When you are submitting to a literary agent they may ask you for an “exclusive” look at your manuscript. Here’s what an exclusive means and why you should be very careful when you consider granting one.
What does it mean when a literary agent asks for an exclusive?
An exclusive means roughly 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. (Always try to establish a time period).
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.
Exclusives at the 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.
Exclusives at the partial or full manuscript request stage
Some agents will ask you for an exclusive when they ask for your partial or full manuscript.
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.
Also 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.
Exclusives while working with the agent on 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 pages and pages of suggestions on each draft.
I don’t know if there would be anything more gut-wrenching for an agent 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.
Agents will often ask for an exclusive before embarking on a revision, and I think this is fair. When the author is done, if either of you aren’t happy with the manuscript or how you’ve worked together in the process then you’re still free to go your separate ways, but while we’re working on that revision you’re going steady, pinning each other, and any other serious dating metaphor you can find.
Can an author decline an exclusive?
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:
- 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.)
- 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.
Exclusives give an agent peace of mind but can tie up an author
Ultimately, the thing to remember about exclusives is that agents mainly ask for them for their own peace of mind and efficiency. And that’s why I really don’t like them and didn’t ask for them when I was an agent, unless I was embarking on a revision.
Agents are busy and some 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 whatever you do make sure there’s a time limit affixed.
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Art: Das Neueste vom Tage by Adolf Oberländer
Speaking of Churchill. I watched an really cool PBS program hosted by his granddaughter… about travelling through his last days[or years]. It was really good. I even got a little teary-eyed at the end there.
Sooo, if I query asking about the color of your Letter Jacket, is that too obvious??? LOL
This post couldn’t have come at a better time. I received a letter today asking for a completed manucscript for 4-6 weeks exclusively. I’m super excited because it’s my first request for anything more than 10 pages. I do have a question. While I’ve finished the novel to the best of MY ability, I had a copy editor look it over while I was waiting to hear back from agents. I have made revisions to the first 1/3, have the middle 1/3 being looked at now with the final 1/3 on deck. The changes have been minor; commas, subject/verb agreement, ver tense shifting, typos, that sort of stuff. Should I wait until ALL of it is finished, or send what I have now? What are your thoughts?
Thanks, Nathan, you’re a star. 🙂
Robin Connelly says
speaking of queries…Is it a good idea to mention how long you’ve been working on the book? I could see advantages and disadvantages to mentioning the time, from being seen as consistant and seeing believing in your own work or being seen as a slow writer who will produce work only once in a blue moon instead of on a consistent basis. I was wondering what your thoughts were.
Nathan Bransford says
No, you could have taken 10 years or 10 days, the only thing that matters to me is whether the book is good.
the Amateur Book Blogger says
This is a real insight – I had no idea that agents worked so hard with potentially unsigned authors on revisions – kudos to all those selfless hours.
Tracey S. Rosenberg says
Thanks so much for this post. I still feel a bit bewildered at the ‘revisions, then representation’ sequence – that an agent would invest so much time in asking for specific revisions when there’s no guarantee that the ms will end up in sellable condition. On the other hand, I suppose that protects the agent in case the final version of the ms doesn’t float their boat (or if the writer turns out to be difficult to work with). Seems to me that the bulk of the risk lies with the agent.
I would be thrilled for such close attention to the ms. I know it has flaws but I’m not sure how to fix them! Even if I don’t agree with what the agent says, I’d respect their critical opinion.
I’m chming in late, but thought my story might be of interest:
I had a few friends give me referrals to their agents, so I queried those agents first–several weeks before I officially started querying (because of the time of year, I wasn’t in any particular hurry).
Then I started querying in earnest. I was lucky; I got a few full requests very quickly.
Then I queried “Agent B”. Agent B responded within three hours of my query asking for the full with a week’s exclusive.
The fact that it was only a week made me very hopeful; I liked that Agent B wasn’t going to hold my ms indefinitely. Also, Agent B was one of my dream agents, a big mover at a big important agency.
But of course I couldn’t grant Agent B the exclusive.
So I sent the full ms anyway, with a note saying unfortunately there were several other agents reviewing the full, but that I would hate to miss the opportunity towork with her/him so I hoped s/he would be willing to still read.
