The short answer, under ordinary circumstances, is no. The slightly longer answer, and certainly the most common response to any publishing-related question, is it depends.
Perhaps it’s wrong of me on a plotting level to have given away the punch line so soon, but honestly, we’re right in the thick of writers’ conference season. Why, this coming weekend will see one of the largest in my part of the country. So pardon me, please, if I structure today’s post so it immediately addresses the fears of would-be and just-succeeded conference pitchers.
How do I know that multiple submissions and exclusives will be on these pitchers’ minds, as well as troubling the thoughts of the multitudes of querying writers determined to send out queries by Labor Day? Experience, mostly: as of Saturday, I shall have been the go-to person for writers’ anxiety for seven long, eventful years. And for every single conference season throughout those years, successful pitchers and queriers have come creeping to me in the dark of night with a terrified question: what have I done, and how may I fix it?
Oh, you think that’s an exaggeration, do you? Let me put it this way: for the last few years, I have asked these panicked persons — after I have soothed their heated brows, of course — to give me suggestions for what category title, if any, would most easily have caught their eye on the archive list at the height of their chagrin. Without exception, every single respondent has suggested that I include the word Help!
Usually with several exclamation points. I have some reason to believe, then, that there’s some ambient confusion out there about when it is and is not okay to submit a manuscript to several agents or editor at a time. And, perhaps even more pertinent to the midnight terrors haunting many a pitcher, how should a writer lucky enough to walk away from a conference with more than one request for pages decide which agent or editor to submit to first?
This time, the short answer is it depends. And the long answer is a question: what about these particular requests make you believe you have to rank them?
If you’re like most writers gearing up to submit, the answer to the long answer probably runs a little something like this: well, obviously, I shouldn’t submit to more than one agent at a time — that would be rude. Or is that I’ve heard that agents consider it rude? Anyway, I wouldn’t want to run the risk of offending anyone. Besides, if I submit only to the one I liked better — which was that again? — I don’t have to come up with a graceful way to say no to the other one. And it’s less work for me: if the first one says yes, I don’t have to go to the trouble of making up another submission packet. But if I do that, must I wait for the first to say no before I send out pages to the second? What if the first never gets back to me? Or what if the first doesn’t get back to me until after I’ve already submitted to the second, and then yells at me because he didn’t want me to show the book to anyone else? And what if…
Does that logic loop sound familiar? If so, the first thing to do is CALM DOWN. No one can whip up a worst-case scenario better than a writer, but in the vast majority of multiple submissions, no problems arise whatsoever.
You’d never know that, however, from the welter of dire warnings and fourth-hand horror stories floating around out there, would you? That miasma of anxiety tends to compound the confusion for many writers, alas: surely, I don’t have to tell any of you reading that there’s an awful lot of querying and submission advice out there, much of it contradictory. And as some of may have noted with alarm, an awful lot of the common wisdom about querying and submission just isn’t true, or at any rate, just isn’t true anymore.
How, then, is someone brand-new to the process supposed to figure out what to do?
Frequently, aspiring writers attempt to resolve this dilemma by turning to someone like me — often, unfortunately, after they’ve inadvertently stumbled into an industry faux pas. (Which is, in case those of you searching frantically through the archives have been wondering, why I always provide such extensive explanations for everything I advise here: since so many of my readers are considering quite a bit of competing information — and frequently doing it in a moment when they are already feeling overwhelmed — I believe that it’s as important that you know why I’m suggesting something as to understand how to implement the suggestion. I never, ever want any of my readers to do what I say just because I say so. So there.)
Some of the most heart-rending perennial problems are the result of believing the common wisdom and applying it to every agent one might ever want to approach, rather than carefully reading each agency’s submission guidelines and treating each query/submission situation as unique. Sometimes, though, even that level of hedging doesn’t prevent a writer from falling into a ditch.
Witness, for instance, the situation into which Virginia, a long-time member of the Author! Author! community, innocently tumbled:
Help! I submitted only two queries to two agents. One got back to me quickly and did ask for exclusive right to review. A few days after I agreed to this, the second agent replied and asked for pages. I don’t want to violate my agreement, but how do I tell the second agent I’m really happy she wants to see more but she has to wait?
