Playing Fair is Overrated

By John Gilstrap

No, I know it’s not my usual day, but Michelle and I are switching blog dates this week . . .

At the Midwest Writers Workshop last week, I taught a session called, “Quit Whining and Send Another Query,” in which I shared what I know about the mechanics and emotions of finding an agent and dealing with rejection along the way.

Students expressed huge frustration with the snail’s pace at which the process unfolds. You submit a query and you wait weeks for a response. Sometimes the response never comes, so the wait stretches out interminably. I suggested that they just forget about that one and send another query. Oh, no! they cried. At a previous conference a visiting agent said that when agents request sample chapters or an entire manuscript, they expect exclusivity; they expect that no other submissions will be made to other agents until the requestor makes up his or her mind. If you send out other queries during the exclusive period, you’d be breaking the rules.

Huh? When did business become such a genteel sport? When did it become one party’s responsiblilty to make the other party comfortable during a negotiation? “It’s only polite,” a student told me. Okay, I can buy that. It’s certainly more polite than waiting five or six weeks to finally send a form rejection letter that might or might not have a hand-written signature. If the manuscript is rejected, how has the writer benefitted from losing momentum on his submissions? It it’s accepted, how has he benefitted from not knowing if there’s another agent out there who’s even more passionate about his work?

Sorry, folks, but this is business; an “implied exclusive” means as little as an “implied million-dollar advance.” Implications, like assumptions, have no place in a competitive marketplace.

Please understand that, as I told the class, my word is my bond. I unfailingly deliver what I promise. I never lie. I’m a terrible liar anyway, and I jealously guard my integrity. That said, where there’s silence in a business negotiation, there’s also a poker game in progress. Agents know that, and publishers know that, and they play the game accordingly in every negotiation.
So where is it written that the writer is supposed to sit politely and observe implied exclusivity? Did I miss a meeting? A memo?

Maybe—maybe—if the implied arrangement included a 5-day turn-around, I could buy into it; but I’ve heard too many horror stories of eight-week responses and year-long silences to see anything but a woefully stacked deck.

“But publishing is a small community,” someone said. “If you break the implied rule and submit partials to more than one agent, won’t they get angry?” In a perfect world, hell yes someone will get angry. Well, maybe not angry, but at least disappointed. That’s what happens when you’re rejected. Welcome to our world, Mr. Agent.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that three prospective agents have requested manuscripts from you. There are only three ways for the scenario to play out, and all of them are either neutral or they play to your benefit:
1. All three reject you. No one’s the wiser, so no harm, no foul.
2. One accepts you, the others reject you. No one’s the wiser, so no harm, no foul.
3. More than one accepts you. Woo-hoo! Now you get to go shopping. You get to decide which agent is your preferred choice. You accept one, reject the others. You don’t have to tell the losers why they lost, but even if you do, and the rejected agents get pissed, what do you care? You got the agent you wanted.

Let me emphasize that I am not talking about deception. If an agent asks for an exclusive and you agree, then you honor your word, pure and simple. Short of that, I think you’re free to submit at will. Want to really play hard ball? Consider this: if the prospective agent tells you outright that he expects an exclusive and you say nothing, he might assume that the deal is closed, but there’s still no contract. There has to be an offer and an acceptance. One does not guarantee the other.

I would love to hear from people who think my position is unreasonable. What am I missing? Are we writers truly honor-bound to play politely in an industry that fights dirty?

23 thoughts on “Playing Fair is Overrated

  1. I very much like your viewpoint. I’ve been wondering how long to wait before submitting an article to another magazine. I think I’ve waited long enough. Do you think the same rules apply to article submissions?

  2. I agree with you. Here’s another option: If an agent asks for an exclusive for 3,4,6 months and you don’t want it tied up for that long, send it in and say in your cover letter how long s/he can have it exclusively.

    Straight From Hel

  3. You are absolutely right!

    Most agents assume that you are querying other agents, and if they expect exclusivity, they’re not agents I want to deal with. I agreed to one exclusive on a full manuscript once but for a set period of time–4 to 6 weeks. Granting exclusives on queries or partials is just ludicrous.

