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.
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