Manuscript Auctions are anti-literature

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 fueled 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 to, at least, 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 book auction, my detour will have 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!”

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