Suppose I got an offer from a small publishing house that takes unagented submissions but I still have an outstanding query with agent X. Should I e-mail X and tell her I'll take the offer in Z days if she doesn't respond? I understand this is standard practice if another agent offers representation but I wasn't sure if the same held true with a small publisher. And if I should send a note, how should I word it?
Well, you're not going to word it like a ransom note that's for sure!
If you get an offer from a small publisher, the first thing to remember is agents are not going to fall all over themselves to offer representation. An offer from a small house with a small advance (if you get one at all) means a lot of work and the risk of no reward. Yes, we all hope the book sells well, but that remains to be seen.
I've signed authors who arrived with deals in hand. Sometimes I sold them to the publisher who made that initial offer, sometimes not. The key element here is whether you've ACCEPTED the offer from the small publisher. In one word: DON'T. Get the offer. Thank the publisher. Say you need to check with the agents looking at the book and you'll respond within X days. 7-10 is about the limit on that.
Then you email the agents looking at your full or partial. Mention you have an offer. Ask if they will reply to you within a specified time period. Key word there: ask. Don't tell them reply within seven days or you'll
And under NO circumstances do you accept the offer from the small publisher before you do this. Once you've accepted the offer it's well near impossible for me to go back and clean up the mess you've made. And you will have if you've accepted the offer without negotiating any deal points or seeing the actual contract.
In the course of my career I've seen some contracts from small publishers that make me weep with despair. Ones that take copyright. Ones that take film rights. Ones that don't mention what laws govern the contract (contract law varies by state.) Ones that don't mention territories. Or define out of print. Or mention out of print.
In other words, contracts by people who don't know what they're doing.
If you have an offer from a small publisher, and you can't secure representation from an agent, you still need help. IP lawyers who work by the hour can be useful. The Author's Guild can offer help. There are several books on publishing contracts out there that can guide you. Remember, everything is negotiable (mostly) and it's better not to be published, than published under terms that can wreck your career.