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Literary Agent Etiquette

Some time ago, a writer, 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?

Well, you 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 singlemindedness. 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.

I’d suggest therefore that you do 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 come in and see 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 in truthful, polite, a tad flattering – and serves 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 on Thursday week? Agents are much more used to competing for authors than you might think, so that while no agent wants the competition, they’re most unlikely to be offended.

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:

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“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. (By the same token, when you do sign with a literary agent, you should tell everyone else involved, to save them time and effort.)

Of course, 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, numerous publishers and more publicists than I can shake a manicured fingernail at. But only two literary agents and I’d be quite surprised if I don’t stay with my current one until one or 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.