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.