Successful queriers and pitchers end up in this kind of dilemma all the time, often without understanding how they ended up there or why they’re stressed out about what was presumably the outcome they were seeking when they approached multiple agents simultaneously: more than one agent interested in reading their work. An exclusive is always a good thing, they reason nervously, a sign that an agent was unusually eager to see a queried or pitched book, and thus decided to bypass her usual method of requesting manuscripts.
Not always, no. But it depends.
Sometimes, a request for an exclusive genuinely is the result of an agent’s being so excited by a query or pitch (especially if that book has just won a contest) that she’s afraid that another agent will snap it up first. Far more frequently, though, a surprise request for an exclusive is the natural and should-have-been-expected outcome when a writer approaches and agent working at an agency that has an exclusives-only policy.
I hear some uncharitable souls snicker, but most queriers don’t read each individual agency’s submission guidelines before sending out those letters. At least the first time around, aspiring writers generally assume that all agencies are the same. And very few pitchers do much research on the agents and editors they plan to approach at conferences, beyond reading the blurbs in the conference brochure.
So if you find yourself walking uncomfortably in Virginia’s shoes, don’t worry. You’re certainly not the only aspiring writer that’s ever slipped on those moccasins. Heck, you’re not the only one to try to trudge a mile in them today.
Especially likely to find themselves thrashing around in this dilemma: successful pitchers and queriers who do what virtually every aspiring writer asked to submit materials does — and what Virginia probably did here: sending out pages within hours of receiving the request. Which those of you who have been following this series know better than to do, right?
It’s a completely understandable faux pas, however, especially if the request arises from a query. Overjoyed at what they assume (in this case, wrongly) will be the only interest their queries will generate, many multiply-querying writers don’t pause to consider that multiple requests for manuscripts are always a possible outcome while sending out simultaneous queries.
Thus, it follows as night the day, so is a situation where one of those agents requests an exclusive. And it follows as day the night that an exclusive request is also a possibility when pitching at a conference.
This is why, in case any of you inveterate conference-goers have been curious, agents, editors, and those of us who teach classes on marketing writing invariably sigh when an aspiring writer raises his hand to ask some form of this particular question — and it’s not for the reason that other aspiring writers will sigh at it. (The latter usually sigh because wish they had this problem, and who could blame them?) The pros will sigh because they’re thinking, Okay, did this writer just not do his homework on the agents he approached? Or is he asking me to tell him that he can blithely break the commitment he’s made to Agent #1? Does this writer seriously believe all agents are in league together, that I would be able to grant permission to insult one of my competitors?
That’s why everyone else will sigh. I, however, sigh because my thought process runs like this: okay, I have to assume that the questioner is someone who hasn’t read any of my blog posts on querying or submission, as much as that possibility pains me to consider. But since I have a small army of explicitly-named categories on my archive list — conveniently located at the bottom right-hand side of my website’s main page, including such topics as EXCLUSIVES AND MULTIPLE SUBMISSION, EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS, SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS, and WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? — directly aimed at answering this question, and a battalion more that deal with it within the larger context of submission (under provocative headings like AFTER YOU RECEIVE A REQUEST FOR PAGES, AFTER YOU SUBMIT, HOW LONG BEFORE THE REQUEST FOR PAGES EXPIRES? HOW SOON MUST I SEND REQUESTED MATERIALS? INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE, IS IT OKAY TO SUBMIT TO SEVERAL AGENTS AT ONCE? and REQUESTED MATERIALS), as well as a dramatically-reenacted scenario directly related to this issue in the Industry Etiquette series. Yet I have to assume that the questioner is facing a situation that I have managed to overlook addressing in any of these posts. So I shall eschew the temptation just to send the questioner to any or all of those categories, try to understand how and why this situation is unique, and answer the darned question for the 1,477th time.”
Yes, I can think with that much specificity in mid-sigh, thank you very much. It’s just one of my many, many talents.
