Oh, what a week it has been, campers! Or, rather, what a six days. I’ll spare you the sordid details of the life editorial. Suffice it to say that last Saturday was my seventh anniversary as a blogger, and I was simply too exhausted to post anything even slightly celebratory. So, belatedly:
Enough frivolity; back to the question at hand. Last time, before life so rudely interrupted me, I was deep in the throes of discussing the thorny issue of whether or not it is ever to a conference pitcher or querier’s advantage to grant an exclusive — or, to be a trifle less jargon-y about it, whether a writer lucky enough to receive more than one request for manuscript pages should say yes to the one agent or editor that asks, usually quite nicely, if s/he may read the book before any other pro does.
While the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers will respond to such a request with an enthusiastic chorus of, “By all of the great heavenly muses, YES! If I overnight it to you, will that be soon enough to get started?”, what happens if the requester hasn’t gotten back to the writer by the time another request for pages arrives? Oh, it could happen, if the writer has been serious enough about landing an agent to send out more than one query at a time. That same writer might well have send out requested materials to Agents B and C before Agent A is delighted enough with the query to ask for an exclusive peek.
Then, too, sometimes requests for pages come in clumps. If a conference-attending writer really hustles, it’s entirely possible that she will walk away from those pitch sessions with more than one request. Or if an e-querier sends out a barrage of missives all at once, he might well receive several positive responses within a few days. If nobody asks for an exclusive, no problem: they can just send them all out simultaneously. But what if one of those agents wants to be the only one looking at it?
While we’re tossing around rhetorical questions, what is the writer to tell all of those other agents in the meantime? And, at the risk of terrifying you, may I also inquire what happens if the exclusive-requester doesn’t get back to the writer in a timely manner?
I wish we writers talked about these eventualities more amongst ourselves, because none of these are particularly uncommon dilemmas for submitters to face. Often, though, writers who find themselves in these awkward positions are too embarrassed to discuss them. Because I know from experience — seven years of it, to be precise — that this is one of the places those embarrassed writers tend to sneak in the dark of night, frantic for answers, let’s pause for a moment to define our terms.
An exclusive submission entails the writer’s agreeing to allow an agent or editor time to consider representing a particular manuscript before any other publishing professionals read it. Under an exclusivity agreement, both the pro and the writer agree to abide by certain rules:
(a) Only that agent or editor will have an opportunity to read the requested materials;
(b) no other agent or editor is currently considering it;
(c) the writer will not submit it anywhere else while the agent or editor is considering it;
(d) in return for these significant advantages (which, after all, prevent the writer from pursuing other opportunities), the agent or editor will make a legitimate effort to read and decide whether or not to offer representation within a specified time period, but
(e) if no time restriction is specified in advance, or if that agency or editor works someplace with an exclusives-only policy, the manuscript may simply be considered on precisely the same time scale as every other requested.
This serious business, folks, and therefore probably not the kind of thing to which a savvy writer would, upon mature consideration, grant lightly. Say, in the midst of an extended fit of excited giggling because a REAL, LIVE AGENT has asked to see one’s work. At that particular moment, the other seventeen queries one has out and about might slip one’s mind.
Especially if, as is often the case, the request for an exclusive is a trifle vague. (“I’d like an exclusive on this, Minette,” is often the extent of it.) In the throes of delight, the impulse to scream “YES!” has occasionally been known to overcome the completely rational urge to ask, “Excuse me, but what precisely would that mean for me?”
It’s also often the case that aspiring writers, especially first-time pitchers, will just assume that any request for pages must necessarily be a request for an exclusive. Or they act as if it was, in order to save themselves the trouble, stress, and, let’s face it, the emotional risk of sending out more than one submission. (Hey, this is tiring stuff.)
To minimize confusion, I want to make absolutely certain that each and every querier and submitter out there understands four things about exclusives — no, make that five:
(1) A request for an exclusive is always explicit. There is no such thing as an implied exclusivity request: the agent or editor will tell you point-blank that is what he wants.
(2) Some agencies will accept only exclusive submissions, so it’s worth your while to check an agent’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides before querying or pitching.
(3) As flattering as a request for an exclusive is to an aspiring writer, granting it is optional.
(4) Since by definition, a writer cannot submit to other agents during the exclusive period — yes, even if the writer queried the others first — it’s ALWAYS a good idea to set a time limit.
(5) Since granting it limits the writer’s options, it’s best reserved for situations where one’s top-choice agents are interested in the book.
Why limit it to your favorite picks? Try to think of granting an exclusive as if you were applying for early admission to an Ivy League school: if the school of your dreams lets you in, you’re not going to want to apply to other universities, right? By applying early, you are saying that you will accept their offer of admission, and the school can add you to its roster of new students without having to worry that you’re going to go to another school instead.
It’s a win/win, in other words. And I should know, because once I got into Harvard early, I had a whale of a good time going to group interviews with my high school friends and saying, “Wow, that’s an interesting question, Mr. Alumnus. Allow me to turn that question into an opportunity to discuss the merits of Kathleen here.”
Oh, you thought I woke up one bright day seven years ago and suddenly became public-spirited? I regard a broad range of endeavor as team sports.
If the best agent in the known universe for your type of writing asks for an exclusive, you might be well advised to say yes. But if you have any doubt in your mind about whether Harvard really is a better school for your intended studies than Yale, Columbia, or Berkeley — to mix my metaphors again — you might want to apply to all of them at the same time, so you may decide between those that do admit you.
To put it another way, if you are asked for an exclusive because your work is sought-after, it is up to you whether you would prefer to go steady right off the bat or date around a little. Got it?
If not, I can keep coming up with parallels all day, I assure you. Don’t make me delve into my vast store of zoology metaphors.
