Querypalooza, part XXVI: what if an agent is ready to say I do, and I can’t?

1885-proposal-caricature

This is, honest to goodness, the last day of Querypalooza: this morning’s post on practical problems of multiple submissions, and this evening’s final foray into the delights and challenges of writing a query letter for a book either without an obvious preexisting target audience or for which the writer cannot for the life of him seem to come up with a single relevant life experience that might conceivably be spun as a credential. (Oh, you have a background that includes residence on the planet Targ, where your fantasy novel is set? Somehow, I suspect that Millicent may have a hard time believing that.)

After that, we shall be plunging straight back into page-level craft again, with my patented close textual examination of the winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. Then, beginning on September 25th, we’re off on another mad dash through professional practicalities with Synopsispalooza.

This autumn is starting off with a bang, hasn’t it? Let’s get back to saving some aspiring writers some chagrin.

Yesterday morning, we began discussing the benefits and perils of simultaneous submission, the usually quite sensible practice of organizing one’s query timing to maximize the probability that more than one agent will want to be reading all or part of one’s manuscript at any given time. Ideally, a agent-seeking writer should want to have several agents interested simultaneously; it’s always nice to be able to choose between competing offers.

Stop laughing; it does happen. But it doesn’t happen all by itself: the writer has to plan for it.

I speak from personal experience here: I had three offers on the table and manuscripts out with four more agents when I decided to go with my agency. Admittedly, my memoir had just won a major contest at a writers’ conference that at the time habitually made a point of rounding up the winners in its top categories and herding them into a room with agents, but I was the only winner that year who ended up garnering an offer from one of those agents. (Word to the wise: it’s not all that uncommon for even agents who attend many conferences not to pick up new clients there, or for conference organizers to render hallway pitching difficult. Before you plunk down the sometimes hefty conference registration fee, you might want to ask point-blank how many of last year’s attending agents actually signed a writer met that that conference.)

That wasn’t accidental: I had been fortunate enough to have friends who had won in previous years, and mirabile dictu, I had even listened to their advice. Based upon it, I knew not to grant an exclusive to anyone; that would have tied my hands and meant, effectively, that if the first agent who asked for an exclusive (and several did) made an offer, I wouldn’t be able to sound out the others before saying yes or no.

I’m sensing some bewilderment amongst those of you who walked in halfway through this discussion. To recap: an exclusive is an arrangement whereby a writer allows an agent to read a particular manuscript while no other agent will be reviewing it. The agent requests an exclusive because he would prefer not to compete with other agents over the manuscript; the writer agrees, presumably, because if this agent says yes, she will neither need nor want to approach other agents.

Everyone clear on that? Good. Now it’s back to me, me, me.

Because I had seen past contest winners wait for agents to seek them out, a hopeful passivity that left them with no offers at all, I knew that if the win were to do me any good — and not all contest wins do, even major ones — I would need not only to speak with every agent at that conference, but follow up with a blizzard of submissions. I also knew that while I was making it snow manuscript pages at some agencies, I should be continuing to query others. Just in case.

Once this multi-pronged strategy paid off in the form of offers, though, I realized I had a dilemma: each of the three agents professing eagerness to represent my work was equally qualified to do it. Oh, they had different styles, as well as different tastes, but their connections were more or less identical. So I had to ask myself: what do I want out of the writer-agent relationship other than the agent’s having the connection, energy, and will to sell my books?

Or, to put it another way, what made an agent the right one for my writing, other than a desire to represent it? When you get right down to it, what makes one agent different from another?

The vast majority of aspiring writers do not ever give serious thought to this question, interestingly. Oh, the ones who do their homework — does that phrase make you twitch a little by now? — ponder what various agents represent, as well as their track record for selling the work of first-time authors (usually quite a bit more difficult than convincing an editor to acquire a book by someone who already has a demonstrable audience; that’s why many agents choose to represent only the previously-published). But let’s face it, these examinations are really geared to the question how likely is this agent to want to represent me? rather than is this the best conceivable agent to represent my writing?

Let that bee buzz around your bonnet for a while. The resulting synaptic activity will be useful in pondering the implications of the rest of this post.

Typically, writers don’t give serious thought to the what do I want from an agent, other than willingness to represent me? conundrum unless they find themselves in one of two situations: our questioner’s from yesterday, who wanted to know what she should do if she had already agreed to let one agent sneak an exclusive peek at her manuscript, but another agent had asked afterward to see it non-exclusively, or the dilemma faced by an already-agented writer whose representation doesn’t seem to be working out. (I don’t want to frighten you, but in the current extraordinarily tight literary market, the latter is every bit as common as the former. It’s quite simply harder to sell books than it used to be; inevitably, that’s going to cause some writer-agent relationships to fray. See why I want you to start thinking about qualities you want in an agent before you’re fielding offers?)

