Getting Exclusive: Navigating the Sometimes Tricky World of Agent Requests
by Erin Brown
I’ve written several columns about how best to approach the often scary first step of preparing to send your fragile, innocent manuscript out into the big, bad world of publishing. Fly, little novel, fly! Once you’ve shoved (or gently escorted) your query letter out of the nest to lead the way into the dark world of evil agents and slush piles, you then must sit and wait. Steeling yourself for rejection after rejection, the tears in your beers that will follow.
But wait! What’s that? A request for a partial? And what’s that? An EXCLUSIVE!!! Someone likes it! Oh my God, what do I do? Where do I go? What do I eat? Did I pay the electric bill? How will I spend my first million?
Okay, now this is where things can get a bit crazy for a first-time author. It’s very exciting, especially after hearing how hard it is to get noticed, when an agent responds to your query letter. Usually, the agent (or the agent’s assistant) will request a partial—perhaps fifty pages, perhaps three chapters, the whole thing, who knows? And it’s even more exciting when an agent (a real agent!) requests an “exclusive.” But remember to keep your wits about you, man!
What does an “exclusive” mean? It has to be a great thing, right? I mean, exclusive clubs have all the best food, drink, dancing girls (or Thunder Down Under, whatever your preference), and patrons for miles around! When that hot guy wants to date you “exclusively” it’s because you’re so awesome that no one else is even allowed to be around your awesomeness! Exclusive means “I’m special,” and that can never be a bad thing….can it?
Let’s dissect: When an agent requests an exclusive, they are asking for the exclusive right to read the partial or full manuscript; that means you promise to stop shopping it around to other agents during the period of exclusivity. A request for an exclusive is exciting because it shows someone is interested; however, it might not be in your best interest to grant one.
Here are a few scenarios that would affect whether you could—or would want to—agree to an exclusive. Now, it’s usually, almost always, pretty much all the time, a good idea to send out queries to multiple agencies. If an author sent out a query to one agency at a time, then it might take about twenty years to find an agent. This is because response times are notoriously slow, so you’d be waiting around for ages to hear anything before sending out the next query. Not a good use of your time. I always recommend sending queries out in batches of ten or fifteen. That said…
Scenario #1: The very first agent of the batch who responds asks you for an exclusive on your partial or manuscript. You could technically grant it in this case, because no other agent is reading the manuscript (just your query at this point). However, your book and the querying process will be put on hold for possibly months while the agent takes his or her time deciding if they want to represent you. Then if the agent responds with, “Thanks, but no thanks,” you’re back to square one. If this agent is your number 1 choice, they’re the best in the biz, you’re very patient, and they specifically ask you for an exclusive (never offer an exclusive), then you can consider it. But don’t be distracted by the positive sound of the word “exclusive.” It’s rarely advantageous for the writer to grant an exclusive. If you say, “Yes! Please, yes, I’ll do anything!” then make sure to cap the exclusive at two weeks for a partial and six to eight weeks for the full manuscript. If you forget these details, the agent could drag you along forever. And you want to hold true to your word—your reputation is everything in this business. So once you’ve granted an agent exclusivity, you must stick to it. The agenting world is small and word gets around.
Scenario #2: Based on the batches-of-queries method, a writer might have several requests for reads from agents. Yay! But what if a really great agent says that they want an exclusive? Grant it, immediately, right? They want you! They want you! Wait. You can’t. Other agents are reading the material. In this case, you respond with a nice thank you, and tell the agent you’re not able to grant an exclusive because other agents are already interested and reading the material. That isn’t necessarily the end of that, because it’s a great thing to show that there’s high interest in the project. The agent might want to read it anyway…and might do so more quickly.
Overall, step back and assess the situation before jumping on the exclusivity train. It sounds a lot more exciting and advantageous than it really is. Make sure that you can ethically say “yes” to an exclusive if you decide to go that route, and then stick to your guns even if other, perhaps better, agents come calling during the time of exclusivity—your reputation will follow you, so be honest.
But one thing that is undeniable—if you’re getting a request for a partial or full manuscript, much less an exclusive, you’re doing something right! So do a jig, sing a song, and be grateful that your query is getting some bites. Just don’t get so excited that you grant an exclusive without thinking it through. You don’t want to end up stuck in a relationship rut.
Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinedits.com