books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Should You Give an Agent an Exclusive Read?

Sometime during your query process, you’ll get a request for a partial or full manuscript (yay!) But this time it comes with a request for an exclusive read (not so yay.)

It happened to me about a year ago. I really wanted to work with the agent, but it would have been impossible to grant her a truly exclusive read. Like most writers seriously seeking publication, I had a bunch of outstanding queries, as well as a couple of partials and fulls lingering on various agency desks.

I’d never been fond of the idea of exclusives. They’ve always looked pretty lose/lose to me. They take our work off the market—sometimes for years—without increasing our chances of being offered representation.

And it’s even worse with publishers, who often insist on exclusives for any unagented manuscript, but have an up-to-three-year reading time and ninety-nine percent rejection rate. (Maybe it’s just a cruel way of saying “get an agent”?)

But what do you do if you’re in my situation? This agent seemed enthusiastic about my work. And she was definitely my best bet. Those partials and fulls had been out for over six months, and the outstanding e-queries, although pretty fresh, might have been rejected already. In this “no response” era, we have no way of knowing.

One successful writer friend tells me you simply can’t make it in this business if don’t ignore “exclusive” and “no simultaneous submission” rules. Her advice is to send now and worry later—since few works get multiple offers. Another writer says, “Send it without promising anything. Most agents are curious enough to peek.”

But I hate burning bridges, so I sent the agent the requested pages, along with a note disclosing that other agencies were looking. I offered a future exclusive on the full if the other agents gave me a pass. But the “exclusive” agent replied—within minutes—that her time was too valuable to waste on anything that she could lose to somebody else. The snippy tone made me wonder if I’d done something wrong.

So I checked with other agent blogs to see if I should have handled it differently. Turns out I made a mistake, but not in sending the partial; I shouldn’t have offered the exclusive at all.

Here’s some advice from the pros:

From Folio agent Rachel Vater (who is, alas, no longer blogging) “Exclusives are not good. Try to avoid [them] or specify a very short period of time. Two weeks maybe if you must.”

BookEnds agent Jessica Faust said: “I HATE exclusives. I think they are unfair to the author and lazy on the part of the agent….If you can’t compete, don’t play the game… If an agent isn’t aggressive enough to compete for your work with other agents, how aggressive will she be selling your work?”

The archives of Miss Snark offer the simple caveat: “Excusives Stink!”

Ultra-nice agent Kristin Nelson said she would never ask for one, because “I never want a client to feel they have settled for my agency.” But “if you’re 100% sure” an exclusive-demanding agent is for you, she offered these rules:

1. If you grant an exclusive, honor it. Be sure to include a time limit.

2. If your manuscript is out with one agent and an “exclusive” request comes in from another, send the manuscript anyway with a note explaining the non-exclusive status. If she won’t read it, “it’s her loss.”

3. Never allow an exclusive on a partial. “That’s just silly.”

4. If several agents have your full “and they’ve been nice enough to not request the evil exclusive,” keep them posted about the manuscript’s status with other agencies.

But what if you’ve already granted an exclusive, without stipulating a time limit, as I almost did? Don’t despair. Rachel Vater suggested sending a note like this:

“I submitted TITLE at your request on DATE as an exclusive submission but forgot to ask for a time frame. If you haven't had a chance to read yet, could you give me an estimation of where it is on your reading list?”

If you don’t hear back, Ms. Vater said you can send an e-mail informing the agent you’ve had more requests, and will send manuscripts out next week “unless you’d like a little more time?”

In other words, be polite, but don’t give away the store.

11 comments:

  1. excellent post Anne, as always!! I definitely think you should remake this blog as an agony aunt of writers :) great advice as always

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  2. Well said.

    Exclusives are bad for writers because they remove all leverage from the writer's hand. The writer's work is suddenly bent to the will of someone else whose main concern is (rightfully) their own business. Unsigned writers have to take a backseat to current clients and any kid can tell you that the backseat isn't a fun place to be.

    Exclusives are bad for agents because those who regularly ask for them (and worse, those who have exceptionally long read times) get a bad reputation for being "difficult" to work with or inattentive.