All that being said — or at any rate thought loudly — it is undoubtedly true that more writers than ever before seem to be finding themselves enmeshed in Virginia’s dilemma. Or simply unsure about whether it’s okay to submit to more than one agent at once. Quite a bit of the common wisdom out there, after all, dictates that writers should wait to hear back on one submission before sending out the next.
The short answer to that: poppycock! The long answer — and I sincerely hope that by now you saw this coming — is it depends.
On what? On the individual agency’s policies, of course, as well as how the agent in question phrased the request for pages.
In an environment where submission volumes are so high that even a requested full manuscript may well sit on a corner of an agent’s desk for a year or more — and that’s after Millicent has already decided she liked it — just presuming that any agent would prefer to be the only one considering a manuscript could add years to the submission process. If an agency has a no-reply-if-the-reply-will-be-no policy, stated or unstated, the hapless submitter can have no idea whether silence means (a) no, (b) the manuscript got lost in transit, (c) the manuscript got lost at the agency, or (d) the agent just hasn’t had time to read it yet.
Well might you turn pale. As agencies have been cutting their staffs over the last few years (and aspiring writers who wouldn’t have had time to query or submit before the economic downturn have been digging old manuscripts out of bottom desk drawers), turn-around times have gotten demonstrably longer. So has the practice of not informing a submitter if the answer is no — or even hanging on to a manuscript someone at the agency likes in the hope that market conditions will improve for that type of book.
The result: more and more submitters who just don’t know whether they are in a position to grant an exclusive to another agent or not. How could they, when they have heard that writers should never bug agents while they are considering manuscripts?
All of which is to say: it actually isn’t fair to leap to the conclusion that if aspiring writers read agents’ websites and agency guide listings more thoroughly, they would never end up in this situation. Sometimes, an exclusive request does come out of a genuinely blue sky, whacking a conscientious multiple querier or submitter right in the noggin.
How is that possible? Amazingly often, the writer simply does not know that exclusivity is a possibility until an agent asks for it. Unless an agency has an exclusives-only policy (and some do; check), the prospect generally will not be mentioned in its submission guidelines.
Then, too, the request for an exclusive is seldom formulated in a manner that informs a writer not already aware of the fact that she can say no. Or that she can grant it at a later date. Or put a time limit on the exclusive, if she agrees to it at all.
All of these things are perfectly legitimate responses to an exclusivity request, incidentally. But it depends on the actual content of that request; they vary more than one might think.
I can, however, rule out a couple of possibilities. First, as we discussed earlier in this series, there is no such thing as an implied request for an exclusive; such requests are always directly stated. So unless an agent or editor specifically asked for an exclusive peek at all or part of a manuscript or the agency has a clearly-posted exclusives-only policy on its website, a writer does not need to worry at all about offending Agent A by submitting simultaneously submitting the same manuscript to Agent B.
Yes, really. Just mention in your cover letters to each that another agent is looking at it, and you should be fine.
Would you fling the nearest portable object in my general direction, though, if I swiftly added that even this sometimes depends upon factors beyond the writer’s knowledge and control? Back in my querying days, I blithely sent off requested materials to a seventh agent, while six were already considering it. That was completely ethical: all seven’s agencies websites, communications with me, and listings in the standard agency guides failed to mention any exclusives-only policies. Nor did #7′s request for the manuscript specify that he wanted an exclusive. That being the case, I simply told him, as I had an ethical obligation to do, that he was not the only agent considering it.
You can see this coming, can’t you?
I must admit, I didn’t — his announcement that his agency never considered multiple submissions left me pretty gobsmacked. But once he had expressed that preference, I had to abide by his rules, even though they were late-breaking news: I had to choose whether to e-mail him back to say I accepted his terms, and would be telling Nos. 1-6 that my manuscript was no longer available, or to apologize for not being aware of what I could not possibly have known and withdraw my submission to him. I chose the latter, and lived to submit another day.
I sense some of you seething, do I not? “But Anne!” the hot-blooded among you cry, and I’m grateful for your ire on my behalf. “That wasn’t fair! Why didn’t you insist that he abide by what you thought were the original terms of the submission?”