    I wonder what those students expect to do when they query one of the agents who go by no response means no?

  4. First, true story. When I was last shopping for agents, I had an agent ask to read the manuscript and asked for 30 days exclusivity. Reluctantly, I said yes. I had been sending queries out by the dozens without a lot of positive. About a week later another agent contacted me asking to read the manuscript. I politely and very business-like informed her that another agent was currently reading it and had asked for a few weeks exclusivity, if he passed, could I still contact her? She said yes. (And if she’d said no, then she wasn’t very interested, was she?)

    He passed on the manuscript a week or so later. I e-mailed the woman back and told her the other agent had passed, was she still interested? She said yes and asked for 2 weeks exclusivity. I said yes. She responded in about 7 days with a positive, that novel was The Devil’s Pitchfork, the first in my Derek Stillwater series (3rd book, The Fallen comes out in April 2010), and the lady’s still my agent.


    I don’t think I would grant more than 30-days exclusivity to anybody. If they’re interested enough to ask for exclusivity, they can damn well put it toward the top of their to-be-read list and get to it in a month. If an agent (or anybody, as far as I’m concerned) asked for open-ended exclusivity, the answer is: No.

    In what other business would you behave like that? None, is what comes to mind.

    Of course agents want things stacked in their favor. So do publishers. And they know that aspiring authors (and most published authors) are total pushovers.

    Don’t be.

  5. John, I NEVER assume I’m sending an exclusive. I was asked once to submit to an agent exclusively. I agreed to a 4 week turn-around. Never again.

    I remember “breaking” the rule once. An agent I met at a conference asked for some chapters. She handed me a card with her details. Later, in reading the directions was an expectation of exclusivity. The other agent I met at the conference also asked for chapters. “What a quandry!” I sent to both agents and sweated it out. Now I look back on that and chuckle at my naivety.

    I still believe in playing nice, but I also play smart. I agree with you wholeheartedly.

  6. John, I love the idea of not addressing the request for exclusivity when you send the manuscript. I once agreed to a four-week exclusive, and then freaked out when another agent indicated strong interest in the manuscript. I felt I had to hold off sending it to her until I heard from the first agent. Never again!

  7. You’re right, and the lesson here is clear: When the other guy, someone who has your future in their hands, is allowed to have all the power in YOUR business life, you lose.

    I’m definitely in your camp here. One of my very first publishing experiences, back in 1992, still leaves a bitter taste. I had sent an MS (non-fiction) to someone who swore to me that she was publishing it. Didn’t hear from her, didn’t hear from her, I finally called her to see what the hold up was in the contract (this after about eight months of waiting). Oh, she decided it wasn’t for her. Thanks for nothing. In the meantime, I could have been getting rejected by dozens more publishers.

    Eventually I just self-published, which worked out well for me, although it’s not much of an option for fiction writers. But you should all remember this: NO ONE cares more about your work than you do. No one.

  8. I remember sending a manuscript to a large distinguished literary agency after they read my query letter. I sent a stamped self-addressed envelope along. Not only did they never send my MS back, (they sent a “not for us” note. Never got the MS back. And I’ve always thought they stole my postage.

    Plus, that exclusive look is their ploy designed to keep themselves from competing with other agents for the same clients. Imagine that in any other business. That way they can take their sweet time.

    You asked.

  9. I have always been curious what they are doing with these manuscripts we send in. So I coated my last few submissions with nano-technology bots disguised as the dot above the letter ‘i’. They transmitted back images of the agents and what they do with our work. For the most part the data was pretty boring, they just looked at it for thirty seconds then clicked their auto-respond button to send the form rejection.

    But there were a few who…


    let me just say that those whom one would probably not mind, perhaps even enjoy, the thought of knowing they work in their underwear (or less) generally work fully clothed. On the other hand, those whom we do our best to always imagine fully clothed seem to be most relaxed in the buff. Unable to close my eyes fast enough my body went into instant self preservation mode. It took several attepts for the surgeon to get the chopsticks out of my orbital sockets.