Since the second situation is an extremely complicated kettle of worms, let’s stick to the first. What’s an (extremely fortunate, by any standard) aspiring writer to do if other agents want to take a peek at a manuscript that Agent #1 has asked to see exclusively?

The short answer: abide by her commitment to Agent #1 for the duration of the agreed-upon period of exclusivity. Ethically, she can do nothing else.

The only apparently shorter answer: what honoring that agreement means vis-à-vis approaching other agents really depends upon the terms of the exclusivity agreement. And unless that exclusivity agreement was open-ended — as in the agent has until the end of time to make up her mind about whether to represent it — the writer has every right to start sending out her work to other agents the instant the exclusive expires.

See why one might want to keep querying, even if an agent is reading one’s manuscript exclusively? Or why it might be prudent to keep querying while several agents are reading it simultaneously?

Let’s be clear about what an exclusive means in practice, campers: the writer guarantees that nobody else will be in the running while the requesting agent is pondering the pages. Anyone see a potential problem with that?

Give yourself a large, shiny gold star and a pat on the back if you instantly pointed out, “Wait, what happens if the request for an exclusive comes in while another agent is already considering the manuscript?” That would indeed present a problem, because by definition, a writer cannot grant an exclusive if any agent is currently reading any part of the manuscript in question; in order to comply with a request for an exclusive, the writer must wait until all of the agents reading it at the time the exclusivity request arrived have informed him of their decisions.

Doesn’t seem like all that complicated a premise, does it? Yet hardly a month goes by when I some exclusive granter doesn’t tap me on the shoulder (physically or electronically) to ask, “Um, Anne, do you remember that request for an exclusive I was so excited about a week and a half ago?” (Or a month and a half, or six months.) “Contrary to your advice that I take some time to read my manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending it off, I popped it in the mail right away. Today, I’ve heard from another agent who wants to see it, too. What should I do?”

What, indeed. To complicate things even further, let’s add to the mix another potential problem that some of you clever readers probably came up with three paragraphs ago: what happens if an agent who asked for an exclusive doesn’t get back to the writer within a reasonable amount of time? Is the writer still bound by the exclusivity agreement? Or is there some point at which it’s safe to assume that silence equals thanks, but we’re not interested rather than hold on, we haven’t gotten around to reading it yet?

The short answers to each of those last three questions, in the order asked: it depends on the terms of the original agreement; it depends on the terms of the original agreement; it depends on the terms of the original agreement.

Why? Those of you who read breathlessly through yesterday’s post, shout it along with me now: how a writer can ethically respond to any of these situations rests entirely upon whether he had the foresight to set an end date for the exclusive when he first agreed to it. If an exclusive is open-ended, the writer cannot ethically send out requested materials to other agents until one of two things happens: the exclusive-requester informs the writer that she has rejected the manuscript, or so many months have passed without word from the agent that it’s safe to assume that the answer is no.

Even then — say, six months — I’d still advise sending an e-mail, asking if the exclusive-seeking agent is finished with the manuscript. It’s only polite.

Or avoid this dilemma entirely by hedging your bets from the get-go: grant the exclusive, but send the manuscript along with a cover letter that mentions how delighted you are to agree to a three-month exclusive. The agent can always come back with a request for more time, but at least you won’t be left wondering six months hence whether you’ll offend her if you move on.

I’m sensing some severe writerly disgruntlement out there. “But Anne!” exclaim aspiring writers who want there to be more options than there actually are. Being ethical is a tough row to hoe. “Why should I borrow trouble? Surely, you don’t expect me to run the risk of offending an agent by implying that he’s not going to get back to me in a timely manner?”

Hey, I don’t expect anything; do as you think best. I’m just the person that aspiring writers keep asking how to get out of an exclusive that hasn’t panned out as they had hoped.

To help you weigh the relevant risks, let’s look at the phenomenon from the other side of the agreement. Generally speaking, agents will request exclusives for only one of three reasons: they fear that there will be significant competition over who will represent the project, they don’t like to be rushed while reading, or it is simply the agency’s policy not to compete with outside agencies, ever.

Do I feel some of you out there getting tense over that third possibility, doing the math on just how many years (if not decades) it could take to make it through your list of dream agents if you had to submit to them one at a time? Relax, campers: requests for exclusives are actually fairly rare.

