Last month's record $1.9-million paperback rights auction for "The Thorn Birds," an Australian family saga by a nearly unknown Australian novelist, Colleen McCullough, was less of a fluke than it may have appeared at first.

The auction, which Avon Books won in a two-day telephone bidding slugfest with Bantam Books, was only the culmination of months of careful preparation by hardcover publishers Haper & Row, and particularly subsidiary rights director Paula Diamond, who conducted the reprint rights sale.

Much credit, certainly, must go to the book, which won't be published until Friday, May 13 - the author's lucky day. It is already being ballyhooed as the new "Gone With the Wind" and has generated intense word-of-mouth enthusiasm as one of the great fiction "reads" to come along in many years.

But in the months leading to the record bidding outcome, Diamond's expert efforts to enhance the commercial potential of "The Thorn Birds" conspired with other developments in publishing - a shortage of new offerings, a recent new round of bidding inflation, and a conglomeratization of the business - to fan the anticipation of the publishing community to a near fever pitch.

"It begins and ends with the book," says Paula Diamond. "I think we did everything exactly right. We never missed a beat. But there's no amount of muscle or hype that could have gotten this reaction. It's the book that generated it and produced the $1.9 million - nothing else."

Diamond, a high-voltage verteran of many paperback auctions, did her best, though, to lay an expert groundwork, whetting enthusiasm and carefully building anticipation before the bidding took place over two days on Feb. 23 and 24.

As diamond describes it, this was an almost once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Into her lap fell a novel she thought virtually perfect in terms of both [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]tic merit and commercial appeal. But it was by a basically unknown author on a seemingly remote subject and it had to be vigorously talked up at first even to get it read.

That started last fall with an effort to get "The Thorn Bird" accepted as a selection by either of the two major book clubs, the Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC) and the Literary Guild.

Diamond first saw "The Thorn Birds" last spring as a loose manuscript "in two giant boxes." She read it, "got terribly excited," but the book still had some problems. A more polished and deftly plotted version, extensively revised with the aid of Harper's editor Ann Harris, who also worked on McCullough's first book, "Tim," "absolutely enflamed" Diamond in the second reading.

She got Harper & Row publisher Erwin Glickes and marketing chief Roger Strauss III to read the book, which they did the following weekend, "and the next Monday we all hugged and kissed each other," Diamond recalls, as they all realized what a potentially lucrative property they had.

That day Diamond made two calls - to BOMC editorial director Al Silverman and to his counterpart at the Literary Guild, Rollene Saal - telling each of them she had a "definite" selection for them. Not usually inclined to overstatement, Diamond got an interested response.

The nine-person judging board of the more prestigious BOMC met in mid-November, and, to Diamond's regret, turned the book down outright. "I don't know if they felt testy that month at having to rush through a 1,050-page manuscript," she conjectures.

She then called Saal at the Literary Guild, who offered to make the book a "featured selection." Asked what it would take to make the book a full selection, Saal asked if the book was theirs.

"Once she knew they had it, Rollene confessed that everyone had gone bananas," says Diamond."But there were certain things working against the book. First, its length. Then, its price. Our formula would normally call for it to be $12.50, but we had managed to get it down to $10.95, which was still high since no one knew the author. And there was also the title. There was a risk that people would think it was a book about birds. After all, it wasn't called 'Sweet Savage Love' or something like that. And Rollene also didn't know our publishing plans."

Diamond at that point told Saal that Harper & Row as planning an initial printing of 35,000 and an advertising budget of $25,000 to $35,000, and she pressed for a definite decision from the Literary Guild because a Harper's sales meeting was coming up and she wanted to use its selection by a book club as "a piece of ammunition for the salesmen."

The decision didn't come in time for the Dec. 6 meeting. But "the salesmen got very excited" at her description, Diamond said, and the decision was made to up the initial printing to 50,000 copies. This in turn changed the costs and allowed Harper & Row to further drop the retail price to $9.95.