    Submit far, submit wide, just submit and hope for the best and don’t think about what they are or are not wearing.

  10. Great post, John- thanks again for swapping days! We seem to have a theme going, in my post tomorrow someone from my agency will analyze my query letters. It promises to be cringe-worthy, at least for me.

    I gave an agent a month-long exclusive for The Tunnels, which turned into a three-month exclusive since apparently everyone at the agency had to read the book before agreeing to sign me (this is true).

    In retrospect, I never should have done that. In the end I was signed, but if they had turned me down, it would have set me back months. I think 2-4 weeks should be the absolute max.

  11. Thank you, JOhn, et al. I once had a small publisher string me along the exclusivity train for almost two years before sending me a two sentence, grammatically incorrect rejection. In retrospect, I see that was my fault. I should have told them to defecate or get off the porcelain long before.

    Now anyone who requests exclusivity can have 30 days, unless there’s something else involved. (Such as the revision scenario mentioned in the blog post JSB linked to.) Simultaneous submissions should be assumed. (If a publisher or agent specifically states they do not want simultaneous submissions, I’ll honor that by not sending them anything until everyone else I’m interested in has passed.)

    I’ll hang onto this post for common sense guidelines for future situations.

  12. John, you’re right. You’re more than right. You are 110% right. Everyone should follow your advice.

    I have NEVER heard that an agent “expects” exclusivity. Never. They have to ASK for it when they request the full. I’ve never granted exclusivity even when they did ask. Guess what? They all read my manuscripts anyway!!!

    My first book: I sent out over 50 queries, had one request for a full, rejected.

    My second book: I sent out over 50 queries, had three requests for fulls, two rejects, one agent I jumped at (only one who wanted me!) and I terminated the relationship once I joined RWA and realized she wasn’t the right agent for me or my work.

    Third book: No queries because the book sucked and I only finished it because I felt I had to.

    Fourth book: 2 queries, one request for full (that I never sent because I queried this book simultaneously with book five and got an agent with that book before the request came in)

    Fifth book: 12 queries, 5 requests for fulls (and 2 partials I pulled when I got an agent.) Of the 5 requests, 2 were still reading when I signed, 1 had rejected me, and 1 requested it a full month after I SOLD off a query that was FOUR MONTHS OLD.

    It rarely, if ever, benefits the author to grant exclusivity and if you consider it, no more than 2 weeks.

    And almost always they know within the first 5 pages if they’re going to read it or not.

  13. Totally, totally agree John. No agent ever asked for exclusivity when I sent out query letters and it was obvious they expected me to have sent multiple queries. I agree that if asked give 2-4 weeks maximum. If they’re interested they’ll get back to you quick-smart. If not, why the hell have the process drawn out any longer than it needs to be? I think it’s time to say enough to author torture.

  14. I like your position. Now, if I just pluck up courage to act on it. Trouble is, I spend so long researching the agent, it almost feels like throwing my effort away if I don’t wait, even though I know the “if you don’t hear we don’t care” clause is never in my favor.

  15. I totally agree and can’t emphasize too much the danger of granting exclusives. When I was seeking representation, I had two agents ask for an exclusive. Both I granted 30 day exclusives to. One responded in a month to ask for an extra month. I said no dice. She took a total of three months to reject the manuscript. The other agent who asked for the exclusive *never* responded.

    Exclusives slow you down as you hunt for an agent and you shouldn’t assume that the agent will adhere to the thirty day limit. I never granted exclusives after that and never had an agent refuse to read the manuscript because I didn’t wouldn’t offer them one.

    Exclusives stack the deck for the agent and there is no upside for the author. Be upfront about the fact you’re querying elsewhere, but that’s all you owe the agent–honesty.

  16. Exclusives stink.
    Don’t offer them.

    Any agent who says agents expect exclusive submissions is wrong. Flat out wrong.

    Exclusives are not in a writer’s interest. Why you’d want an agent who does things that aren’t in your interest eludes me.

    If I’m in the scrum with four or more agents, I fully expect to persuade you of the value of my agency and the merit of signing with me. Snatching a hot prospect out from under the claws of my slithery competitors is fun!