Because, passionate ones, as Thomas Hobbes once so rightly observed, rights are the ability to enforce them. Arguing with an agent about his own submission policies is always a losing proposition for a writer.
Which leaves me to the second point a writer should consider before granting an exclusive: before you say yes, make sure you understand its terms, as well as what granting it would mean for you. Read that request very, very carefully, as well as the agency’s website. Is the exclusive open-ended, for instance, or is the agent asking for you to hold off on submitting elsewhere for a particular period of time? If it doesn’t specify an end date — and most exclusive requests don’t — would you feel comfortable setting the request aside for a few months while you responded to any other agents that had already expressed interest. Or if it took three months to get an answer from an agent that already had the manuscript?
And, while you’re at it, are you absolutely positive that the requester is asking for an exclusive? Sometimes, in the heat of excitement at hearing a yes, a successful querier — or, even more commonly, a successful pitcher — will slightly misinterpret what he’s being asked to do.
Third, be aware that a request for an exclusive is in fact a request, not a command. Even if a writer does receive one or more requests for an exclusive, she’s not under any obligation to grant it — nor does she need to agree to it right away. That’s vital to know going in, because as soon as the writer has agreed to an exclusive, she does in fact have to honor it. So it’s in the writer’s best interest to give the matter some thought.
Think about it: if Virginia had pondered Agent A’s request for a week or two, wouldn’t she have found herself in a much, much happier dilemma when Agent B’s epistle arrived? Then, she would merely have had to decide to which she wanted to submit first, the one that wanted the exclusive or the one that didn’t.
What would have been the right answer here, you ask with bated breath? Easy: it depends.
Upon what? Feel free to sing along: if Agent A’s agency’s had a posted exclusives-only submission policy, he had a right to expect Virginia to be aware of it before she queried, and thus to believe that by querying him, she was agreeing to that condition. If an agency will only accept solo submissions, that’s that: it’s not as though she could negotiate an exception in her case.
It would also depend upon whether the agent put a time limit on the request. It’s rare that an agent or editor puts a start date deadline in an exclusive request (they have other manuscripts waiting on their desks, after all), but they do occasionally specify how long they expect the exclusive to be.
Given Virginia’s surprise, though, my guess is that neither of these conditions applied. That means, ethically, she could go either way.
The only thing she could not legitimately do was submit to both A and B after A said he would read it only as an exclusive. That does not necessarily mean, however, that if she wanted to submit to A first, she could not suggest a time limit on the exclusive, so enable her to take advantage of B’s interest if A decided to pass.
And a thousand jaws hit the floor. Yes, yes, I know: the very idea of the writer’s saying, “Yes, Agent A, I would love to grant you a three-month exclusive — here’s the manuscript!” would seem to run counter to the idea that the requester gets to set the terms of the exclusive. But in Virginia’s case, I happen to know (my spies are everywhere) that Agent A is of the ilk that does not habitually specify an end date for an exclusive. So proposing one would not constitute arguing with him; it would merely be telling him how long she believes she is agreeing to hold off on sending it elsewhere.
He can always make a counterproposal, after all. Or ask for more time at the end of those three months. It’s a reasonable length of time, though, so he probably won’t say no — as he would, in all likelihood, if she set the time at something that would require him to rearrange his schedule to accommodate, like three weeks.
Why so glum? Was it something I said? “Three months?” the impatient groan. “To me, three weeks sounds like a long time to hear back! If the agent is interested enough to request an exclusive, why shouldn’t I expect a rapid reply?”
Ah, that’s a common misconception. 99.999% of the time, what an aspiring writer asked for an exclusive thinks the agent is saying is not, “Okay, this sounds interesting and marketable, but I don’t want to have to rush to beat competing agents in reading the manuscript. Please remove the necessity of my having to hurry by agreeing not to show it to anyone else until I’ve gotten back to you.”
Which is, by the way, what a request for exclusivity means, at base. Rather deflating to think of it that way, isn’t it? It is, however, realistic.
