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Literary Agent Etiquette

Literary Agent Etiquette

Good News From An Agent

Some time ago, a writer called Chloe wrote this to me:

I had two full manuscript requests for my novel this week (I gave it to both agents non-exclusively). One of the agents has now offered to represent me. I plan to tell him that I’d love to meet up and discuss it, etc., etc. I also plan to tell the other agency that I’ve had this offer (I think it’s polite and professional – is that right?). I’ve been trawling around trying to find out what agents expect in this situation and the etiquette. I don’t want to offend the agent that’s made an offer by looking like I’m holding out for another one, but I also want to make sure I’m with the right agent.

Anyway, the bit of etiquette I can’t find an answer to is whether I should tell the three other agents I’ve submitted my partial to, or not. At the moment, presumably, my MS is sitting on their slush piles. Should I tell them that I’ve got an offer? Should I just tell them if/when I sign to an agency? They may well not be interested – I’ve had one other rejection already – but I want to be polite and do things “properly”.

(By the way, my first attempt at novel writing was critiqued by you and, although I didn’t find an agent for that, I learned so much from the critique. … Thanks very much!)

First off, congratulations to Chloe. Woo-hoo for her, and I’m delighted that we played an important role in the early part of her journey. Seeing someone make this huge leap from unrepresented to represented (or published) writer always the most thrilling aspect of what we do.

But what about this question of etiquette? What do you say to agents if you’re in Chloe’s fortunate position?

It’s Not Tea, It’s Business

Let’s start by dropping the idea that etiquette has anything to do with it. You’re not going to tea at the Ritz; you are about to enter one of the most important business transactions of your life. Naturally, because you’re a good sort of person, you will behave truthfully, courteously and professionally at all times — but you will also look after your own interests with fierce single-mindedness. This is your career, and it matters!

So of course you want to do what you can to maximise the chances of securing multiple offers of representation. That way, you can meet the various different literary agents and see who you feel most comfortable with. It’s like getting quotes from different builders – the only difference being that this relationship will likely last longer, have more influence on your career, and (you hope) be of greater financial significance.

Suggestions for How to Respond

I’d suggest that you try this.

With the agent who has your full manuscript, you drop a note saying something like this: “I’ve had an offer of representation elsewhere, but I don’t want to say yes or no to that offer until I’ve heard whether or not you might have an interest in this MS. If you do, I’d love to talk to you. Is there any chance that you might be able to read the manuscript within the week and let me know your thoughts? If that was feasible for you, it would be wonderful for me.”

An email along those lines is truthful, polite, a tad flattering – and it will serve your interests very well. In the meantime, it’s best simply to tell the agent who has made you the offer that you’d love to come in and see him but, gee, the next few days look difficult, is there any chance of coming by a week from Thursday…? Agents are much more used to competing for authors than you might think — so while no agent wants the competition, they’re unlikely to be offended.

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What about Agents with Partials?

Then there’s also the question of what to do with those literary agents who have partial manuscripts, but not full ones. I would definitely try to loop those guys into your ring too. I would simply send an email – with the full manuscript attached – saying: “I’ve had an offer of representation, but don’t want to commit to it until I’ve heard back from you. I know that you may have a lot on your reading list, but if there was any chance of moving this manuscript up that list, I’d be delighted.”

That might sound pushy to you, but really, an email of that sort is welcome to most agents. After all, at the moment, they’ve got 100 manuscripts in the slushpile at their elbow. They know that they might have a real decision to make about 1, maybe 2, manuscripts in that pile at most. By sending the email I suggest, you essentially save a mountain of work for them, by alerting them to precisely the manuscript that is likely to be of most interest to them.

And when you do accept that sweet offer of representation from an agent, be sure to write to everybody and let them know that you’ve accepted representation elsewhere!

You don’t need me to remind you that tastes differ, and the market is hard. What boils one person’s kettle may leave another’s stony cold. But the fact that things are difficult and unpredictable only means that you should look after your interests as carefully as you can. These things matter and are for the long term. I’ve had at least eight editors in my life as a writer, not to mention numerous publishers and more publicists than I can shake a manicured fingernail at. But I’ve only had two literary agents, and I’d be quite surprised if I don’t stay with my current one until one or the other of us retires.

Best of luck, Chloe!

If you’re also searching for agents, this may help, as may this and probably this, too.

Happy writing.