  17. I recall a conference where an agent on a panel said she expected exclusivity and normally responded within nine months!

    Another agent, who spoke in her defense (but didn’t say he agreed with her), simply said, “She CAN. She’s not making any money until she sells your book, and if she doesn’t have time to read it because she’s doing things for her clients, that’s her right.”

    I’ve granted exclusive reads to two agents, with a specific time limit.

    And I had a request for a full from an editor at a conference; I sent it off per his request without looking at their ‘guidelines’ which said they wanted exclusive reads. I’m not sure about the ‘ethics’ of that one, since there was nothing in writing with his request for the full; it was a verbal, “send it”.

    He did offer a contract, but at that time I had just returned from another conference where another editor asked to see the full. Luckily, I found an agent based on my offer on the table, and she was able to juggle reads from three different editors.

    But my biggest pet peeve is still with those who say, “we only respond if we want to see more.”

    How are we supposed to know if our query even made it through cyberspace?

  18. On a connected issue, what do you think of the prevailing rule of having to disconnect from (fire) a current agent before approaching a new one? Do you feel there’s any ethical way to sidestep that risky release of the “bird in hand”?

  19. You are absolutely on target. The Christian Writers Market Guide by Sally Stuart even allows multiple submissions and those agents or publishers who don’t won’t get my queries or proposals. Writing is hard work, it’s business just like selling widgets against competitors. I say blast out as many queries or proposals as seem good to you.

  20. Wow. Seems I struck a nerve. I love all the give-and-take. Thanks for all your contributions.

    MzsLily, I don’t know how to answer your question about magazine submissions. I’ve never done that, so it’s way outside my expertise.

    Anon, I don’t think there’s a way to ethically shop for another agent while still stringing the existing one along. What’s more, I don’t think there should be. For me, the agent-client relationship is the business equivalent of a marriage, and there’s no level of cheating that is anything other than cheating.

    Here’s where the benefit of networking comes in. When you attend conferences and such (and I think that every writer should), get to know a wide variety of people in the industry–agents, editors, publishers, other writers. First of all, they’re typically fun folks to hang out with, and second, it’s nice to have a full Rolodex when you need one.

    John Gilstrap

  21. I can actually take the magazine question, since that’s the field I originally hailed from…feel free to submit pitches to multiple magazines, there’s nothing barring it. Ideally you want to build a relationship with editors at different magazines who will start keeping you in mind for particular stories (I still get calls sometimes), or who you can pitch multiple ideas to at once. In general, I pitched 10 ideas for every one I sold. The website Mediabistro is well worth joining for magazine writers, their “how to pitch” articles tell you exactly which editor at which magazine would be interested in which topics.

    And as far as keeping a bird in the hand, when I switched agents all of my prospects refused to “officially” talk to me until I had severed my contract with my current agent. I did have a tacit understanding with two of them that were I to switch, I had a safe place to land. Not sure I would have made the jump otherwise.

  22. Great post, John. JSB, thanks for Twittering about it.

    I recently signed with an agent. At the time she read my full, she did not have an exclusive. She called me w/in a week of receiving it and only then did she ask for one. I had received a rejection the week before and was set to start querying other agents (I’d just done them a few at a time from conference and contest requests), so no one else had it at the time. Because she felt my story needed some revisions, she was reluctant to sign me at that point. I was happy to give it to her because 1) she was excited about my characters, the story, and my voice and 2) she had some very valid suggestions to make the story stronger. It wouldn’t have seemed fair for her to take all that time with me if I was going to keep sending the thing out. I figured, hey, even if she ultimately rejected the story, it’d be much better.

    I turned the changes around quickly (according to her) and she gave me a date (I think it was 3 weeks) when she’d get back to me. And she did.

    I considered this process sort of like an interview for both of us. Would I like working with her? Do I like how she communicates with me? Is she accountable? Do I understand what she wants? On the changes I didn’t agree with, how would she react to me not doing them?

    During this short little back and forth, I discovered that I’m really going to like working with her and I believe she feels the same about me.

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