By contrast, what 99.999% of aspiring writers in this situation hear is “Oh, my God — this is the most exciting book premise/query/pitch I’ve ever heard. I’m almost positive that I want to represent it, even though I have not yet read a word of the manuscript or book proposal. Because my marrow is thrilled to an extent unprecedented in my professional experience, I shall toss all of my usual submission expectations and procedures out the nearest window. If you grant my request for an exclusive, I’m going to clear my schedule so I may delve into this submission the nanosecond it arrives in my office. May I have it today — or, at the very latest, tomorrow — so I can stop holding my breath until it arrives?”
And then the giddy submitter is astonished when weeks or months pass before the agent makes a decision, precisely as if there had been no exclusive involved. The only difference, from the writer’s point of view, is that he was honor-bound not to approach other agents until he heard back.
Pardon my asking, but what precisely did the writer gain by granting that exclusive? Or by not politely attempting to place a time limit upon it?
That’s not to say, of course, that I’m unsympathetic to the impulse not to look that gift horse in the mouth. Many, if not most, aspiring writers confuse initial interest with a commitment — why would an agent ask to see a manuscript exclusively, they reason, unless they already thought they might want to sign the author?
A fair enough question, but I’m not sure you’re going to like the answer: typically, an agent won’t ask for an exclusive (or to see the manuscript, for that matter) unless she thinks representing it as a possibility; it is a genuine compliment. However, since agents who ask for exclusives seldom make the request of only one writer at a time, it’s not very prudent for a writer to presume that his will be the only exclusive on the agent’s desk.
If that last bit made your stomach drop to somewhere around your knees, please don’t feel blue, or even slightly mauve. The vast majority of writers who have ever been asked for an exclusive peek at their work were under laboring under the same presumption. The temptation to believe the request means more than it actually does is incalculable. The result, unfortunately, is that all too often, aspiring writers agree to an exclusive without understanding what it actually will entail — and usually are either too excited or too shy to ask follow-up questions before they pack off those requested materials.
For the benefit of those overjoyed and/or excited souls, I’m going to invest some blog space into going over what granting that solo peek will and will not entail.
Within the context of submission, an exclusive involves a writer agreeing to allow an agent a specific amount of time to consider representing a particular manuscript, during which no other agent will be reviewing it. In practice, both the agent and the writer agree to abide by certain rules:
(a) Only that agent will have an opportunity to read the requested materials;
(b) no other agent is already looking at it;
(c) the writer will not submit it anywhere else;
(d) in return for these significant advantages (which, after all, pull the manuscript out of competition with other agents), the agent 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 the agent always requests exclusives, the manuscript may simply be considered on precisely the same time scale as every other requested by the agency.
Is everyone clear on the rules? Be honest, now: they differ quite a bit from what you were expecting, don’t they?
Now that we know what Virginia agreed to do in granting an exclusive to Agent A, as well as what her options would have been had she received Agent B’s request before she had sent off the first submission, let’s take a gander what she should do about the situation she actually faced. (You knew I would get to it eventually, right?)
The answer is, as you have probably guessed, it depends. If she wants to play by the rules — and she should, always — her choices are three.
If she specified a time limit on the exclusive when she granted the exclusive to Agent A the answer is very simple: if less than that amount of time has passed, don’t send the manuscript to anyone else until it has. On the day after the exclusive has elapsed, she is free to submit to other agents.
What is she to tell Agent B in the interim? Nothing, if the agreed-upon length of the exclusive is reasonable — say, between three and six months.
Stop choking. Agencies often have monumental backlogs, and it’s not uncommon for agents and editors to read promising manuscripts at home, in their spare time.
And no, Virginia, waiting that long before submitting requested materials to B will not seem strange. Agents are perfectly used to writers taking some time to revise. B probably wouldn’t blink twice if she didn’t get back to him before then.
Remember, it’s not as though an agent who requests materials sits there, twiddling his thumbs, until he receives it. He’s got a lot of manuscripts already sitting on his desk — and piled on the floor, and threatening to tumble of his file cabinet, and waiting in Millicent’s cubicle…
Besides, what would Virginia gain by telling him she’d already promised an exclusive to another agent, other than implicitly informing him that she had already decided that if Agent A offered representation, she would take it? How exactly would that win her Brownie points with B? Or, indeed, help her at all?