"Maybe that's what clinched it for the Literary Guild," Diamond speculates, because a week later they decided to make "The Thorn Birds" a full selection for June, "so the first piece fell into place."

Then she went to work on selling the paperback rights. Because of prior contract arrangements, Fawcett would get first crack at the book.

While negotiations with Fawcett vice president Leona Nevler were commencing, Diamond received a call from Irving 'Swifty' Lazar, a well-known literary agent who has been handling Richard Nixon's memoirs, who told her: "I hear you have the book of the season."

Lazar asked to represent "The Thorn Birds" for movie and television rights and the offer was quickly accepted.

"He isn't known as 'Swifty' for nothing," said Diamond. "This would make a very expensive motion picture, and we knew Lazar would have people to go to who wouldn't wait for years to produce it," she added, and this would boost the novel's value in the auction for this reason.

Other pieces were also falling into place. Another Harper & Row employee was negotiating with Family Circle magazine for publication of the first chapter of "The Thorn Birds" as that magazine's "bestseller of the month" feature for May.

And an early admirer of McCullough, Bob Hale, who owns the Hathaway House bookstore in Wellesley, Mass., and who also happens to be this year's president of the American Booksellers Assn., got a copy of the manuscript and wrote an ccstatic letter to Harper & Row's Peter Straus which began:

"'The Thorn Bird' is a wowser of a novel, meaning simply that when you turn the final page, all you can say is 'WOW'."

This represented another piece of ammunition for Diamond. While Fawcett was trying to decide what it would do about its option, Diamond was precluded from showing the manuscript to any other house. But she was talking it up at the perennial lunching that goes on in the publishing business.

"There was the sheer selfish fun of having something this wonderful to talk about around town and I was obsessing about it constantly," she recalled. "The people were frustrated because I was unable to show it to them, but this only enhanced their appetite and everyone was waiting to see what would happen with Fawcett."

The negotiations finally led to a hefty $500,000 floor bid by Fawcett, which would set the minimum for the auction to come. The $500,000 offer was against royalties of 10 per cent for the first 500,000 books sold, 12.5 per cent to 1 million copies, and 15 per cent for anything sold on top of that. There were also escalators if the book appeared in any of the top three spots on The New York Times bestseller list.

Fawcett, moreover, retained the right to top any final bid in the auction by $50,000 if it chose to walk away with the rights itself.

The terms were so rich that Diamond feared Fawcett's floor bid and royalties could scare away all other bidders, so she suggested that Fawcett might want to soften its terms to give itself "room to maneuver." But Fawcett's never stuck to the offer.

On Jan. 25 Diamond announced "the most commercial, most obsessively readable, most satisfying novel it's ever been my good fortune to be involved with" in a notice of auction to the 10 major mass popularity paperback houses - Avon, Ballantine, Bantam, Berkeley, Dell, Fawcett, NAL, Pocket Books, Pyramid and Warner - along with three preprint copies of "The Thorn Bird" to each, and a description of all other developments on the book.

On Feb. 2 Diamond had to conduct another auction - for Erich Segal's "Oliver's Story," which was being sold for reprint along with "Love Story" whose rights had just expired. Starting from a $500,000 floor Avon, represented by editorial director Robert Wyatt, won the rights with a bid of somewhere around $1.5 million for both books.

(Wyatt could be termed the "Million-Dollar Man" of publishing, having previously shelled out more than $1 million each for "Alive," about the survivors of a plane crash in Chile, "Your Erroneous Zones" and Woodward and Bernstein's "The Final Days," which set a nonfiction record of $1.55 million.)

"When an Erich Segal book comes up and only one person gets it, that leaves a lot of other bidders very frustrated," said Diamond, and this added to the anticipation that "The Thorn Birds" auction also had a chance to top $1 million.

A week later Doubleday auctioned the rights to a new political novel by newspaper columnist William Safire which fetched $1.375 million, with Ballantine the winner in this case. The signs were propitious.

