Agent Timelines

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Recently a friend sent off a manuscript to an agent and asked me how long she should wait before sending it out to other agents. Under normal circumstances, I would have said she could send out simultaneous queries, but this agent was a referral who had requested the entire manuscript so I counselled her to wait to give this agent a decent chance to respond. But, she asked, how long should I wait? 

Good question. How long should you wait to hear back from an agent before you start following up/move on/feel resigned to your fate?

I’m not sure I have the answer – all I can say is that, in my experience, authors are (by and large ) an impatient lot and agents are (by and large ) an extremely busy lot who can take their sweet time in getting back to you. So today’s blog is about expectations as to agent responses (and I’d love to get some feedback from my fellow TKZers on what is a ‘reasonable’ response time). I think (as a pretty impatient author myself) it can be tricky knowing when to expect a response from agents, particularly when you are a debut author.

When I first sought out an agent I had no idea what to expect but, after I had some requests for partials following on from the SF Writer’s conference, I sent out my material and waited. I had some responses within couple of weeks but the agent I eventually signed with took close to 6 weeks to respond. I even had one agent (the outlier!) who contacted me months later to ask if I had representation yet! (Then again, an editor did contact my agent a few weeks before my first novel was due to be released expressing interest in the manuscript so I wonder if their isn’t an alternate form of time known as “publisher and agent time” out there in the ether!)

Obviously, if you haven’t heard from an agent within what you think is an acceptable time period you should follow up with a professional email (no – “why have you not bothered to contact me, can’t you tell my work is genius?!” emails please!). I think it’s also perfectly fine to ask them for an estimated date that you could expect to hear back from them – though be aware, you may not still not receive any response.

So what do you think are reasonable time frames for an agent to respond to:

  1. An initial query letter; or
  2. A partial manuscript; or
  3. A full manuscript and (hopefully later on…any subsequent manuscripts you send!)

How long have you waited for an agent to respond?

14 thoughts on “Agent Timelines

  1. Usually the agent promises a certain amount of time, such as 6 weeks. After that, as far as I’m concerned, it’s fair game. I don’t like the exclusives — have even seen them for queries! — because the agents can be much slower than the promised time.

    One of the newer problems that has turned up is that a lot of agents aren’t responding to queries unless they’re interested, and I suspect that may eventually happen to manuscripts as well. When they add “no simultaneous submissions” and we can’t tell if they aren’t interested or haven’t gotten to it, it puts us in a position of powerlessness.

  2. First things first: My word is my bond. If I promise to do something, I’m going to do it. Thus, if I were to promise an exclusive look at a manuscript, I would uphold my end of the bargain, but only after negotiating an expiration date for the agreement.

    That said, I think it’s important to differentiate between a demand and an agreement. The fact that an agent states that he expects an exclusive does not obligate me to go along. Nor do I have an obligation to inform him of my plans to do otherwise. This is business, and the rules of business apply.

    When you think about it, there’s no downside. Let’s say that agents A, B, and C all have your manuscript and all “expect” exclusivity that you have not granted. There are a finite number of outcomes, and none of them are harmful:

    1. They all reject you. No harm, no foul.
    2. One accepts, the others reject. No harm, no foul.
    3. More than one wants you. The balance of power shifts in your favor as you get to pick which one you want. The loser will feel the sting of rejection, but is that really so bad?

    This exact scenario happened to me when I was shopping NATHAN’S RUN to agents. It went so far as one agent starting to give editorial notes, clearly assuming that I had accepted his offer of representation, when in fact I had never done so. He had never even asked the question. Thus, when the agent I really wanted said she would represent me, I had to tell the first guy that I would not be using him. He was pissed, and while I understood his position, business is business.

    John Gilstrap

  3. Even with a referral, your friend should be querying others. If this agent says no, all those weeks of waiting are wasted. If an agent requests an exclusive, always give them a deadline–3 to 4 weeks max. If it’s been that long, your friend should send a follow up email. Personally, I would never grant an exclusive.

