Lauren Beukes: what it’s like to be at the centre of a high-stakes five-way literary auction

This is what it’s like to be at the centre of a high-stakes five-way literary auction. It’s  The Twilight Zone.

©Casey Crafford

I’ve been watching a lot of the original series recently, ostensibly research because my character in the new novel gets night fears from one particular episode featuring Talky Tina, the murderous living doll. And, you know, I had to watch the rest of them to put it in context. But it’s exactly that, like stepping into another dimension, where everything is topsy turvy and beyond imagination. Because it’s really, really weird to have publishers wooing you.

Normally the writer is cast in the role of Jehovah’s Witness or Avon Lady, trying to impress the publisher or agent just enough to get inside the door, so you can launch into the full song and dance routine.

An auction, on the other hand, is a literary dating show; The Bachelorette of Letters. How ever will I choose from all these smart, witty, wonderful suitors phoning me to tell me how much they love the book? Swoon. Blush. Flutter fan made from previously rejected manuscripts coquettishly.

That same small, nasty part of me that snipes doubt at every sentence as I’m writing it, put forward the thought that it was some elaborate and vicious hoax by my agent, Oli Munson, hiring actors to play frankly unrealistically enthusiastic editors and put up fake websites that looked like The Bookseller with ridiculous soundbites about my novel, The Shining Girls, being “the book of the fair”. Nice try, agent guy.

Because it was absurd, this perfect storm of circumstance that made it all possible. Your average ten year overnight success. I reckon it comes down to 10% talent, 10% sheer bloody luck (and being ready to grab opportunity when that lightning hits) and 80% hard work, determination and rolling with the gut-punches.

I was lucky. Zoo City won the Arthur C Clarke Award up against a very strong short list, which put me on editors’ radars. I had a great idea for a new novel: about a time-travelling serial killer. I managed to pull it off in the actual writing. I had a kick-ass agent who got it into the right hands just in time for the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The actual auction was nerve-wracking. I asked Oli how much he thought we might get. “Anything upwards of a fiver and a packet of crisps”, he shrugged. Everything you want in an agent: nerves of steel and a sense of humour.

He set the terms. First offers in on Wednesday, new bids on Friday, third round on Wednesday with royalty rates, final bids on the Friday after, with a complete marketing plan – and it better be good. He batted away the pre-emptive offers as they came in and talked me down off the ledge when the stress overtook the giddy disbelief.

Because it did. The agony was having to choose. Champagne problems, I know. But I liked everyone I talked to. They really got it. They all put out killer lists. Some sent me choice picks from their back catalogue, others name-dropped their awesome indie celebrity friends, one publisher designed a gorgeous, creepy website that was note-perfect for the book, others talked cool ideas about the characters or the plot or sparked ideas I hadn’t thought of. Any of them would have been amazing to work with.

After days of deliberation and making up comparative spreadsheets and re-reading proposals and emails, Oli and I decided to go with HarperCollins. The offer was great and included Australia. More importantly, the editor was lovely (she told me later that she’d dreamed about landing the book for three nights in a row) and they’re the only publisher I know of who have an in-house creative director. That stuff counts.

In the aftermath, flush with good fortune, I donated money to RapeCrisis, put funding in for a short film inspired by a short story inspired by my first novel, Moxyland  and settled the school fees for an eight year old girl from an underprivileged family I know. Small things – but ones I hadn’t been able to afford before.

I sent Oli a fiver and a packet of crisps (and a good bottle of scotch). I wrote personal emails to all the editors I’d turned down. I still think they’d all be amazing to work with.

I’m not going to be purchasing a Ferrari anytime soon (I’d rather buy a trip into space anyway). But after a year of being horribly broke when the animation studio my husband and I were working at shut down and my debut comic scripts and foreign rights sales were barely covering the bills, all of a sudden I no longer need a day job. I can be a full time writer. That’s a remarkable privilege. It’s all I’ve wanted since I was five years old, to get paid – well – to make up stories.

I’ve been waiting for Very Bad Things to happen. I mean, this all has to come at a terrible price right? But the truth is that success comes at the same price as failure: writing the damn book. That’s what counts. That’s all that matters. And it’s still hard work.

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