Why rare? Well, the first kind of exclusive request I mentioned yesterday, the one Agent A might use to prevent Agents B-R from poaching your talents before A has had a chance to read your manuscript (hey, A’s desk is already chin-deep in paper), tends to be reserved for writers with more than just a good book to offer. Celebrity, for instance, or a major contest win fifteen minutes ago. Basically, the agent is hoping to snap up the hot new writer before anybody else does.

Or before the HNW realizes that s/he might potentially be in the enviable position of being able to choose amongst several offers of representation. Since pretty much every respectable agency offers the same service, such choices are often made on the basis of connections, how well-established the agency is, or even how well the writer and the agent happen to hit it off. If an agent fears that the other contenders might be able to offer a rosier prospect (or, in a conference situation, just have more engaging personalities), it might well be worth her while to buttonhole the HNW and get her to commit to an exclusive before anyone else can get near.

So if you suddenly find yourself the winner of a well-respected literary contest or on the cover of People, remember this: just because an agent asks for an exclusive does not mean you are under any obligation to grant it. Because the writer owns the manuscript, she, not the agent, is technically in control of an exclusivity agreement.

Oh, pick your chin up off the floor. Aspiring writers are typically not used to thinking of the submission process this way, but the agent is only allowed to read your manuscript because you say it is okay. While I would not recommend setting conditions on a submission if there is no question of an exclusive peek (indeed, the average agency reviews far too many manuscripts for any given submitter to be in a position to bargain at that point), you are the person in the best position to determine whether granting an exclusive is in your manuscript’s best interests.

Yes, even if the alternative is not allowing the exclusive-seeking agent to see it at all. It doesn’t always make sense to say yes to a request for an exclusive. If several agents are already interested in your work, it might not be — because, again, the implicit understanding in an exclusive-read situation is that if the agent makes an offer, the writer will say yes immediately.

But it’s not necessarily in your best interest to sign with the first agent who makes an offer — you will want the one with the best track record of selling books like yours, right? Why not pick the one who asks first and be done with it? Chant it with me now, long-time readers: you do not want to land just any agent; you want the best agent for your work.

If you would like to be in a position to compare and contrast offers from different agents, you should be hesitant to grant exclusives. Or to say yes to them before you’ve heard back from another agent whom you feel would be a better fit for your work.

Does that loud choking sound I just heard mean that some of you weren’t aware that a writer doesn’t need to drop everything and respond to a request for an exclusive immediately? It’s not as though the request is going to expire five days hence; unless an agent actually asked you to over-night your manuscript, she’s probably not expecting it right away. In the first heat of excitement, it’s tempting to get pages out the door that very day, but again, it might not be in your book’s best interest.

Besides, if you attach your manuscript as a Word attachment to your same-hour reply to that nice e-mail from Millicent, when will you have time to review your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, to catch any previously-missed typos or rejection triggers?

Like it or not, timing submissions is a matter of strategy. If you are already murmuring, “Yes, by Jove: I want to query and submit in a manner that maximizes the probability to be fielding several offers at once!”, then I suggest you consider two questions very carefully before you decide which agents to approach first:

(1) If an agency has an exclusives-only policy, should it be near the top of my query list, potentially forcing me to stop my submission process cold until they get back to me? Or are there agents who permit simultaneous submissions that I could approach all at once before I queried the exclusive-only agency?

(2) Is there an agent on this list to whom I would be OVERJOYED to grant an exclusive, should he happen to request it after seeing my query or hearing my pitch, or would I be equally happy with any of these agents? If it’s the former, should I approach that agent right off the bat, before sending out queries to any exclusives-only agents on the list?

The disgruntled murmur afresh: “Okay, Anne, I get it: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But where does this leave Virginia and the many other writers out there who have granted exclusives to the first agent who asked, only to find themselves chafing under the agreement down the line, when other agents asked to see the manuscript? Can’t you offer just a few ounces of cure?”

Again, it depends: why did the agent asked for the exclusive in the first place, and how long it has been since the writer granted it?

If the agent asked for it because her agency has an advertised policy that it will only consider exclusive submissions, then the writer is indeed obligated to hold off on further submissions. If the agreed-upon period has elapsed, Virginia can always contact the agent and ask point-blank if s/he needs more time.