    Query responses can take from seconds to never. It varies widely. When I queried the last time, about half of the agents never responded.

    With a partial, most agents will get back to you in 4 to 6 weeks. A full usually takes 6-8 weeks–sometimes longer.

  4. All of the above seem to be sound advice.My longest wait was nine months to hear from an agent, and this came after said agent had told me to send the manuscript along. I’d forgotten I sent it, actually wondered what the agent wanted when i saw the email pop up in my Inbox.

    And people wonder why I don’t have a lot of interest in traditional publishing after over ten years of this kind of stuff.

  5. I agree with the rules of thumb here. 6-8 weeks is about right for a follow up. Avoid exclusive looks unless there is a very good reason for it. The good agents all recognize this is a business for authors as well as them, and understand simultaneous submissions.

    Though, if I were an agent and Nathan’s Run slipped through my fingers, I’d be upset, too.

  6. You never mentioned whether the agent requested exclusivity. I agree with Jim on avoiding exclusives. If you can’t avoid it, specify a time frame in your cover letter when you send your full. Give the agent a heads up that they will have 2 weeks exclusive if that seems reasonable to you. That puts it on them to adjust their time if they want to & doesn’t hold you up. Your time is valuable too. Like Jim said, agents understand simultaneous submissions.

  7. There’s “reasonable timeframe,” then there’s what the agent is able to do. Most agents, I think, wish they could respond within a reasonable timeframe but unless the manuscript completely bowls them over so that they feel they MUST respond immediately, they usually end up pushing “potential new clients” off to the side while they deal with their pressing day-to-day work with current clients.

    Knowing this, most agents recommend you only wait what you think is a reasonable time.

    I relate to what Linda Adams commented, above, (“it puts us in a position of powerlessness”). The system actually makes everyone feel somewhat powerless. So many authors, but so few traditional publishing slots. We all feel the squeeze.

  8. Like Linda Adams said, a lot of agents these days don’t bother to respond at all. Interesting way of doing business, wouldn’t you say?

    Is it any wonder…is it really any wonder why so many people are jumping into self-publishing after receiving this kind of treatment from can’t-be-bothered agents? Who needs that crap!

  9. Getting specific.

    For a query. The industry standard is 4 weeks before requerying. You never write an agent about whether they read the initial query. Just send the query letter and materials again, maybe mention that it is the second time if you like.

    For a partial. Six weeks.

    For a full. Eight weeks.

    I echo everybody else’s sentiment about exclusives. Unless there’s a spoken agreement, don’t grant them.

  10. Three months at most for a ms., and even that’s outrageous. Don’t query with anyone who demands exclusivity until you’ve run out of options. You’re just asking for disappointment.

  11. The usual wait time as mentioned above is 6 weeks. However, if you’ve spoken with this agent at a conference, or was referred, I’d say send a follow-up email 2-3 weeks after the first contact.

    In the follow up, I’d say, just checking to see that you received the attached materials. (i.e., query letter, partials, etc.) AND resend the materials with the follow up.

    Usually, and agent will respond to a follow up to let you know he/she rec’d it. Often, they’ll let you know when you should expect to hear from them.

    Also, an informative subject line, such as: Requested Material from . . ., or Re: your search for romantic suspense submissions. Help the agent to know what they’re opening and where they may have met/heard about you.

    Good luck to all!

  12. Thanks everyone. This is very helpful. Though the was certainly no exclusivity discussed I felt that with a personal referral which lead to a whole ms read, that my friend should at least wait a reasonable time before querying others. Really useful to get your input on this!

  13. Timelines? Timelines?

    Who am I to talk about timelines?

    I can’t even comment on a blog post in a timely manner cuz i trying to keep my other timelines lined up in line, by order of time.


    I need to get out of this studio…twelve hours is to long…the project is not due till Friday afterall…

  14. My first agent asked for an eight week exclusive so that everyone at the agency could read the ms; I granted it, and she became my agent. Maybe I should have shopped around a bit more, but they had a sterling reputation and I loved the agent. This was nearly a decade ago, though, so things might have changed…

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