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?