Diamond set Feb. 23 as the auction date for "The Thorn Birds," partly out of superstition because a rakish priest is a main character in the book and Ash Wednesday happened to fall on that date.

Because Avon had purchased the Erich Segal rights for such a lofty price, Diamond did not expect the house to be an aggressive bidder in "The Thorn Bird" auction.

Over at Avon, however, Wyatt had responded ecstatically to his reading of the book, as had other Avon publishing executives. "I would go home every evening and wallow in it. And the impulse when I finished was to start it again. We knew we had to have it, but we really didn't think we could get it because Fawcett had the right to top the highest offer."

The Avon executives kept reevaluating what they were willing to pay on the book, finally concluding in one of their secret strategy sessions that their maximum would be $1.8 million, according to Wyatt.

On the day of the auction, which like all others in the publishing business is conducted over the telephone, Diamond accepted a first round of "blind" bids to see how many participants would be involved.

Bantam, represented in the negotiations by its hard-driving general counsel Victor Temkin, topped $1 million in the first round for the high bid. Avon turned out to be second with a bid of $777,000. And Ballantine, Warner, Dell, Pyramid and NAL were the other trailing bidders in the opener.

Following the usual practice, Diamond then called the low bidder to announce the previous round's high offer - without identifying who made it - and asked for similar responses from each of the first round bidders, low to high.

For the record round, only four houses remained. Bantam again was high with a bid now topping $1.5 million as the slugfest intensified. Avon stayed in second place with a $1.475 million bid. Warner and Dell went lower.

Fawcett, on the sidelines with its option, decided the price had gotten too rich after the second round and told Diamond it was no longer interested. The information was conveyed to the remaining participants, who after the second round had been whittled down to only Bantam and Avon, so they would feel less constrained in their bidding.

By now it was afternoon and Avon, the low bidder in the previous round, came back with a $1.575 million third-round offer which held for the night as Bantam did not respond immediately.

Waytt said he went home and read some books. Diamond was so excited she couldn't sleep and ended up scrubbing her kitchen to while away the night.

Bantam came in with a higher bid the next morning and the leapfrogging was to continue for three more rounds that day. On round four Avon raised its bid to $1.71 million, only to be topped again. Round five bought Avon up to $1.81 million.

"That drove Paula a little crazy," Wyatt recalls, because it was just short of the all-time record price. "'Don't leave me there' she pleaded, but I said 'Paula, this is already a lot of money we're talking about.' I could buy the rights to that whole shelf for $100,000," he noted, pointing to several dozen recent novels in his office.

Bantam, however, came back with a $1.85 million bid, matching the record it set with its purchase of E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime" in 1975.

Now, with all previous calculations out the window, Avon made what turned out to be the final $1.9 million bid and Bantam proceeded to throw in the towel.

Bantam, in a statement, said that although it believed "The Thorn Birds" to be "a highly commercial novel, we did not believe at the time of the bidding that we would profitably publish it with an advance any higher than that which we offered." Bantam did not make any of its officials available for interviews for this article.

Avon's Wyatt, however, says he has no qualms about paying these astronomic sums for paperback rights. Why has Avon, relatively one of the smaller-sized paperback publishers, been so aggressive in bidding for reprint rights lately?

"We like them, and they're working for us," he responded "I think there are lot more dangers in some of the $200,000 and $300,000 books. On those books you can't get enough copies out to get that kind of money back."

Diamond at Harper & Row is still exhilarated at having gaveled down $3.5 million in book rights in just a month, but has some reservations about the prices that are being offered for paperback rights.

"It isn't a good thing for the industry because it puts a squeeze on all other books not in this league," she said, adding "there will probably be a higher percentage of books going unsold if this spiral continues."

Simon and Schuster president Richard Snyder agrees. "We are recreating the disaster that occurred in Hollywood a number of years ago," he says, "when, in effect, a few stars like Steve McQueen and Barbra Streisand collected all the available money. The result is that Hollywood today is only doing 40 features a year.

"A publishing house, after all, has only so much money."