Friday, September 18, 2015

So, my author friend told me...

In your Effective Query Letters post, you state 'Don't offer exclusives.' Usually I take all your advice to heart, but an author friend of mine - I won't name names, but she is an award-winning children's author - told me that offering exclusives to literary agents is actually a good thing to do. She strongly advised that in my query letter I make it clear that I am offering my manuscript to the agent on an exclusive basis.

So my question is, how do aspiring authors like me know who is right? There are so many books and websites about what agents do/don't like, yet many of them seem to contradict each other. How are authors ever supposed to craft a successful query when they are being told so many different things by so many different people?

Ok, here is a little quiz to help you make those decisions:

1. Who is reading the query?
A. Your award-winning children's author friend
B. Me

2. Who has written a query in the last month?
A. Your award-winning children's author friend
B. Me

3. Who has written a query in the last year?
A. Your award-winning children's author friend
B. Me

4. Who would presume to offer advice on a topic she knows little about?
A. Your award-winning children's author friend
B. Me

From this quiz (correct answers: BBB/A&B) you may extrapolate the following: give more weight to the advice from people who are actually DOING the task you are trying to learn.

Thus: if an agent talks about how to send work to an agent, and particularly to her own agency, you follow that advice rather than any advice from someone who is not an agent.

If you're trying to figure out how to add plot to a novel you're better off talking to writers who have plot driven novels rather than agents, no matter how brilliant they are about query letters.

This rule applies to almost every aspect of life. A million people have opinions on how to do things. Some of them are well-intentioned. Even fewer are actually right.

Specifically to your situation: your award-winning childrens author probably hasn't queried in a dozen years or more. Even if she has, it's been with an award-winning backlist. Her situation is not yours and her advice is outdated at best.

You're smart enough to recognize that. Apply that caution to all the other advice you're reading, EVEN WHAT YOU READ HERE. I've waxed on about topics that other people know more about (self-publishing, writing, being pleasant on social media) and you should bear that in mind when you think about your own strategy.


REJourneys said...

First comment?

Anyway, an opinion to read and ignore (because I don't write queries everyday)

I think I did read it on a Janet post (Query Shark maybe?), but exclusives could hurt you.

Imagine applying for a job. You find a open position at Good Company. They like you after the phone interview and want to bring you in later for an in-person interview. Offering to exclusively apply for the job at Good Company would hurt you. What about the opening at Better Company? You can't apply there until Good Company decides if they want you.

So, while you wait, unemployed, you could be interviewing for other jobs, and maybe even having a "bidding contest" to get you to work for Better Company or Best Company.

Of course, I say listen to the Shark, but at the end of the day, it is really up to you and what you believe will work best for you.

Sam Hawke said...

If nothing else, in practical terms how could you EVER get through the querying process if you offer exclusives at the query stage? Agents take 3-6 months to read fulls - if you're lucky - and you might have 20 agents read your full before you get an offer. I mean sure, at least you'll have written at least a half dozen other novels in the 10 YEARS YOU'LL BE WAITING so you'll be all set for success with a full inventory!

Tony Clavelli said...

I'm out of the querying game for a little bit, but after reading all the advice out there, I agree that a lot of it was contradictory. But I also discovered that the discrepancies barely matter. When you look across the board for consistency, it seems to boil down to something like this:
1. Make your book sound exciting and do it quickly. (really important, super hard)
2. Follow the specific instructions for each particular agent--name, pasting vs attaching, etc (really important, super easy)
3. Add a tiny bit of information about yourself--this one's a bit of a wildcard, but the point is always to keep it short. (less important, super easy)

Anytime someone tells me there is something I simply MUST do, the skepticism alarms ring the loudest.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

In the short 6 weeks I have been aware of Janet's existence, I find her advice to be flawless. I am relatively new to querying and before Janet, I was doing it all wrong. It's embarrassing. I am getting better, maybe, but I still have loads to learn I am certain.

However, on this topic, to me it would make no sense at all as an unknown, untried writer to offer my work exclusively. Several insider folks, agents and publishers alike, have said that there is no way to know if something will be a bestseller so no matter how good we writers think our stuff is, it might not translate into sales. Even the professionals don't know for sure. However, they are much more attune with what is and isn't selling at the moment, and they have stack of both kinds of things right now in their piles of queries, partials, and fulls. Yours won't be the only one in their stack of stuff to consider so why should you have your query or partial or even full in only one agent's pile? There is no commitment until you sign on the dotted line. I suppose if you are asked for a full manuscript and the agent specifies they want it exclusively, then that might be a different game. However, even then I would hesitate because what do I do if more full requests emerge from the other queries I sent out? I actually do have 2 full requests right now but neither agent has asked for an exclusive. I would think, logically, that until a publisher is looking at your work that has been submitted by your super, awesome agent that exclusive would not even be a thing for a new author. But I could be wrong.

