Thursday, September 21, 2006

Another one from the mailbag

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.


Kimber An said...

Thanks so much. That really helps! I've read elsewhere that when I have a partial out on exclusive and I get another request that I ought to inform the first agent and give her two weeks to finish reading. Then, I send out the second partial. I think that was Miss Snark's advice. Whew! Then, I'm thinking, okay, what if the first exclusive agent then doesn't want to wait for a full while the second agent reads the partial? I believe Kristin Nelson advised sending the full with a cover letter explaining that the second partial has gone out because the second agent was kind enough to wait for it. And if the first exclusive agent gets mad, well, that's too bad. I shouldn't want to deal with an agent like that anyway. Is it just me or do some agents try to put clients on rails? Or is this just standard procedure for some agencies? They can do this because the competition for finding representation is so high. The author lives under the threat of not finding representation at all. It is quite a maze for a newbie like me to navigate! I'm learning as fast as I can!

kiwi said...

Great post, Jenny, very helpful all round. As an agented writer, I do suggest to those trying to get representation that if you're going to accept an exclusive on a partial then be sure to state a clear time frame. My experience suggests that this shouldn't be more than two or three weeks on a fifty page/three chapter partial. Others might think differently. If the agent demands two months or the like, and I know of several NY agents who do, well frankly, don't waste your time unless you particularly want to be represented by the agent in question, and you know that your ms. is a good match. Otherwise, you might be very old and grey by the time you are offered representation. And Gods, then there are the publishing houses to contend with!

Be encouraged: there are plenty of good, hard working agents out there who have excellent turn around times and don't demand exclusives on partials. And a good number of them are taking on clients, even first time authors.

Jenny Rappaport said...

kimber an, yes some agents and agencies do railroad clients, but I don't think it's a standard procedure. Many agents are very aggressive in terms of competing for book deals, and I think this carries over into dealing with potential clients too.

Personally, I don't ask for exclusives because my response time varies, and I'm often reading several manuscripts at once. Or sometimes I just hold reading days and try to get through my slush pile. And at other times, like when I manage to break my computer or the power goes out (during daylight hours), I sit down and read because there's nothing else to do. I am slowly attempting to get faster though; I'm almost done with all my current partials now! =)

James Dashner said...

Great post, Jenny. Your blog hits are going to grow exponentially if you keep giving such good insight to us writers!

I had this exact thing happen to me. I'd stupidly given an agent an exclusive on a partial. After a month or so, I called her and kindly asked if I could send it elsewhere since she was taking so long to read three chapters.

She said yes, almost apologetic, and boy am I glad, because now I'm represented by the up-and-coming, rock-the-world Super Agent of all time. :-)

Ben S. D. said...

Well, let me just say I ALWAYS stick to my word. It's not even about professional courtesy, it's about having respect for myself as somewith with decent ethics. If I say I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it; if I say you'll have an exclusive, you'll have an exclusive.

But I've always wondered how the whole "exclusive" thing works. For a while, I've wondered what benefit it is to the agent...are they asking because they think the project has a lot of potential, and they don't want another agent to steal it out from under them? Are they asking so they can take more time to review it and not have to worry about the author submitting elsewhere? It just seems like something that's of benefit only to the agent...

The reason I say this is because I'm a freakin' veteran when it comes to submission policies. And while I'm sure I have a great agent now ( ;) ), I know what it's like to submit everything from queries to partials to fulls when agent-hunting. I know you have to submit to many, many agents if you hope to land any real interest, and I know it takes TIME. If every agent requested an exclusive, and I had to wait 2 weeks...6 weeks...or even longer for a response before I could submit that project elsewhere...? My God, I'd be querying and submitting for the rest of my natural life.

Just a random rant. I WILL say that if an agent asked for an exclusive, I'd give it to them. But man...during that time, I COULD'VE been submitting to dozens more and saving weeks worth of time. But I abide by the rules, no matter what. Sometimes I just wondered how it all worked, that's all.

Bernita said...

Excellent, excellent post and comments.
Thank you.

Gord Rollo said...

Hey Jenny,

Excellent information. I've wondered and worried about exactly this question for years.

Much appreciated...


Marguerite Arotin said...

Excellent post Jenny. Though I've decided to hold off on the agent hunt right now and go the e-book route with my current MS, I will take your awesome advice into consideration in the furture