Occasionally, after you’ve sent out all those query letters, you’ll get a response from an agent who wants an exclusive for a certain period of time.
An ‘exclusive’ means that, for that week, or that month, or whatever the time period is, you can’t send your manuscript to any other agent. If they already have it, you are ethically obliged to tell them that you’ve granted an exclusive to someone else, so that they don’t waste their time.
I ran into this situation the first day I queried for The Beggar’s Opera with my revised query (my first one was pathetic, but this one was pretty tight). I sent out about 15 email queries (far too many, in retrospect) and was astonished when I received an immediate response requesting the first three chapters. An hour later, the same agent asked for a two week exclusive.
I immediately contacted my writer friends on Facebook and asked what I should do. “Of course you should give her the exclusive,” one of my friends said. “If she’s going to take that time to read your manuscript, why not?”
Another was more circumspect. “Agents expect you to make multiple submissions. I wouldn’t give an exclusive to anyone at this stage.”
Hoping to develop a relationship with the agent, I followed the first friend’s advice.
A big mistake, as it turned out.
When I studied Negotiations at Harvard back in 1993, Roger Fisher (the person who came up with the whole concept of win-win negotiations) played a game called ‘Edward’s Game,’ named after Edward, the first student stupid enough to get sucked into it.
Roger walked into class one day with a book. “This book,” he said, “is the last copy of the first edition of my famous bestseller, Getting to Yes. I’m willing to sign it with something appropriate to any student who bids successfully for it. Any of you can offer to buy it, and you don’t have to pay money. You can offer services, goods, whatever. The only rule is that whatever you offer, I get to decide whether it’s sufficient. And if I decide it’s not enough, I keep the book AND whatever you offered.”
Edward stepped up with an offer of $ 10. “It’s an old book,” he argued. “You have dozens of them, Roger. The market for used books is slow; this book at a secondhand shop might be priced at $ 5.”
“Good argument,” said Roger, shaking his head, “but you know, this is a pretty rare book, and I really think it’s worth a lot more than that, particularly with my signature. So thanks for the offer, but I have to decline. And by the way,” he added, plucking the money from Edward’s hand, “thanks for the money.”
Each day, Edward upped the ante, and each day, Roger could come up with a good reason why the additional $20, or the $30 wasn’t going to get that book as he tucked Edward’s money into his pocket. Eventually, Edward figured out the moral Roger was teaching us: a unilateral concession made in the hope of building a relationship simply results in a demand for further concessions.
These days, I sometimes teach Negotiations workshops, and that’s a fundamental tenet of the training.
In the Canadian context, for example, think of Quebec and how much money the federal government has poured into that province hoping to persuade it not to separate. Leading, of course, to more threats of separation, and more concessions.
And yet this trained negotiator, who should really know better, blithely went ahead and gave an agent who had made no commitment at all, a two week exclusive.
By doing so, I locked out the five agents who contacted me later that same day asking for partials, too. “I’m sorry,” I had to write to agents I had queried only hours earlier, “but I’ve given an exclusive to another agent.”
“You mean you don’t want me to read your manuscript after all?” asked Nathan Bransford, somewhat incredulously. (Nathan’s a top agent with Curtis Brown, based in San Francisco. I had never expected someone of his stature to respond.)
“Well,” I responded sheepishly. “I thought it was only fair to tell you; I thought agents didn’t like it when someone grants an exclusive to another agent and then reneges.”
Although I had handled the ethics of the situation properly by disclosing it, the granting of the exclusive was a really dumb move. In retrospect, I should have politely declined the request; if the agent was really interested, she would have read the manuscript without it.
As it turned out, the agent who got the exclusive declined the manuscript after all. It was awkward to have to return, hat in hand, to those agents who had contacted me, remind them of my query, hope they remembered me, and ask if they were still interested. Some were; some never replied.
Nathan Bransford, as it turns out, isn’t a fan of exclusives either. He doesn’t ask for them until the revision stage.
But if you’re doing revisions for an agent, I don’t think you should be agreeing to an exclusive. By then, I think the agent should be prepared to make an offer of representation.
I have experienced the pain of doing extensive revisions for an agent who then decided not to represent me anyway. Stupid me, it was the same agent who wanted the exclusive. I should have known better.
An agent who requests revisions without making, or requesting, a commitment is playing Edward’s Game. And so are you, if you undertake all that work without any assurances that they’ll continue working with you when you’re done.
By the way, I had another author friend insist that if I gave my full manuscript to an agent to read, I was precluded from sending it out to anyone else. I worried about that a lot until I found out she was wrong. Multiple submissions in this business are the norm. Unless you grant an exclusive, the agent doesn’t have one and doesn’t really expect one. And if an agent knows that other agents are interested in your work in circumstances where there is no exclusive, they are far more likely to move your manuscript to the top of their pile.
Check out Penguin Canada’s book trailer for The Beggar’s Opera here! It’s pretty cool!