December 2011 | Nate Pedersen

National Book Auctions on TV: An Interview with Eric Lindstrom

Last week, I wrote about a new documentary series called the Great Big American Auction on ABC. To follow up on this recent trend marrying auctions and reality television, I spoke with Eric Lindstrom at National Book Auctions about the several potential television pilots which will feature his company. Eric also offered his thoughts on the trend in general and what makes an auction such an attractive event for a reality show.
Thumbnail image for David_Hall_small2.jpg David Hall, of National Book Auctions, at Cornell University.

NP: Could you tell us about your upcoming partnerships with television production companies?

EL: There are essentially three separate projects going on with National Book Auctions--any of which could grow into a longer form media project--television or online--with the reality show format. One is a reality show pilot we're being asked to shoot, where we're being asked to give full access to our company. The second is a documentary which, again, could turn into some other reality show based format. And the third would be something more from a public broadcasting perspective a la Antiques Roadshow, where items come in to be consigned. While the consignor may have a sense of what the value of a book or piece of ephemera might be, of course how it does at auction can be radically different in either direction. Those are the three projects we're working on, and any one of them could turn into something in the future.
NP: At this point nothing is definite, is that correct?

EL: That's correct--it's all in the pre-pre-production phase--but two of them have begun shooting. We've got a lot of footage in the can that's being edited into short-form pitches for sponsors or underwriters or to become something that could eventually be sold to a network.

NP: How do you feel about providing full access to your company?

EL: It's interesting. So much of what these shows are based upon are the personality of the individuals involved. So while Pawn Stars might be a fairly interesting program to watch, if the employees were dull, it would never have been picked up. With us in regard to granting full access, the crew is looking for a deeper story in the personality of the people. The end product could be more about the process of running an auction business--running a collectable books and ephemera business--then the actual auctioned items themselves. The only way I think you can get any interest or create that kind of contrast in personalities is to open up entirely to whomever is shooting you for production.

NP: And is your entire staff behind that?

EL: [laughs] And that's another challenge. Some staff don't want to sign releases and some staff don't want to be involved at all. And that's their choice. Meanwhile there are other staff members who are very excited about it. One staff member, for instance, is a fairly well known disc jockey in the area, so he has a bit of media exposure and experience himself. It's exciting for him to be part of this process. Meanwhile other staff members want nothing to do with it. I think the other interesting aspect of this is that we also have our auction attendees--our regular 25 or 30 attendees that attend once a month for our auctions--and they're becoming part of the process too. They're becoming part of the story as they're being interviewed - as they're buying their items--losing perhaps a bid to an online bidder live during the auction, and so on. Their personal stories of what they collect, or why they are there, are elements of the overall story.

NP: How many staff members do you have?

EL: Currently, there are six full time staff members. And then of course for auction day we bring in another six or so depending on what our needs are. It's a small group; a very tight group. We're a smaller auction business but we do hold 450 lot auctions every three weeks in Ithaca, New York which is the home of Cornell University. So it's a fairly small operation but we still get some very, very exciting items across the block.

photo(1).JPG David Hall, of National Book Auctions, being interviewed by a film crew

NP: I'd like to hear your thoughts on this recent trend with auction houses and reality television:

EL: It's interesting, Nate, because Antiques Roadshow is the worst thing that ever could've happened to antiques and collectibles. They expose a price for an item--they make an appraisal on the spot, but there's never a check being signed. So a casual viewer may have a similar item at home and expect that it's going to be worth upwards of $5000, for instance, however in an auction setting, that price could be dramatically lower or considerably higher. For us, there are items, and elements, and moments in the live auction that are so exciting because there could be a little sleeper item that you didn't realize was going to sell for over $10,000 and there could also be an item that you expect to sell for five figures and it sells for less than $500. It's a matter of collectibality and then how many buyers--how many bidders--are going to be actively part of the process and how high are they willing to go. So auction, I think, lends itself very, very well to a reality show format--to a television show format--because of those variables. You don't know how much it's going to fetch when it actually reaches the auction block.

NP: Can you say who you are working with?

EL: [pauses] Well, I could tell you that National Book Auctions has currently been working with a New York based production company that have done a number of pilots for other reality shows. They're trying as hard as anybody to get something that's going to be noticeable and different. The public broadcasting station that we're working with is WSKG, which would be meaningless to your readers, but it's a regional public broadcasting arm. And the documentary is being shot as a third prong of that by another crew altogether.

National Book Auctions' next auction will be held on January 8th. More details available here.