Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Saying No to Exclusives

Years ago, I mean back when I was a baby agent, I sat on a conference panel with about three other agents. During the panel the question of exclusives came up. Since this has always been a (odd) passion of mine I spoke up to say how wrong I felt exclusives were. Another agent disagreed.

She spoke up and said that she always asked for an exclusive. Her reasoning was that it was a waste of time not to because if a "bigger" agent offered, writers were going to go with the bigger agent and she wasted her time. First, I was shocked that she didn't believe in herself enough to think authors would benefit from being with her and second, I was shocked that she actually justified locking authors in without any options.

So we argued. And it wasn't pretty, but I bet it was fun for the conference attendees.

Agents still ask for exclusives and authors still need to respond to that. My advice on saying no to an exclusive is you kind of don't.

When an agent asks for an exclusive I would still send the material and simply say in my letter, "I'm afraid I can't offer an exclusive since I have queries/requested material out elsewhere. However, I will gladly keep you informed should another agent come forward with an offer."

Simple and straightforward and my guess is that the agent will read your material anyway.



Unknown said...

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Unknown said...


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Colin Smith said...

That is a surprising response. I thought it was a given that agents (just like everyone else) have to compete for business. Instead of locking a writer into an exclusive, why not convince the author that you are the best agent for their work and, indeed, their career? "Bigger" agents aren't necessarily better agents for every writer. I imagine "bigger" agents are also "busier" agents, and not able to give as much time to their clients as a "smaller" agent. That could be a huge selling point for some writers.

Kaye George said...

That's the way I always have done it. Just say there are already other submissions out. Simple! Even if it's not true. You can always whip another one out right away.

Colin Smith makes a good point!

Lurking Leo said...

I love when a solution is so simple and elegant.

J. M. Martin said...

I'm really happy to read this -- and I'm even happier to know that you advocate against exclusives.

I had an agent ask for an exclusive on a manuscript -- she asked for a very short window but unfortunately she did not meet the deadline. I granted an extension and another and another. This went on for several months, leading eventually to her wanting to submit my ms to editors without a contract...she made it seem like it was a natural thing. It was a way to test the waters. If it didn't work out she'd then help me work on the manuscript. If it did work out, I'd have a book deal and an editor to work on the ms with me. I should note that this was a very well known agent at a huge and well respected agency. Basically my dream agent. So I agreed. Long story short she tied up my ms for about nine months... rarely answering my emails. It was a pretty unhappy experience for me (now my ms is "gently shopped). I am now querying a new ms (that I wrote while waiting), and I won't accept nor offer an exclusive again. And I won't proceed without a contract and understanding what is being offered me. Clearly I need to accept responsiblity (and I do) for my decisions and actions every step of the way -- I truly believed at the time that it was my big break -- but I wish I'd made different choices.

Long story short, thank you again for the wonderful advice you give. It's very helpful. I wish I'd used the language in your suggested note. It would have been a better choice.

Elissa M said...

J. M. Martin- What a sobering story! That must have been very painful for you to go through. Thank you for sharing a real-life example of what's wrong with exclusives.

For those who squirm at the very thought of a little "white lie" of claiming your materials are already being looked at when they aren't, I offer this suggestion: leave that part out.

"I'm afraid I can't offer an exclusive. However, I will gladly keep you informed should another agent come forward with an offer."

Jess Anastasi said...

Great advice! And thanks for sharing your opinion. Quite often if I saw an agent asking for an exclusive, I just wouldn't bother submitting to them. If they happened to be someone I really thought might be a good match for my work, then I would mention that the manuscript was also with other agents, because it was usually true - I had a system of always having at least 3 submissions out at any given time.
And interestingly enough, I never got one rejection that said it was because I hadn't given them the exclusive.

DLM said...

What I'd give to watch the re-run of THAT conference! :)

I am not querying much at this point, but have pretty much always found that those agents/agencies who request or require exclusives have site copy that otherwise indicates a persnickety-ness (persnicketude?) that turns me off querying at all. So I've never yet pinged one.

There are *some* agents who seem to forget that just as a slush pile is something to work your way through and for the most part eliminate - so are agent lists. For every twenty or so agents I *research* (at first-look level), I find reasons to eliminate at minimum 75% of them, if not all of them. I do believe in taking a shot on the "why not" basis, but in a genre with representation as narrow as mine is (non-romance historical with a bit of muscle, but not focused 100% on battle), it gets very easy after a while to spot agents to whom "historical" means: romance, particular countries, wartime novels, limited time periods, novels set during the 20th century, or what have you. So I can eliminate, often, within five minutes of finding an agency site's bio section (and I *always* research *all* agents at any agency, no matter which one I came in to look at).

"Small" agent sounds like one I'd be able to spot as persnickety or rigid or both. I'd bet a lot I haven't queried 'em - but probably did research!

AJ Blythe said...

Thanks for the insight and advice, Jessica. It's very appreciated.

Stories like yours, J.M. Martin, emphasise how fabulous Jessica's advice is. I seem to only hear horror stories of writers entering into exculsives (where their ms is locked up for a long time), and no happy endings.

Colin, I totally agree with you. I look at who the agent represents, and if I feel they are a good fit for my book. Not how 'big' they are - what determines that anyway?

I go to conference in Australia every year, 6 to date, and I usually haven't heard of the 'big' US agents who attend prior to the conference announcement.

Mollie Player said...

Perfect, love this response.

Yet another related question for you: For a time, I had a screenplay represented by an agent who said he was shopping it to producers. However, when I asked about paperwork, an agency agreement, whatever, he said there was no need to formalize anything until we got an offer. In this instance, I'm assuming you'd say that continuing to shop the script would be fine . . . right?

Thanks--love the blog!

Mollie Player