    I'm not sure which agent gave you the snippy reply, but I'm surprised to hear it. The only answers I've heard from polite "I can't grant an exclusive" answers were positive. The agents in question moved the MS forward in their reading queue.

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  3. I agree most times, don't go exclusive. But currently, my ms is with an agent who requested a rewrite. She took quite a bit of her time to craft a two page letter with suggestions for improvement. She did not ask for an exclusive, merely asked to see it again if I choose to rewrite. I did, and since the rewrite had not been sent to anyone previous, I could send it to her exclusively. I feel this is only fair, she took the time to help improve it.
    I'm hoping it doesn't take too long for an answer though!

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  4. Great post, Anne. Thanks for collecting all these really useful opinions together.

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  5. One more opinion. There's a whole alternate definition of exclusive. It can mean not that you won't let anyone read it for the two-four weeks the agent requests, but that you won't sign with somebody else during that time. After all, they don't really care who else is reading it. They really care about whether it will still be there if they want it. So if it's your dream agent, and you feel compelled to grant exclusivity, just don't sign a contract with anybody else for the two-four weeks she requested. At the end of that time, exclusivity is over. No notice required. Just my opinion.

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  6. Some excellent agent - probably one of those you listed above- suggested a writer never grant an exclusive for a period longer than two weeks.The reason given that two weeks is plenty long enough if the agent is at all interested.
    Any agent responding with a snippy reply is an agent one wouldn't care to work with in any event.

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  7. I don't think you erred in writing what you did to the agent.

    It was within that agent's rights to reject the full because she didn't have an exclusive, but it's her loss.

    My feelings about exclusives echo Catherine's. Exclusives seem geared towards preventing signing with another agent during a specific time. Otherwise, as you said, it's career death.

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  8. Catherine and Sierra, I wish you were right, but in agentspeak, “exclusive” is synonymous with “no simultaneous submissions.” In fact the expressions are often used interchangeably.

    This is why that agent refused to read even a few pages of my work when she heard I had a couple of partials out with other agencies. With an exclusive, NOBODY else is supposed to be reading your material during the specified (or not) time period when the agent has it in her hot little hands, not even your cat.

    For more info on exclusives see the Guide to Literary Agents http://www.guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog/Exclusive+Submissions+Treading+Carefully.aspx
    or the Snarkives http://misssnark.blogspot.com/2006/07/yes-exclusives-still-stink.html.

    But maybe your wonderfully broad interpretation can offer us all a nice way out in the future. “Yeah, but I read on this blog…”

    Whatever works to get out of granting an exclusive, do it!

    BUT, when you do have a number of partials with agents, and one offers representation, it's considered good manners to tell all the agents who have requested your material that you're about to sign, in case they want to make an offer. Recently I've read some impassioned posts from agents who fell in love with somebody's work and were upset to find the writer had already signed elsewhere.

    But isn't it nice to know that sometimes they squabble over lowly little unpublished writers?

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  9. Another great post--you're really writing some wonderful entries on your blog. Always worthwhile and always informative! I agree with you about exclusives. The only exclusive I ever gave came at the end of my querying process, and I knew ahead of time that she only did exclusives. By then, I felt like I could do it comfortably, knowing there weren't a whole lot of other agents I wanted to query at the same time.

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  10. Oh this was timely for me. I'm about to embark on the dreaded query fest again. Only this time, with more gusto. I doubt I'll have much problem with the "exclusive" requests, since I only query two or three at a time (I'm hoping for 10 - yes 10!) at least this time.

    But having been burnt by one agency early in my novel writing career, I'm not likely ever to sign anything (or even commit to verbally) without a specific time limit. So I'm very glad to hear some prestigeous Agents support my own views.

    This was awesome advice Anne. Thanks for the tips.

    ........dhole

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  11. Sorry to hear you got burnt by a bad/bogus agent Donna. A lot of us get taken when we're first starting out. Part of the problem is bogus agencies pay well for advertising, so legit writers' magazines and websites run their ads, and we think that means they're OK. But real agents NEVER advertise.

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