Writers in the Storm

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September 14, 2015

Exclusive Requests From Literary Agents—What Are They and How Do They Work?

Chuck Sambuchino

[To celebrate the September 2015 release of his two books, the updated 2016 Guide to Literary Agents and his new life-saving humor book When Clowns Attack: A Survival Guide, Chuck is giving away a free copy of both to random commenters (US or Canada addresses only). Comment below by September 30, 2015 for your chance to win.]

Sambuchino 2016 GLA Cover

An exclusive submission is when a literary agent asks to be the only one reviewing your book at the current time. While virtually no agents ask for exclusive query contact, the topic of exclusives starts popping up when an agent requests your full manuscript.

Some agents do not believe in this practice, whereas others favor exclusives and claim it’s to protect their time. They don’t want to spend their entire weekend reading a long novel, only to call the writer on Monday morning to offer representation and learn the author just signed with someone else last Friday. Typically these agents will reply to your query like this: “Thanks for your submission. The novel sounds intriguing. Please send me the full manuscript attached in a Word doc. I request an exclusive on the work for [timeframe].”

At that point, it’s up to you to decide whether or not to grant the agent the exclusive they ask for. Don’t worry if the manuscript is already under review elsewhere, you can just reply and explain just that:

Dear Agent,

 Thank for you for your enthusiasm about [Book Title]. Attached, as requested, is the full manuscript, complete at [XX,000] words. Regarding your note about an exclusive, I must tell you that this full manuscript is already under review from [x] other agents. That said, I will honor your request for an exclusive by passing it out to no more agents in the next [timeframe]. Thank you!

If you simply tell the truth and explain the situation, you have the best of all worlds. You, in a way, honor their request. But you still have other agents considering the manuscript, and this latest agent gets to hear you say there is already enough interest in the book that other reps are hovering around it.

But let’s be honest. Writers rarely get excited when an agent mentions an exclusive. It’s exciting that your work collected their interest, but an exclusive can stop the submission process in its tracks. If a different agent were to write next week and ask to see the manuscript, you would have to tell them that the manuscript is currently under an exclusive and that you can only pass it to them once the time frame expires in [X] days. This can be frustrating.

If an agent asks for an exclusive, note that you can always send the manuscript (or nonfiction book proposal) to them and nicely decline their request for an exclusive review period. How they react to this decision is uncertain and could mean less interest/priority given to it, or it could mean no change whatsoever.

In my opinion, the best way to respond to an exclusive is to 1) consider the agent who made the request, and 2) limit the length of time if you say yes.

Regarding Point #1: If you are submitting your novel, you no doubt have assembled a list of agents and markets to send it to. But not all agents are equal, exactly, when you begin the pitching process. There are going to be some agents you feel a strong literary connection to because of what you know about them, and there will also be some big-time agents on your list who are extremely successful. Both of these aspects will make you more willing to say yes to an exclusive, and that’s OK. If an established agent from a large agency like Writers House or ICM Partners writes you tomorrow and asks for an exclusive, in my opinion you should say yes. After all, if you’re dealing with an agent who takes on few new clients and has a massive track record, she can be worth the wait, and I would not recommend pushing back.

Regarding Point #2: Feel free to limit the time of an exclusive (while, again, considering Point #1 in this decision). If a new agent responds to your query and asks for a “three-month exclusive on the full manuscript,” you can respond with the manuscript attached and say that you would be happy to grant them an exclusive, but wish to limit the time frame to one month. I would not grant any more than one month unless it is an agent who touches a nerve with you regarding Point #1.

Lastly, if an agent asks for an exclusive and you agree to one—only to realize that no time frame was ever discussed—follow up after thirty days if you’ve received no note from the agent and politely ask them how much more time they think they require.

[To celebrate the September 2015 release of his two books, the updated 2016 Guide to Literary Agents and his new humor book When Clowns Attack: A Survival Guide, Chuck is giving away a free copy of both to random commenters (US or Canada addresses only). Comment below by September 30, 2015 for your chance to win.]

Sambuchino Clown cover

Sambuchino 2016 GLA Cover



About Chuck

chuck-fw-head-shot.jpgChuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.

His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures.  Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM.

Besides that, he is a freelance book & query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham.

Find Chuck on Twitter and on Facebook.

74 comments on “Exclusive Requests From Literary Agents—What Are They and How Do They Work?”

  1. Chuck, I appreciate your advice on handling this sticky query issue. I understand that agents have so many demands on their time. But a writer's time needs to be respected too.

  2. This blog is timely for me. I was wondering how to go about politely communicating with a potential agent and this advice helps to clear the way. I'm in NZ but have family in the US if I'm the beneficiary of randomosity. This would be good because the clowns here are getting feisty. It's always great to hear from you Chuck!

  3. Chuck, your information teaches me so much about the business side of writing! I save all your posts!

  4. It always helps to read example letters. I am also bookmarking this post for when I am closer to submitting. Thank you for the helpful information.

  5. Thanks for the great article and excellent info! After gnomes and clowns, have you considered my personal favorite--"When Kindergarteners Attack"? It is the current threat in our KY home. Thanks again!