AJ Blythe said...

As Janet has pointed out in the past, publishing is a slow business. Send your manuscript out on an exclusive and that's potentially 6 months your ms does nothing. Rejected, and you repeat.

Not sure about you, Opie, but I certainly don't have either that much patience or time.

Exclusives can only benefit the agent.

If you sub to multiple agents and one makes an offer, than you go back to the other agents and let them know. Give them a time frame of a week or so to let them read your sub, and then make a decision about what you are going to do.

Multiple subs benefit you (and don't disadvantage agents).

Looky here, all the Sharkly r̶a̶n̶t̶s, errr, lessons have paid off =)

Lucie Witt said...

If I had of sent the first agent I queried an exclusive, I would to date have queried no other agents. That was in March of **2014** (said agent has had the full since May 2014). I would have missed 1.5 years of other opportunities!

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

I'm no fan of the idea of "exclusive read" for all of the many reasons offered by Janet and other commenters here.

But the real question I think our OP is asking:

"How are authors ever supposed to craft a successful query when they are being told so many different things by so many different people?"

And the real answer is Janet's:

"You're smart enough to recognize that. Apply that caution to all the other advice you're reading"

Research prolifically. Follow your instincts. Go with what makes sense to you. Adjust accordingly based upon the agent you are querying - just like we adjust accordingly in professional relationships, applications, friendships, family.

There is no one right way for all things.

Leah B said...

So how would you exclusively query a "no response means no" agent? Put querying on hold for the (usual) 6-8 week window they give themselves? Or hope that by saying "exclusive" they'll respond?

Dena Pawling said...

I've read recommendations to respond to an agent's request for an exclusive in one of the following manners:

1. I'm sorry, but this manuscript is already out with several agents, so at this time I can't offer an exclusive. [a nice way to say “no”, even if it's a lie]

2. I can agree to give you a one-month exclusive read. [be sure you set a time limit, for your sanity and your career]

I am not an agent, I have not been querying that long, and I am not published. Take this information for what's it's worth, which isn't much.

Dena Pawling said...

Interesting timing. This showed up in my twitter feed just now.

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

Subbing in for Colin and linkifying Dena's shared link:

Adib Khorram said...

I wonder if anyone has ever collected statistics on how many agents and agencies actually want exclusives. Of those I've researched, only one asked for exclusives (two weeks on fulls) and another asked to be informed if it was a simultaneous submission or not, because they give "higher priority" to exclusives.

And here's that link:

Adib Khorram said...


Jenz said...

Funny that the commenters here thought immediately about how very slow querying would be if you were to offer an exclusive with each query, a point that escaped the attention of the award-winning children's author friend.

With short stories, most markets (at least the pro/semi-pro ones) expect an exclusive submission. That can make the process slow, but then they also virtually always respond, and they're usually pretty clear about time frames. That makes a big difference, and it makes for a nice change from the too-often dead silence of querying.

Elissa M said...

I don't like exclusives at any stage of the submission process, but I'm truly boggled by the idea of sending an exclusive QUERY.

Queries are business letters saying, "I'm seeking representation for a book I wrote about XYZ; would you like to read it?" Why should such a missive ever be exclusive?

Of course you don't want to spam-send a hundred queries at once. (How would you ever keep track?) A good number for many writers is five or six at a time, moving on down the list as you get replies (or reasonable time has passed for the no-response-means-no agents).

Still, I agree that the OP's real question is about knowing what advice to follow and what to ignore. And my advice is basically what Janet and pretty much everyone else says: Go with your gut. Do what makes the most sense to you with regard to your own career and what your goals are.

Janet Reid said...

my experience with short stories is limited, but mostly I've found that magazines use Submittable, which will let you know the status of the submission. Sent/Pending/DearGodYouWantedUsToPublishTHATNO/Accepted.

While they do require exclusivity, it's always for a specified amount of time.

And most of the guys I've got with story submissions have a rotating inventory so they've got six-ten out at any one time. Can't do that with novels.