In practice, all waiting on fulfilling the second request means is that Virginia will have an attractive alternative if A decides to pass on the manuscript. That’s bad because…?
Oh, wait: it isn’t. Actually, it’s an ideal situation for a just-rejected submitter to find herself occupying. Way to go, Virginia!
Worrying about what might happen to Virginia if Agent A doesn’t get back to her within the specified time frame? Relax; she still has several pretty good options: one completely above-board, one right on the board, and the last slightly under it.
First, the high road: a week or two after the agreed-upon exclusive expires, Virginia could send Agent A a courteous e-mail (not a call), reminding him that the exclusive has elapsed. Would A like more time to consider the manuscript solo, or should Virginia send the manuscript out to the other agents who have requested it?
Naturally, if he selects the latter, she would be delighted to have him continue to consider the manuscript also. That’s fortunate, because I can already tell you the answer will be the former, if A has not yet had a chance to read it.
It’s also quite possible, though, that the response to this charming little missive will be silence. That might mean that Agent A is no longer interested, but it might also mean that he intended to answer and forgot. Or that he honestly believes he can get to the manuscript before another agent has a chance to make an offer. For all of these reasons, she should not take A’s silence as an invitation to load him with recriminations about not getting back to her.
Which, unfortunately, is what submitters in this situation usually do. It’s wasted effort: if the answer was no, jumping up and down to try to regain the agent’s attention won’t change that; if the agent hasn’t had a chance to read it yet, reproaches will seldom move a manuscript up in a reading queue.
So what is Virginia to do? Well, ethically, she is no longer bound by that exclusive. She should presume the answer was no, elevate her noble chin — and send out that submission to Agent B without contacting A again.
That’s the high road. The writer doesn’t achieve much by taking it, usually, other than possibly an extension of the exclusive, but you must admit, it’s classy. The level road is cosmetically similar, but frees the writer more.
It runs something like this: a week or two after the exclusive has elapsed, Virginia could write an e-mail to Agent A, informing him courteously and without complaint (again, harder than it sounds) that since the agreed-upon period of exclusivity has passed, she’s going to start sending out requested materials to other agents. Then she should actually do it, informing Agent B in her cover letter that another agent is also considering the work.
That way, she gets what she wants — the ability to continue to market her work — while not violating her agreement with Agent A and being honest with Agent B. All she is doing is being up front about abiding by the terms of the exclusive.
Might she receive a hasty e-mail from A, asking for more time? Possibly. If so, she can always agree not to accept an offer from another agent until after some specified date. If she likes.
The slightly subterranean third option would be not to send an e-mail at all, but merely wait until the exclusive has lapsed to send out the manuscript to Agent B. She should, of course, inform B that there’s also another agent reading it. I don’t favor this option, personally, because despite the fact that Virginia would be perfectly within her rights to pursue it — A is the one who breached the agreement here — because if Agent A does eventually decide to make an offer, Virginia will be left in a rather awkward position.
Enviable, of course, but still a bit uncomfortable. I’d stick to one of the higher roads — unless, of course, after months of waiting, Virginia isn’t certain that she can resist complaining about the passage of time. It’s not in her interest to pick a fight, after all.
The shortness of the space between here and the bottom of this post is making some of you nervous, isn’t it? “But Anne,” you quaver, shifting in your desk chairs, “what happens if Virginia agreed to an unlimited exclusive, and she hasn’t heard back? That seems like the most complicated option of all, so I’m really, really hoping that you’re not planning to trot out that annoying it depends line again.”
Well, her options do depend, actually, on quite a number of things, but you’re quite right that discussing the perils and escape hatches of the unlimited exclusive is too complex to toss off in just a few paragraphs. I shall deal with it in depth next time.
For now, suffice it to say that as exciting as a request for an exclusive may be, it is not a gift horse to clamber upon without some pretty thorough examination of its dentistry. Before you saddle it — and yourself — take the time to consider the implications. And, of course, keep up the good work!