Do all of those averted eyes mean that you have no intention of saying no to a REAL, LIVE AGENT that wants to SEE YOUR WORK? Or merely that you’re hoping desperately that the muses have abruptly decided to assign one of their number to make sure that of those 17 agents you have approached, the only one that prefers exclusive submissions contacts you first, swears to get back to you within 48 hours, and then offers to sign you in 36?
Well, I wish the best for you, so I hope it’s the latter, too, but let’s assume for the moment that at least one writer out there falls into the former category. If you say yes, lone intender, set a reasonable time limit on it, so you don’t keep your book off the market too long. This prudent step will save you from the unfortunately common dilemma of the writer who granted an exclusive a year ago and still hasn’t heard back.
Yes, in response to that gigantic collective gasp I just heard out there: one does hear rumors of agents who ask for exclusives, then hold onto the manuscript for months on end. Or even — brace yourself — a year or two. I can neither confirm nor deny this, of course.
All I can confirm is that since the economic downturn began, such rumors have escalated astronomically.
Set a time limit, politely. Three months is ample.
And no, turning it into three weeks will almost certainly not get your manuscript read any faster. This is no time to be unreasonable in your expectations.
No need to turn asking for the time limit into an experiment in negotiation, either: simply include a sentence in your submission’s cover letter along the lines of I am delighted to give you an exclusive look at my manuscript, as you requested, for the next three months.
Simple, direct — and trust me, if the agent or editor has a problem with the time you’ve specified, s/he will contact you to ask for more.
Of course, protecting your ability to market your work isn’t always that simple: negotiation is not possible with the other type of exclusive request, the kind that emerges from an agency that only reviews manuscripts exclusively. The writer is not offered a choice in the matter. Consequently, a request for an exclusive from these folks is not so much a compliment to one’s work (over and above the sheer desire to read some of it, that is) as a way of doing business.
In essence, exclusive-only agencies are saying to writers, “Look, since you chose to approach us, we assume that you have already done your homework about what we represent — and believe us, we would not ask to see your manuscript if we didn’t represent that kind of writing. So we expect you to say yes right away if we make you an offer. Now squeal with delight and hand over the pages.”
Noticing a homework theme in all of these unspoken assumptions? Good. Let me pull out the bullhorn to reiterate: because agents tend to assume that any serious writer would take the time to learn how the publishing industry does and doesn’t work, submitters that don’t do their homework are significantly more likely to get rejected than those who do.
Oh, did some of you want to ask a question? Here, allow me to lower my bullhorn.
“But Anne,” the recently-deafened cry, “I don’t get it. Why might an exclusives-only submissions policy be advantageous for an agency to embrace?”
Well, for one thing, it prevents them from ever having to experience the fear associated with the first type of exclusive request. If you send them pages, they may safely assume that you won’t be e-mailing them a week later to say, “Um, Agent Q has just made me an offer, slowpoke. I still would like to consider you, so could you drop everything else you might have intended to do for the foreseeable future and finish reading my manuscript so you can give me an answer? As in by the end of the week?”
Okay, so you wouldn’t really be that rude. (PLEASE tell me you wouldn’t be that rude.) But agents who don’t require exclusive submissions do receive these types of e-mails fairly often: nervous writers often assume, mistakenly, that they should be sending agents who have their manuscripts constant status updates, if not pleading or outright ultimata. And agents hate the kind of missive mentioned in the last paragraph, because nobody, but nobody, reads faster than an agent who has just heard that the author of the manuscript that’s been propping up his wobbly coffee table is fielding multiple offers.
Agencies who demand exclusivity are, by definition, unlikely to find themselves in an Oh, my God, I have to read this 400-page novel by tomorrow! situation. After the third or fourth panicked all-nighter, exclusives might start to look like a pretty good policy.
Increased speed is the usual response to multiple offers, note. Since people who work in agencies are perfectly well aware that turn-around times have been expanding exponentially of late, the mere fact that other agents are considering a manuscript isn’t likely to affect its place in the reading queue at all.
What does the writer get in return for agreeing not to submit to others for the time being? Not a heck of a lot, typically, unless the agency in question is in fact the best place for her work and she would unquestionably sign with them if they offered representation. But if one wants to submit to such an agency, one needs to follow its rules.
Happily, agencies that maintain this requirement tend to be far from quiet about it. Their agents will trumpet the fact from the conference dais. Requires exclusive submissions or even the relatively rare will accept only exclusive queries will appear upon their websites, in their listings in standard agency guides, and on their form-letter replies requesting your first 50 pages.
(Yes, in response to that shocked wail your psyche just sent flying in my general direction: positive responses are often form letters, too, even when they arrive in e-mail form. I sympathize with your dismay.)
If exclusives-only agencies had company T-shirts, in short, there would probably be an asterisk after the company’s name and a footnote on the back about not accepting simultaneous submissions. If they’re serious about the policy, they’re serious about it, and trying to shimmy around such a policy will only get a writer into trouble.
Do I feel some of you tensing up again? Relax — agencies with this requirement are not very common.
Why? It limits their querying pool. Because they require their potential clients to bring their often protracted agent search to a screeching halt while the submission is under consideration, such agencies are, in the long run, more time-consuming for a writer to deal with than others. As a result, many ambitious aspiring writers, cautious about committing their time, will avoid querying agencies with this policy.
Which, again, is a matter of personal choice. Or it would be, if you happened to notice before you queried that the agency in question had this policy.
Do check their T-shirts in advance, though, because I assure you, no one concerned is going to have any sympathy for a writer complaining about feeling trapped in an exclusive. They’ll just assume that she didn’t do her homework.
Next time, I shall discuss other common manifestations of the exclusivity dilemma. For now, I’m simply going to blow out the candle that’s been burning in my seven-year celebration cake and call it a night. Keep up the good work!