But don’t I already have a date to the prom? part II

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Nifty logo, eh? It’s my ever-so-subtle way of reminding those of you in the greater Boston area about my upcoming talk at Harvard next Saturday, January 26th. I shall be speaking on the Multiple Myths of Philip K. Dick, along with David Gill of TotalDickHead.com — and since this will be my first public speech on the subject of my legally embattled memoir, I think it may be a tad on the exciting side.

Come to meet me, stay to hear Orson Scott Card or play Scrabble with a Harvardian. Vericon, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association’s annual SF convention, is typically a hoot, so it’s well worth the (quite inexpensive, and even less so for students) price of admission. I have been a bit quieter on the subject than I should have, I realize, considering that preregistration is less expensive than paying at the door.

I shall be plugging this event shamelessly over the next week, of course. I always like meeting my readers, and it really is about time that I started talking about the memoir, threats or no. (In case any of you were wondering, despite what Amazon says, my memoir never actually came out, due to the aforementioned lawsuit threats; my publisher apparently never changed the release information. So thank you to those of you who have asked, but I’m afraid that I can’t score a stray copy for anyone, because they were never actually printed. Sorry about that.)

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Like that little red picket fence separating the plug for my talk from today’s business? As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been spending the week going through my ever-expanding gee, I need to blog on that someday list, the place where I keep track of all of the murky issues writers have asked me to clarify at some point.

Our murk du jour — actually, I began talking about it yesterday, as those of you who tuned in yesterday already know, so I suppose it is now the murk des deux jours — concerns submission to an agent who has asked for an exclusive look at the manuscript or an agency that will, as a matter of policy, will only accept exclusive submissions.

At the end of yesterday’s post on the different kinds of exclusives, I was positive that I heard some polite hemming out there in the ether, “Um, Anne?” some of you would-be submitters piped, “I’m a trifle confused. If, as you say, agencies that have an exclusives-only policy are so upfront about it, why do you keep getting questions from writers about how to deal with them AFTER the query has already gone out? Surely, the asking writers knew about the policy before they queried, right?”

Point well taken, but I’m not here to judge; I come bearing advice. The fact is, some aspiring writers do find themselves caught with a submission or two already out when the request for an exclusive submission comes in, and today, I’m going to talk about how they should handle it.

Hey, it can happen. Perhaps the writer (let’s call her Mehitabel) suddenly won a contest entered months before, and thus is suddenly a hot commodity, prompting an agent (let’s call him Quentin) to want to snap her up before others can woo her. Or maybe Mehitabel is sought-after because she abruptly snagged an Oscar, rescued a child fallen down a well, or declared a run for the presidency.

Why wouldn’t Quentin just rush up to her and offer a representation contract on the spot, if Mehitabel is such a hot ticket? Because the industry just doesn’t work that way; he’s going to want to see if he likes her writing first, not just her premise or her personally. More importantly, he needs to determine whether he thinks he can sell her writing easily to his already-existing contacts.

Either of which would be tough to pull off without reading the book in question.

Actually, these questions are not only at the top of the consideration list with a hot ticket — contrary to the expectations of many a pitcher at many a literary conference, agents literally never offer representation on an idea or prestige alone.

Did those first couple of examples seem a trifle far-fetched? Well, try a more common scenario on for size: perhaps other agents had been sitting on Mehitabel’s manuscript so long that she honestly wasn’t sure if her work was still under consideration when she queried Quentin, who works at an exclusives-only agency.

Or, still more common, perhaps she betting that she would hear back from Quentin before she received responses to any of the other two dozen queries she sent out three weeks ago along with the one to him.

Or perhaps — and I say this not to criticize our Mehitabel, who goodness knows has been working hard for years, but to prompt second thoughts amongst those who might be placing themselves in this position — she went ahead and included Quentin on her query list because she didn’t read his agency’s website closely enough.

However Mehitabel has ended up in the frankly rather enviable position of having several agents, one of whom is exclusive-happy, wanting to take a gander at her work, the fact remains that she now has a genuine dilemma on her hands. Since she already has submissions with agents, what is she to do about Quentin’s request for an exclusive?

Actually, before I answer that, why don’t you take a stab at it? Should Mehitabel:

(a) Wait in impatient silence until she hears back from the agents who already have it before sending it out — and then, if they do not offer representation, send out to Quentin along with a cover letter agreeing to an exclusive?

(b) Pretend that she doesn’t have submissions at other agencies, and just go ahead and send the requested materials to Quentin, trusting to Providence that not all of the agents will ask to represent her work?

(c) Call or e-mail Quentin, explain the situation, and ask if she should submit anyway?

(d) Contact the agents who already have the work, explain the situation, and ask them to hurry their decision to accept or reject her, so that she may get back to Quentin in a timely manner?

(e) Curse the day that she listened to that darned fool on the Internet who told her that it was more efficient to query many agents at once, rather than one at a time?

Scratching your head over this one? Before you commit to your final answer, let’s run through the pros and cons of each path:

If Mehitabel goes with option (a), she will be taking the moral high road (particularly if she sends Quentin an e-mail explaining why she can’t send off the requested materials right away). However, she will not have any control over how long it will take for the others to get back to her, so she will risk Quentin’s interest in her book cooling off.

How so? Well, in case you haven’t been submitting long enough to have first-hand experience of the phenomenon, it is far from uncommon for agents not to respond either positively or negatively to a submission for several months, for the exceedingly simple reason that they haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. Basically, by being too shy to check in with any of the agents involved, Mehitabel is dooming herself — and Quentin — to a possibly protracted wait.