What the writer should most emphatically NOT do when dealing with an exclusives-only agency is contact the agent, explain that others want to read the work, and ask if it’s okay to submit simultaneously — which, incidentally, is very frequently the writer’s first impulse, if those who contact me on the sly to ask my advice are any indication. Bless their optimistic little hearts, they seem to believe that of only the agent in question understood how eagerly they want to find representation, the agent’s heart would melt.

“Of course, you may indulge in multiple submissions,” the agent would say, tossing candy to the world’s children from Santa’s sleigh, assisted by the Easter Bunny, Bigfoot, and a miraculously still-alive Amelia Earhart. “My agency was just kidding about that whole exclusives-only thing.”

Call me a pessimist, but I simply don’t believe that’s going to happen.

This desire to throw oneself upon the agent’s mercy is even stronger, if that’s possible, in writers who already have submissions out with other agents, and THEN receive a request for an exclusive from an agent. For many such submitters (who, again, have a problem most aspiring writers would LOVE to have), the fact of previous submission seems to obviate the agent’s request, or even an exclusives-only agency’s policy.

They couldn’t really mean it in my case, these writers think.

I hate to burst your bubble, Glinda, but I can assure you that they could — and do. Trying to negotiate one’s way out of this situation only tends to change the representation question from whether the agent likes the writer to whether he really wants to deal with someone who has difficulty following directions.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at an e-mail exchange between an agent and a writer who already has a submission out to another agent:

Dear Melissa:

Thank you for querying me with your novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS. Please send the first fifty pages.

As you may already be aware, our agency will accept only exclusive submissions. Please enclose a SASE.

Regards,

Clinton McPicky

Dear Clint:

Thank you for your interest in my novel. I would be happy to give you an exclusive, but the fact is, two other agents already have partial manuscripts, and I don’t know when I shall be hearing back from them. I’m really impressed with your agency, though, and I certainly don’t want to knock it out of consideration.

Since it would obviously be impossible for me to give you an exclusive on material that’s already elsewhere, is it okay if I just go ahead and send you what I’ve sent the others?

Melissa

Dear Melissa:
As I mentioned, my agency only accepts submissions on an exclusive basis.

Clinton

What happened here? Melissa tried to shift responsibility for solving her dilemma onto Clinton’s shoulders, that’s what. (Also, she addressed him by a familiar nickname, rather than the name with which he signed his letter; a small thing, but rather rude.) From her point of view, this strategy made perfect sense: his request had caused a problem, so she asked him to modify his request.

She was just being honest, right?

She was also wasting his time. From Clinton’s point of view, Melissa was asking him to change agency policy for the sake of a single writer who, for all he knows, simply did not bother to check what those policies were before querying. What possible incentive could he have for saying yes?

Got the impulse to quibble out of your system, Melissa? Good. Next time, double-check every agency’s submission guidelines before you pop any requested materials in the mail.

So what should Melissa have done instead? Waited either until she had heard back in the negative from the other agents (she wouldn’t need to worry about Clinton if one or both responded positively, right?), then sent her manuscript to Clinton, along with a cover letter saying that she would be delighted to grant him an exclusive for 6 months.

No need to bug him with explanatory e-mails in the interim. What does Melissa think, that he’s cleared his schedule in anticipating of reading her work?

Once he has the manuscript, though, Melissa will have to abide by their agreement: allow Clinton an exclusive until the agreed-upon time has elapsed. If he has not gotten back to her by a couple of weeks after the appointed time, she could then inform him that unless he would like an extension upon his exclusive (which you are under no obligation to grant, Mel), she will be submitting it to the other agents who have requested it.

What’s that you say, Melissa? Isn’t Clinton likely to say no at that point? Perhaps, but not necessarily — and you will have done your level best to conduct your submission process honorably.

“Okay,” the formerly disgruntled agree reluctantly, “I guess that makes some sense. But what about the writer — say, Melissa’s brother Melvin — who has an open-ended exclusive arrangement with Jade, an agent whose agency does not insist upon solo submissions? She’s had it for months, and four other agents have asked to see his book! Given how many are interested, can’t he just move on without telling her, and hope that she will be the first to make an offer, so he doesn’t have to ‘fess up about sending his manuscript elsewhere?”

The short answer is no. The long answer is that it depends upon how much time has elapsed.

Melvin should check the agency’s website, its agency guide listing, and the letter Jade sent him, asking for an exclusive: has it been at least as long as any mentioned turn-around time — or, to be on the safe side, a few weeks longer? If not, he cannot in good conscience send out requested materials to any other agent regardless of whether others requested exclusives in the meantime.

Don’t even consider it, Melvin. Otherwise, your promise to Jade would be meaningless, no?