  6. I once had an agent hold a manuscript for over a year under exclusivity. After that fiasco, I always stated a time limit in my reply if they didn't.

  7. I'm a garden gnome survivor and will be looking for "Clowns". Thanks for the excellent advice and especially the language. Always love hearing you speak in San Francisco and hope you will be returning soon!

  8. I so agree with you Chuck. Also, since agents are taking longer and longer to reply (if they even do), exclusivity is even harder to grant. If you're not sending out batches of queries (increasing the chances that you have more than one full out), you're going to be published posthumously.

    I only had two agents ever request exclusivity - and when I sent them the equivalent of your polite "I can't" above, they both read the full.

    I think nowadays, agents understand. It's a changing world.

  9. Years ago, when I first heard people talking about how afraid they were of clowns, I laughed. I loved the clowns at the circus. Of course, I went to Amazon and previewed your book. Yipes! Now I'm afraid of them, too. Have to buy your book to find out how to outwit the disguises, places to hide objects, and more!

  10. If I read an agent's submission pagem abd they ask for exclusivity, I am usually upfront about whether they're the only ones I am querying, I don't like this 'exclusive' demand. It's too Amazon like. If I am offered a deal with one agent, while holding out for another, I'll try to wait to better assess the deals. Otherwise, I'll be honest that I took the offer.

  11. Wonderful, concrete advice, Chuck--I've learned so much from you. By the way, after 50 years my stuffed clown doll still sits on a shelf in the bedroom!

  12. Wonderful information, Chuck. Thank you. I'm unagented as yet, so two questions:
    1- How long is a good amount of time to keep any agent waiting on a request? Say I have preferred agent choice #2 asking for representation now, but I really want to wait for word from preferred agent choice #1, how long is suitable before I have to accept or decline that offer.

    2- (apologies if this one is off topic) If I have an agent, do I have to submit all works to publishers through them, or is it my choice what I give them and what I submit on my own? I'm speaking on full novels primarily (I know some agents prefer not to deal with novellas and shorts so the author is on their own in those cases).


  13. Great advice! Sometimes I feel cheated living in such a small community with limited access mentors, resources, and professional development opportunities. Thank goodness there are so many people who share their expertise with others. WITS and WD are two of my main go-to resources.

  14. Congratulations on "Clowns"! Since I'm looking for an agent, this is a timely article for me. Thank you!

  15. Thank you for this information. It's another useful tip in the search for an agent....much appreciated!

  16. I've never had an agent ask for an exclusivue, but it could happen tomorrow, so thanks for the review. I didn't know anyone still requested exclusives.

  17. Thank you so much for this information!! I always feel inspired after I read solid writing/publishing advice.

  18. Excellent advice - thank you! Does the same apply to agents who request exclusives for reading (nonfiction) proposals?
    And thank you for all that I've learned at the last two WD conferences!

  19. Exclusives and Do Not Accept Simultaneous Submissions disadvantage writers. I like the nuanced approach you take here.

  20. Thank you for the great information, now I can only hope to be so lucky and have an agent be that interested!!

  21. I've said it before - I love community as much as I love writing. I find writing a lonesome business, so I reach out on as many platforms as I can. I love hearing from other writers, their experience, their advice, how they manage everything. I would love to get an agent - I imagine it will be a sort of advisor/colleague… and hope that's not a naive notion to have in this busy business world we live in. I feel we're stronger together.

  22. Excellent advice again Chuck. I have not yet come into this conundrum but I have thought about the what ifs of this happening and you covered my thoughts to the tee.
    Thank you. 🙂

  23. This is invaluable information. I'm nearing completion on some works that I plan to query. I could not have anticipated this scenario, and would have been at a loss for responses. Thank you for sharing.

  24. Thank you for sharing this information. Writing is such a solitary career choice and it is always helpful to get feedback and information from others.

  25. Thanks for the tips, Chuck. Writers Digest actually kicked my writing career as Jaime Lindsay (Author, Lisa 4 Life, 2005) into gear and though I have a little experience with agents, I believe that you and your Guide to Literary Agents will help me achieve commercial publication. The extent of my experience lies in the tracking down of Stephen King's original agent, Chuck, whose interest I piqued but nothing ever evolved from it. I would be grateful for any kind of help and advice you may have for me.

  26. This is timely information. I'm in the process of querying agents for a spiritual memoir I've written. Thanks so much!

  27. Chuck's blogs are always filled with so much useful information. I actually had never considered this issue before, probably because it hasn't happened yet. Forewarned is forearmed.

  28. What a great article! Thanks for sharing your advice on dealing with exclusive reviews with Literary Agents. However, I need help finding a Literary Agent to submit to before I can even look forward to an exclusive request. Have you also written articles on figuring out which agents will be helpful and interested in a specific manuscript?

  29. So if you gave that exclusive nod to more than one agent how would they know? And if they both decide to represent you, then you have a choice.

  30. Thank You Chuck! I've wondered about this- you've answered my questions. I was even wondering about simultaneously query submissions, but your article answered that as well.

  31. Much credit given to you Chuck. The accomplishments you achieved so far while being a husband and a new daddy just shows that your potential is limitless. Thank you very much for the well formatted and reader friendly information.

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