Agent B replied that s/he would still read but that it put him/her in a slightly difficult position as s/he generally only read exclusives because s/he couldn’t devote time to reading if the book was going elsewhere.
Obviously I had a choice to make. And since the future was uncertain I made it.
I replied, assuring Agent B that I was not interested in playing agents off each other and I would of course take any offer from him/her extremely seriously, and that I hoped to hear from Agent B soon.
I had an offer from Agent B by the end of the week, and although it still makes me feel a little guilty, and although there are people who would say it was the wrong thing, I took it. It was obvious Agent B was tearingly enthusiastic, and that was important to me. It was also obvious Agent B would view a “Can you wait a week” as a sign that my enthusiasm wasn’t there, and I could possibly lose the offer.
Of course if I hadn’t liked Agent B on the phone and liked her/his enthusiasm for the project and for me as a writer, I might have gone the other way. But I didn’t, and while I feel guilty I certainly don’t regret it.
(BTW, two of the agents who had the full responded to my “I’ve accepted representation” with cheerful congrats and “Keep me in mind if you’re ever looking for a new agent”, which was very nice of them.)
Anyway. That was my little story.
I still suspect that if I hadn’t gone ahead and sent the ms with my “Can’t give an exclusive” email, Agent B might have gone the other way. I could be wrong. But man, s/he had requested it and I was going to shove it into his/her hands, you bet! Lol.
This was wise. I had the same scenario but instead I told the agent who requested the manuscript that I couldn’t give an exclusive since it was in the hands of other agents already. But I didn’t send the manuscript at the same time. The agent declined even though I promised not to make a decision on representation until after I heard from them. I should have just sent the same email attaching the manuscript and let them decide whether to read it.
Kim Kasch says
Just wanted to pop by and say I listened to the Podcast at Bleaker Books. Thanks for doing these sorts of things for all us wannabe writers.
I had an agent read my full ms, give me a lot of great suggestions and then agree to read a full revision. The agent loved the revised draft but wanted to put together more comments/concerns before going any further. The agent then took me along when he started his own agency as a potential client. It’s been two years and he has not gotten back to me although still says he is interested. He did not ask for an exclusive so I have been querying other agents and two have asked to see the full manuscript. Do I need to tell the new agents about the first one who is still considering me? Or is this a don’t ask, don’t tell situation? Or do I just wait till someone actually offers representation? Thanks. Lisa
I had an agent ask for a four-week exclusive on a partial. It’s been six weeks and I haven’t heard a thing, despite sending them a self-addressed stamped envelope. Should I email to inquire as to the status, assume they’re not interested or give them more time?
Nathan Bransford says
If it’s been two years, pretend like it’s a “no,” even if he hasn’t really said so.
Check the FAQs on the front page for information on following up with agents.
RED STICK WRITER says
I once passed on granting an exclusive. The primary reason was that I had at least one partial out and didn’t think I really could grant the request. As soon as I declined, the agent passed on giving me a read. I realize they get to chose, and I’m okay with that, but this one was sort of haughty about it, as if I didn’t also have a choice in the matter.
I think it’s a little sad-having to ask for exclusivity during a revision. As a writer, I’ve accepted your professional help and you, you’ve bought my loyalty by helping me and my manuscript. And unless major conflicts arise and we don’t fit-I’m going to accept an offer you make over others. It should have been implicit when I agreed to accept your help, no?
Nathan, I can’t find a clear answer one way or another for this and I’m stressing out about it. The first agent I queried requested my full ms (which was wonderful!), but since I’m expecting it to be a couple months at least before the agent gets back to me, should I keep sending queries out or should I wait? If I keep sending them and I get another request for a partial or full ms, do I tell the newer agent that someone already has the full ms even if they don’t request an exclusive? If so do I also tell them who the first agent is?
Phil the subject-verb guy says
I wonder if the same is true in the screenwriting world…
I recently granted an agent a one month exclusive on a partial, but followed your sage advice to continue querying other agents. Today I received a request for a FULL (first time this has happened, still in shock!), and my question is: do I let this agent know that I will not be able to send it to her for several weeks, because another agent currently has an exclusive?
Or, is it better to simply wait until the one-month exclusive is up, and send it to her at that point? I don't want to leave her hanging, but I have read elsewhere that an agent might be insulted to be told that they'll have to wait on getting a full because the MS is currently out on an exclusive.