Typically literary agents resort to an auction if more than one publisher is interested in a particular manuscript. This front-end loading process can get hot and expensive (the price tags are now in the $millions for the most prized books) if the participating publishers get into a bidding war that is fuelled by egos rather than by the intrinsic value of the manuscript under auction. If discernment gives way to greed, the winner standing after the dust settles may have exhausted their funds and be left holding a sub-par manuscript that now needs to be further marketed to cover its costly investment. And the sacrificial lambs: other books in the publisher’s upcoming catalog that have to forego their marketing budgets to help pay for this spoiled child who has edged them out for the wrong reasons.

Auctions unfortunately do not look at literary merit as much as they look at commercial merit. And when heavily marketed commercial books hammer the message: “read this book, read this book,” it skews independent judgement of even the most die-hard reader, forcing them, at least, to take a peek at this latest curiosity that everyone is talking about. Given that time is our most precious commodity these days, such peeks come at the expense of other books that may have grabbed the reader’s attention through non-promotional means. I usually compile a list of books that I have stumbled upon through reviews, word-of-mouth, or fellow-author recommendations, but this list always slips into second place when I have to take detours to check out "the latest developments" in modern literature, such as Karl Ove Knausgaard writing about his premature ejaculation or E.L James’s kinky punishments in the bedroom (because everyone is talking about them and I don’t want to be left out). And when the underlying motive for this marketing hoopla is a royalty that has been prepaid via a runaway auction, my detour has even less to do with literary merit.

I’m hoping that the author whose work was auctioned and who is now left to sign with the winning publisher, would use their judgement, take the long term view, and let the auction be used only as a yardstick to determine the “potential value” of their book. I’m hoping that they will settle on the publisher whom they feel will be the best fit for their career (after all, there will be more books in the pipeline from this author, we hope) rather than going with the highest bidder on just this single auctioned work. For the highest bid also comes with the highest expectation, and an author who does not earn his advance could get dropped for their next book by an “over-generous” publisher.

And as for readers, I hope that they (like me, who has now decided to take my own advice) will stick to their own reading lists, compiled through due diligence rather than hype, and that they will not take those time-wasting detours just because an at-risk publisher has thrown the rest of his money after his moment of weakness at an auction and is touting the compelling but distracting message: “Read this. I put too much money behind this damned book and I need your help to bail me out!”

About the Writer

Shane Joseph is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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3 comments on Manuscript Auctions are anti-literature

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By Barbara MacDonald on June 05, 2015 at 11:03 am

Thanks Shane for educating me somewhat in this...I did not even realize this went on. So what would you recommend? The self publish route? Interesting, and disturbing. at the same time. It does seem money makes the world go round. :(

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By Shane Joseph on June 05, 2015 at 03:19 pm

Barbara - this is more of a problem for publishers who bid the price of a book above what is reasonable. The writer is in the driving seat, for the higher the price the higher the benefit, at least for the book being auctioned. We would be very lucky if one of our manuscripts goes into a bidding war! My recommendation is to still submit to a publisher who can represent you well and who will support you. If not, and if you have a loyal following that you think you can sell direct to, then self-publish; there are self-publishing platforms like Lulu, Create Space and others who help take some of the mystery out of this route. There are pros and cons to both - see some of my other articles on this on Broowaha. I've done both and its hard work, either way. Regards!


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By Barbara MacDonald on June 05, 2015 at 06:08 pm

Thanks Shane , once again, I will check some more of your articles...and yes, I am assuming it is hard work...

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