With the gracious permission of the author, I'm going to answer the following question in my blog. It showed up in my e-mail yesterday.
Dear Ms. Rappaport,
I have a question and I think the answer might be helpful to my fellow blog buddies who stop in to read Lit Soup. I have some query letters out and an agent has asked for an exclusive on a partial, the first three chapters. I checked her out at Preditors & Editors, Publishers' Marketplace, and AgentQuery. She has a good reputation, so I agreed to it. Now, I'm wondering, what happens if another agent asks for a partial? What if the first agent asks to read the full manuscript when I have another agent waiting to read a partial? I believe fulls are always exclusive, but it doesn't seem fair for the second agent to have to wait. I've read the archives of all the agents I know of who blog. If it's there, I've missed it. Maybe it's so rare that I'm silly to worry about it, but I like to plan ahead for 'just in case.' What's the standard operating procedures for this sort of situation?
Thanks for your time. I've learned that agents are extremely busy people!
Here's my answer:
Since you've already agreed to giving her an exclusive on the partial (and I'm assuming that you've already sent it to her), there's unfortunately not much you can do about it, if a second agent asks to see a partial. Well, actually there is, but it's not quite ethical, really. By giving her the exclusive on the partial, you really can't, in good conscience, send out a partial to a second agent that asks, because that would be going against your word. What you should have done, in the first place, is not agreed to an exclusive on the partial; it's sort of outrageous to ask for an exclusive on one. So the ethical answer is to say, "Whoops, sorry, you screwed up, and now you can't give that second agent a partial." (see below for the not-quite-ethical answer)
Looking for an agent is a lot like shopping for a really expensive handbag; you want to keep all your options open until you find just the right one because let's face it, plunking down $400 for a Coach bag is a nice chunk of change. Or for any designer bag, for that matter. So you don't want to buy that bag too quickly because what if it turns out to not match your clothes? Or what if you discover that the material is actually a little shoddy and it starts to fall apart? If you've cut the tags off of the bag, you can't return it, and then you're just screwed. It's the same thing with an agent... you don't want to commit to any one person until you're absolutely sure that this is the person you want as your agent. By giving the agent the exclusive on the partial, you're already making a partial committment, and you've limited your options already.
So here's the not-quite-ethical thing you can do... you can rationalize it to yourself, if a second agent asks for the partial, and say, "Well, that first agent, it wasn't really nice that they asked for an exclusive on a partial... so I'm going to go back on my word, just this once, and send out that second partial." If you choose to do that, and it's really a personal matter of ethics and such, you MUST notify the first agent that you've done that. Explain very firmly and politely that you hadn't realized what you had committed yourself to by agreeing to the exclusive on the partial, and that you are informing the agent that it's also out with a second agent now. The first agent might be pissed, and she probably has a right to be, but she should also understand that this is a business and that you have a perfect right to shop around.
Now, let's handle the business of exclusives on full manuscripts. It is not a given that an agent wants an exclusive on a full, unless they expressly ask for one. If an agent asks for an exclusive on one and you do give it, this is something you DON'T want to go back on. Reading a full implies a much higher level of time and committment on the agent's part than reading a partial does, and so you're agreeing to something that's a bit more than giving an exclusive on a partial. If I'm the agent with the exclusive on your full, I'm going to be pissed as hell if you break it, since I've probably already started to read it and make plans for how I could possibly market it (assuming I like it).
But what do you do, you ask, if you have several agents who want fulls at once? And maybe one or two or possibly all of them want an exclusive on it. At that point, you should still be keeping your options open, and so you should explain to each agent that you are happy to send them the full manuscript, but that you won't be able to give them an exclusive on it. If they don't want to read it because of that, I say screw them. Agents should understand that you're shopping around your book, and should expect that there will be some competition between themselves and other agents, in terms of securing good clients. Asking for an exclusive, for an agent, is merely a way to ensure that you can grab a good client before another agent, and you are in no way obligated to grant them, since all it's really doing is making that particular agent's job easier and limiting your options.