All this to say: I agree with you.

kaitlyn sage said...

I'll start packing my bags for Carkoon as soon as I finish typing because...

As much as it pains me to contradict TQoE, (and maybe I'm not, exactly)...

I *didn't* take Janet's advice and agreed to an exclusive R&R and I think I made the right decision.

(I am actually, literally withering away to dust as I wait {it really hasn't been that long. I ought to toughen up}. Despite all my big talk about sending my little manuscript unicorn to find the right pasture, I miss it and I want it to come back and snuggle me.)

AND. As painful as the waiting is, I still think that I made the right decision in doing this R&R exclusively. Said agent put a lot of time and thought into helping me fix what was broken in my MS, and it seems like it's only right to let the person who took the time to work with me have the first crack at the book.

Off to Carkoon...

BJ Muntain said...

This seems to be a common theme here. Who *do* you listen to?

I have a friend who's had several children's books published by Canadian presses. She just got her first agent last year, for her YA novel. (It's a good novel, recently published, and I don't begrudge her any of her success.)

Our group was discussing sending queries to more than one agent at an agency (not at the same time!)

My take was: it depends. They say on their website if you can query another agent after you receive a response from one.

Her take was: They all go through the same person, so if you send it once, then you never send it again.

I disagreed with her. She said, "Well, look at the e-mail addresses. They all end with the same thing:"

I didn't know whether to face-palm or head-desk, but since a desk wasn't handy and the face-palm might be construed as rude, I just let it go.

I figure she knows how to deal with children's book publishers in Canada. She has an agent to deal with other things. She doesn't need to know how publishing works in the greater world.

But I do. And so I immerse myself in as much industry knowledge as I can, including reading Janet's blog. Janet's blog is the most straightforward industry knowledge repository I know.

If other agents say something different from Janet, then I figure that's specific to that agent or agency. There will always be differences of opinion in any business. But in all I've read, I've found that if you follow Janet's advice on the publishing industry, you won't go wrong, even if it's not exactly the same as another agent might say.

Regarding exclusives: Some agents will ask for an exclusive, though none have asked me for one to this date. The way my situation stands, I would be inclined to offer an exclusive on fulls only, and for a limited time. I'm willing to do this because I often send out a bunch of queries, then work on something else for a couple of months while the responses trickle in. I can offer a 1 to 2 month exclusive (as long as the full isn't already out to someone, in which case I can offer not to send it to any *others* in that one or two months). But I definitely wouldn't offer longer than that.

Craig said...

On the whole, I like the idea of "exclusive". It gives me a level of power because the agent has to ask for it rather than me submitting randomly. To offer exclusivity in a query takes that power away from you. You relinquish your bargaining and negotiating foothold for free.

You still have to be careful. There are agents who will ask for an exclusive with every enticing query and then let them fall into the slush pile. Ask questions and make sure it isn't a Republican answer. Get a direst answer on a timeline for that exclusivity.

That said I don't understand how querying the type of thrillers I write compares to querying a children's book. I admit that I think of children's books as chapter or picture books and that those were a horse of a different color.

Panda in Chief said...

When I was semi finished with my wordless picture book, "Pandamorphosis," I had a critique at a conference with the art director from a really big publisher. He was so enthusiastic and asked to take the dummy with him to submit to the aquisitions editor. It was my dream publisher and he said many flattering things about my work. He didn't even ask for an exclusive, but dumb me, quit querying, because I had stars and contracts in my eyes.

I waited six months with no word, then a year. I will never make that mistake again. (And don't get me started on galleries that want an exclusive for your work, then drop you when the econmy goes south.)

Panda in Chief said...

@Leah B: that is the dilemma in a nutshell. You can't possibly agree to exclusives, with so many agents having the "no response means no" policy. It is just too, too cruel to keep people in limbo like that.

Theresa said...

An exclusive on a query: No.
An exclusive on a partial or full: Maybe, depending on the circumstances (i.e. prior contacts/relationships) and on who asks. And always with a specific answer-by date.

Christina Seine said...

I think the only time an exclusive would make sense to me is if I had some sort of relationship with the agent in question - i.e., we knew each other outside of the writing world, or had communicated extensively at conferences or something along those lines. In other words, if the agent was familiar with me and/or my novel already. And even then only if said agent said wonderful things about my book and the period of exclusivity was very short - say, an agreement of one or two weeks. And there would probably have to be chocolate involved, and cute pictures of kittens.

