Exclusives and Literary Agents

Reprinted with permission from Nathan Bransford’s Blog


Becca asked an interesting question about exclusives in the comments section of a post a few days ago, and it occurred to me that I’d never really blogged about these slippery devils. So consider this niche filled, and the FAQs will be amended accordingly.

First off, definition: an exclusive means just what it sounds like. You are giving an agent the opportunity to consider your work exclusively and you are agreeing that you will not submit to another agent until you’ve heard “yea” or “nay” from that agent. Sometimes exclusives are open-ended, sometimes there’s a time period attached.

Feelings about exclusives vary wildly among agents, so please take my feelings as my own and not as any kind of industry standard. There is no standard when it comes to exclusives. It’s a veritable Wild West run by nonconformist anarchists.

I’m going to break down my thoughts on exclusives based on the different stages when they might arise and give you some dos and don’ts along the way:

Query stage: Agents expect that you’re querying simultaneously and widely, and frankly, if they don’t, they should. If you’re querying agents one-by-one I hope you plan to live as long as Methuselah because that’s how long you’re going to be querying. Remember to target your agent search, personalize your queries, and don’t query the entire agent world all at once, but also don’t needlessly slow down your search by waiting on exclusive queries.

Now, you might give your first-pick agent first crack, say…. oh, I don’t know, a certain agent who will get back to you within 24 hours if you submit on a weekday, and you might mention that you’re querying them first, but mentioning that it’s an exclusive is not necessary, and don’t give them forever to get back to you before you move on to the other agents you plan to query.

Partial or full manuscript request stage: Some agents will ask you for an exclusive when they ask for your partial or full. Whether you choose to grant this is up to you, but I would strongly, strongly advise against granting an open-ended exclusive that ties you up forever. 30 days is a reasonable time period for an agent to consider a partial or full exclusively, after which you should feel free to send your manuscript to any agents who have inquired in the meantime (and keep in mind that submitting your partial exclusively does not preclude you from continuing to query other agents, although it does mean that you have to put any agents who ask for a partial on hold until the period of exclusivity is up).

You are within your rights to (politely) decline their request for an exclusive, in which case you may simply write that you would prefer to continue sending your manuscript to interested agents but hope they will still consider your work. Or you can decide to grant it. Up to you. But keep in mind a few things: 1) You can’t grant an exclusive if another agent is already considering your partial or full manuscript (and you should let the inquiring agent know this.) 2) Some agents feel that if they are going to take the time to read a manuscript they want to do so with the understanding that the author is not going to be swept away by another agent in the meantime (thus wasting the time they spent reading that partial), and they may well decline to consider your partial on a nonexclusive basis.

So when faced with an exclusive request, you have a decision to make: possibly alienate the agent or try and keep your options open? That’s a decision only you can make. No matter what you decide though, be exceedingly polite, and always notify any agent considering your work when you have an offer of representation.

Revisions: I don’t generally ask for exclusives at the partial or even full manuscript request phase. But there is one situation when I often will. And that’s during a revision.

It’s very time consuming for an agent to read partials and fulls, although I see it as going with the territory. But a revision with a prospective client takes time-consuming to a whole new level. It means a serious commitment on the part of the agent without a sure prospect of success, it means committing to reading a manuscript multiple times, taking notes, thinking about the manuscript during most waking hours, and for me it means writing 10-20 page e-mails full of suggestions on each draft.

I don’t know if there would be anything more gut-wrenching than to embark on a time-consuming revision to improve the manuscript only to have an author take that improved manuscript to a different agent who gets to benefit from my hours of hard work. Quel horreur! The mere thought of this happening gives me dry heaves.

Fortunately this hasn’t actually happened to me, but just to make sure we’re all clear what a full manuscript revision means, I often ask for an exclusive before embarking on a revision, and I think this is fair. When the author is done, if either of us aren’t happy with the manuscript or how we’ve worked together in the process then we’re still free to go our separate ways, but while we’re working on that revision we’re going steady, pinning each other, and any other serious dating metaphor you can find. If we are happy with the manuscript at the end, then it’s time to move on to formal representation and submissions.

Ultimately, the thing to remember about exclusives is that agents mainly ask for them for peace of mind and efficiency. Agents are busy and they want to know that when they are reading something they don’t have to worry about having an author swept out from under them and having that time wasted. But they aren’t always advantageous for an author because they can limit an author’s choice and stall the process.

Be selective about how you grant exclusives, and make sure there’s a time limit affixed.