If Mehitabel sets karmic considerations to one side and chooses option (b), however, she can get all of her requested materials mailed off toute suite. If only one of the agents offers representation, no one ever need know that she’s been a shade duplicitous.

If, on the other hand, more than one agent offers to sign her, or if (and this is the more common outcome) one agent offers before the others have responded, Mehitabel is going to be placed in the unpleasant position of having to ‘fess up to having simultaneously submitted. This would tend to burn her bridges with Quentin — and possibly with the others, if she hadn’t told any of them that there were other agents looking at her manuscript.

Quentins tend to hate that — as, actually, do most agents. And that can lead to a whole lot of unnecessary stress later on — because, really, there is no graceful way to explain to an agent who thinks he is the only one looking at it that if you don’t hear back from him within two weeks, you’re going to sign with someone else.

Not all that happy with option (b)? Does option (c) look like the most polite route — or at any rate, the one least likely to get Mehitabel in trouble with Quentin?

Actually, it isn’t, but it will take some of our favorite pastime, translating between points of view, to see why. Let’s take a gander at the probable e-mail exchange between Mehitabel and Quentin:

Dear Mehitabel:
Thank you for querying me with your novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS. Please send the first fifty pages.
As you may already know, our agency will accept only exclusive submissions. Please enclose a SASE.
Quentin

Dear Quentin:
Thank you for your interest in my novel. I would be happy to give you an exclusive, but the fact is, two other agents already have partial manuscripts, and I don’t know when I shall be hearing back from them. I’m really impressed with your agency, though, and I certainly don’t want to knock it out of consideration.
Since it would obviously be impossible for me to give you an exclusive on material that’s already elsewhere, is it okay if I just go ahead and send you what I’ve sent the others?
Mehitabel

Dear Mehitabel:
As I mentioned, my agency only accepts submissions on an exclusive basis.
Quentin

Notice what happened here? Mehitabel tried to shift responsibility for solving her dilemma onto Quentin’s shoulders. From her POV, this made perfect sense: his request had caused a problem, so she asked him to modify his request.

From Quentin’s POV, however, she was asking him to change agency policy for the sake of a single writer who, for all he knows, simply did not bother to check what those policies were before querying. What possible incentive could he have for saying yes?

Mehitabel has thus inadvertently fallen into a very, very common trap for those new to submission: she is acting as though she has a personal relationship with Quentin, one that might make it permissible for her to ask a fairly big favor.

Essentially, she forgot that this is a business transaction — and in this, she is certainly not alone. Contrary to what many aspiring writers (especially those new to in-person pitching) believe, agents don’t ask to see pages because they are nice or because they instantly took a liking to a writer; they want to see work that they believe they can sell.

Remember, Quentin is not just looking for a talented writer — he’s looking for his dream client. ln that relationship, liking each other is icing on the cake, not a necessary precondition. Being a dream client is largely about professionalism. So in any pre-signing exchange, Quentin would be trying to assess how reliable she is likely to be as a client, whether she is likely to be able to meet deadlines or whether she will be profuse with excuses, how good she is at following directions…

Based upon those criteria, do you think Mehitabel went up or down in his estimation by sending that e-mail? Uh-huh.

Which brings us to option (d), contacting the agents who already have the work (i.e., not Quentin), explaining the situation, and asking them to hurry their decision to accept or reject her, so that she may get back to Quentin in a timely manner. While this might appear at first blush to be brazen or even rude, it is actually the best course for Mehitabel.

(I assume, of course, that you rejected option [e] on sight, as it would have cast some slight doubt upon your faith in yours truly. Which, naturally, you’re perfectly at liberty to do. I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: it’s up to you whether to take my advice or not, but I do expend great effort to give you my logic at length so you may make an informed choice. However, in this case, writers have contacted me to ask for my opinion on this particular subject, so I am giving it.)

Why is (d) the best course? Because it doesn’t involve either lying to Quentin (a poor idea) or dithering at him (also not good) — in fact, it places the question of timing squarely where it belongs, upon the agents who are already considering the book in question, not making demands upon someone who is not yet doing so.

Obviously, Mehitabel should not be brusque in making the request — and in her shaky shoes, I would probably wait until the other agents had the manuscript for at least a couple of weeks before sending something like the following:

Dear Jessica:
I am sorry to have to disturb you while you are considering my novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS, but I thought you would like to be aware that another agent has requested the manuscript. As he has asked for an exclusive, however, I would need to hear back from you before I could legitimately submit it to him.
I hate to rush you, as I know that you are very busy indeed, but if you decide you are not interested, I would like to get it into his hands as soon as possible. Could you possibly arrange to make a decision within the next three weeks?
Thank you so much — and again, I am sorry to have to rush you.
Mehitabel

Now, Jessica could always say no, of course, as could the other agent who is reading Mehitabel’s work. But 95% of the time, they won’t — especially if, as is often the case in situations like Mehitabel’s, they’ve already had the manuscript for a month or two. (Or five.)

Note, please, that Mehitabel has been too smart to take Jessica to task for how long it has been; she is merely filling an interested agent in on what’s going on with the book. Far more likely to get a positive response than a whine about how an illiterate three-year-old could have managed to decipher the manuscript by now, I assure you.

If they say yes, or if they do not respond at all — more common than you might think — Mehitabel has at least made a good-faith effort to play fair in a difficult situation. Since she has already told Jessica that she will be granting an exclusive in three weeks’ time, she may go ahead and submit to Quentin then with a clear conscience. If he does make an offer, great; if he doesn’t, she may always go back to the first two.

Is that muttering I hear out there indicative of some confusion? “But Anne,” the mutterers murmur, “What happens if Jessica comes back AFTER that three-week period and offers representation?”

Great question, background mutterers — but it’s one for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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