But then why would you take my advice? =) The only advice one should always listen to is that still, small voice inside one's head.

Good luck with querying!

BJ Muntain said...

Christine: Yes. Chocolate. I could easily be bribed... I mean, convinced to do an exclusive with an offering of chocolate...

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Yes, chocolate. What were we talking about?

Colin Smith said...

Thanks, ProfeJMarie! :) Always glad for people to step in with the Linkifying while I'm spending time with Mum. :)

I've looked over the comments, and I think everyone's said what I would say, but I thought of my response when I first read the post earlier, so let me have my say! Please...? :D

Important life lesson: advice should be weighed, not counted. If a dozen of your friends give you legal advice to do X, but your lawyer friend advises you to do Y, whose advise has greater weight? It's not always as clear-cut as that, because there are other factors to consider. Maybe one of your other friends was in a similar situation, and your lawyer friend is not well versed in that aspect of the law. Or perhaps your lawyer friend doesn't share your worldview and advises something that is legally acceptable but morally iff-y. Whatever, the point still stands. You don't take advice based on the number of people who give the same advice. You must consider the source, the *quality* of that advice.

So in this case, if you want to know what writers think, what writers want, and what it's like to be a writer, ask a writer. If you want to know what's best practice for querying and getting an agent, don't ask a writer. Ask an agent. A writer may be able to give good advice, but that advice is derived from working with agents. The best advice comes from agents themselves. And where their advice conflicts, dig a bit deeper. How long has Agent Q been in the business? Does she have a long client list? Is he active in conferences and online in terms of sharing advice and helping writers? An agent new to the sport who seems mostly concerned with building her list is probably not going to give you as objective and helpful advice as one who has been playing for a long time and is very involved with helping writers build careers, not just padding their own client list.

OK, I've had my say. Back to the fun. :)

Karen McCoy said...

Really great comments here. I'd say, know the rules, but also know the rules can change and don't let them restrict you.

A friend of mine referred to some writers as "formula writers." As in, they were constantly looking for the exact formula for success, and they thought if they did A, B, and C, then they'd be bestsellers.

But there is no formula, because each of us is on our own journey. Say two people are stuck in a hole. One person's way out might not work for the other person. Maybe the first person has longer legs. Or the second person has squishy shoes.

I'm sure I'll be among the many worrying about minutia when it's my turn to submit. But at the end of the day, it's all variables. Listen to your children's author, and discard the stuff that doesn't apply to you. Only you know what is true for you. She is living her life, and you are living yours.

Stephsco said...

I've heard Nora Roberts speak a few times through RWA events. Once someone asked her advice on querying and she motioned around the room, saying "this is who you ask--everyone here. I haven't queried in thirty years. I have no idea how to query a book today." What a great answer! If you have a question for Nora, it should be about what she currently does--writes bestselling romance.

John Frain said...

One really has to arrive here early to make a valid point without sounding redundant.

I'm too late for that, agreeing with so many well-stated points already, but I will shout out support for Kaitlyn who has found one of the rare instances when granting an exclusive makes sense. I'd call it more of a right of first refusal.

Agent gives you great help, common sense and manners tells you that they have the first crack at the result. Still, even in that case, I'd put a time limit on things. It's your career, after all.

Kate Larkindale said...

When I was querying I was asked by an agent for an exclusive. The book was already out with two or three other agents, so I emailed back and explained I couldn't offer here the MS as an exclusive. She withdrew her request for the full.

I decided I didn't want to work with this agent after all.

Christina Seine said...

Donnaeve and Beth - thank you for your kind words from yesterday! ♥

Kate - I'd guess you might better better off. =/

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I can imagine being willing to grant an exclusive to an agent, under certain circumstances. But it would have to be an agent I respect and really want to work with, who expresses great enthusiasm for my work, and who is asking for an exclusive with the intention of pretty much setting aside a whole bunch of other important/urgent stuff in order to get back to me within a week or two.

At this time, there are maybe two, perhaps three, agents who are on my "really want to work with" fantasy-world short list. It's extremely unlikely any of them would ask for an exclusive -- not just from me, but from anyone -- let alone agree to drop everything and get back to me that quickly. Which is part of the reason I respect them. But if this ever DID happen, yes, absolutely, I'd grant a time-limited exclusive.

In the circumstance where an agent asks simply because they want to hoard all the acorns in their cute little chubby cheeks to sort through at their leisure so no one else can find the tasty meaty ones first? Nope.

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