For some reason, the vast majority of the Melvins who creep into my atelier in the dead of night seeking my advice on the subject — a practice I discourage, incidentally; the comment section is there for a reason — almost always seem surprised, or even hurt, by this response. But the situation honestly is pretty straightforward, ethically speaking: Melvin agreed to the exclusive, so everyone in the industry would expect him abide by it.

And contacting everyone concerned to explain the dilemma will not eliminate it; all that will do is tell all of the agents involved that Melvin is trying to change the rules. Either trying to renegotiate with Jade at this point or telling the others they will need to wait, will not win him points with anybody: it will merely look, and probably rightly so, as though he didn’t understand what an exclusive was when he granted it.

Here’s how I would advise Melvin to handle this dilemma with his integrity intact: wait it out for the stated turn-around time (plus two weeks), then send the polite note I mentioned above: remind Jade that she asked for an exclusive, but inform her that he has had other requests for materials. Do not leave that last bit out: it’s imperative that Jade is aware before she makes a timing decision that others are indeed interested.

If Jade writes back and says she wants to represent him, he has only two options — saying yes without sending out further submissions or saying no and sending out to the other four. If Jade does make an offer he wishes to accept, it would be courteous of Melvin to send a polite note to the other four, saying precisely what happened: another agent made an offer before he could send out the materials they requested. They’ll understand; this happens all the time.

If Jade asks for more time, Melvin should consider carefully whether he is willing to grant it. If he does, he should set a date — say, a month hence — beyond which he will start sending out manuscripts to the other four.

If, however, Jade doesn’t respond to his polite follow-up e-mail within three weeks, he should not, as many writers in this situation are tempted to do, overload her inbox with increasingly panicked e-mails. On day 22 (three weeks + 1 day), Melvin should send the requested materials to the four agents, along with cover letters explaining that others are looking at it simultaneously. No need to specify who is doing the looking, just that they are.

To deal courteously with Jade at this point, he should send a letter, saying that while she is still his first choice (the implication of an exclusive, always), since the exclusive has now expired, he is now sending out requested materials to other agents. As, indeed, he had already given her notice that he might do if she didn’t get back to him. If she is still interested in continuing to review his manuscript, he would be delighted to hear from her.

Again, this happens all the time. As long as a writer does what he said he was going to do, he’s unlikely to run into much trouble with an exclusive — but remember, this is an industry where reputations count; in the long run, it’s in your interest every bit as much as the agent’s that you honor the exclusivity agreement, if you grant it in the first place.

A tip for figuring out how long to suggest a requested exclusive should be: take the amount of time you feel you could wait calmly if you had a second request for materials burning a hole in your pocket. Now double it.

Take a gander at that number: is it expressed in days or weeks, rather than months? If so, may I suggest gently that you may be too impatient to exist happily with any length of exclusive?

You can always say no, right? Right? Can you hear me?

Frankly, I think most submitters faced with an exclusive request overreact to the prospect of a comparatively short wait — or did not have a realistic sense of how long it can take these days for an agent to make up his mind about a manuscript. 3 to 6-month turn-around times are the norm these days, at least for manuscripts that make it past Millicent’s hyper-intense scrutiny of page 1. And let’s face it, holding off for a few days or weeks before responding to subsequent requests for pages is not going to harm the writer’s chances with the agents requesting them.

Chances are that they’re reasonable people. After all, it’s not as though they requested the materials, then cleared their schedules for the foreseeable future in order to hold their respective breaths until the submission arrived. Since a startlingly high percentage of requested materials never show up at all (yes, really: aspiring writers often query, then realize with horror that the manuscript is not ready to submit), they’d get awfully blue.

And, please, I implore you, do not grant de facto exclusives. If an agent did not ask for an exclusive and the writer did not agree to it, the writer is perfectly at liberty to continue to submit, query, and pitch until a representation contract is signed.

While not continuing to pursue other leads while an agent is perusing your work may seem like a well-deserved break, a reward for successful querying, it’s usually counterproductive. It’s effectively like applying to only one college per year: you might get in eventually, but it’s a far more efficient use of your time to apply to many simultaneously.

So submit widely — and keep those queries and submissions circulating until you land an agent. Just make sure that when you have requested materials out to more than one agent, you tell each that others are looking at it.

Trust me, they’ll want to know, even if they aren’t exclusive-minded. Gives ‘em just a touch of incentive to read faster.

This evening, I shall wrap up Querypalooza with a final blizzard of examples. Keep those expectations reasonable, folks, and keep up the good work!

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