Discovering that a supposedly "heated" auction only included their own house, Dutton publisher Elaine Koster and v-p Michaela Hamilton have canceled a $500,000 offer to publish The Piper's Sons, a thriller by Seattle writer Bruce Fergusson. A source close to the deal told PW that Portland, Ore.-based agent Natasha Kern told Dutton that Bantam, Ballantine and Scribner were also in the bidding in the auction, held May 19. Dutton upped its earlier $350,000 preemptive bid for one book to the $500,000 for world rights for two books based on Kern's information.

The cancellation was the buzz of the publishing industry, with the dropping of the book, rather than the details of the auction, more of the unusual circumstance. "If she bluffed or lied to get an advance, it wouldn't be the first time an agent -- or publisher -- has done it," said agent Richard Curtis.Kern, when contacted by PW, accepted blame for the situation, although she said she is still mystified the publishers that had expressed interest in the book decided not to participate in the auction. "Whatever charges of the auction being misconducted or the offers being misconstrued, I have to take responsibility for this," she said. "I just want to say mea culpa and hope the publishing community d sn't let one moment in battle cowardice overshadow my decade of experience as an agent."

An Inevitable Lure?

From what PW could piece together of the story at press time, The Piper's Sons fiasco seems to be a case of an agent's attempts to hold out for the best advance for her client -- an inevitable lure, perhaps, in an era where $1 million advances for unknown authors are increasingly common. In the past few weeks, The Piper's Sons -- the story of an adopted son discovering his biological father is a serial killer -- did indeed seem to be attracting some of much-cherished word of mouth. Kern cited close to a dozen publishers interested, and the book was subject of reportedly two preemptive bids -- $300,000 by Ballantine executive editor Peter Borland as well as the previously mentioned $350,000 by Dutton's Hamilton. Rather than take either of these offers, Kern decided to take the book to auction, to be held on May 19.

That's when the trouble began. According to Kern, she had commitments from Borland and Bantam deputy publisher Nita Taublib to participate in the auction but they dropped out at the last minute. And "from a part of me that I didn't know existed before," Kern told PW, she decided not to tell Dutton.

A few days after the auction, Dutton sent a letter to Kern canceling the deal, and publisher Koster told PW there's no chance of renegotiation. "It's an unfortunate circumstance, and we have to move on," she said. Kern, who at press time still represented Fergusson, told PW that she hopes the incident d sn't ruin all chances of publication for The Piper's Sons, which she admitted, as did editors who were interested in the book, did need some editorial revision. Kern also told PW that she thought that, as a member of the Association of Authors' Representatives, she might be censured by the organization, but actually AAR, which d s not regulate the trade of agents, will not intervene in this matter.

Agent Curtis noted that it was rather naive of Kern to think that a one-house auction wouldn't be discovered -- "with deals this big, publishers always ask who was the underbidder" -- given that with publisher consolidation it's easier than ever for players in the industry to check who was involved in any given deal. Kern herself wondered at what point the various players began talking to each other, although possible bidder Taublib told PW that she only knew there had been two earlier preemptive offers but did not know from which publishers. Whatever the scenario, The Piper's Sons auction certainly has stirred up the bad blood that can arise from the haziness and hype of commercial fiction auctions. "When publishers reconcile the sales figures that they print in PW with the numbers they tell authors they have sold, for example, then they'll have more cause to complain," said Curtis.