Pretty frequently, actually, I get a query that’s an exclusive submission. What this means: an author tells me that they’re only sending to me. Sometimes they specify a time period — “exclusive for three months,” for example — sometimes not. This is a situation where I haven’t requested the submission, I haven’t requested exclusivity… the writer just sends it to me and says, “Here, you’re the only one who gets this.” I have some issues with exclusivity and I’ll explain why. Keep in mind, these are my thoughts, and I might not share these opinions with other agents. I usually have a mixed response. I want the author to know that this is their choice, not mine, and that they shouldn’t expect any special treatment. I really appreciate their excitement about querying me, but it’s not really going to make a difference in the way I read their submission. The writing and the story idea are all that matter. Just like applying Early Decision to a college won’t get an unqualified student in any easier than applying the regular way, querying me exclusively won’t give you an advantage. Not to mention, seeing that a submission is exclusive causes me a little bit of guilt and anxiety… it makes me feel like I should rush and respond faster, like there’s pressure, which I don’t enjoy.
Now, after the query phase, there are some agents who request exclusive submissions if they’re interested in a manuscript. It makes sense: you love something, you want to be the only one considering it. However, there’s a huge disadvantage here for the writer. If you query people exclusively or if you accept too many requests for an exclusive read from agents, you will be on the agent search forever. Imagine that it will take 10 agents who read your full for you to finally find The One. Now imagine that each agent has asked for exclusivity for three months. That’s 30 months you’re waiting! If they all read it at the same time, you’d only be out the three months.
An agent seeks out properties to sell. As with any other job, there are times when we get what we want and there are times when we lose out. That’s the nature of the beast. I never expect a writer to submit — either a query or a full — to me exclusively. If I want it, I will make the time to read it and try to get back to that writer ASAP, just like everyone else. That’s the fair way to play the game. I’m not saying you should laugh in the face of any agent who requests exclusivity, of course. If you feel like granting exclusivity to an agent, do it. It’s always your choice whether to grant it or not. You can tell them “no” or that the manuscript is out with others so that you simply can’t grant exclusivity because you won’t withdraw it. They might still want to read your work if you can’t send it exclusively. It’s up to you.
There is one situation, however, where I would expect something special and potentially exclusive from a writer, and that’s if I’ve worked with them before. Maybe I did a critique at a conference or talked to them at length about their project. Or sometimes I request and love a full manuscript that might not be ready for prime time just yet. So I give the writer notes for revision. I take hours of my time with it, before the writer is even a client, and really invest a lot of thought. It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes I will do this with a manuscript I adore but that’s deeply flawed. I usually tell them that they can consider my notes and, if they resonate with what I said and want to revise, I’d love to see it again. This is for more extensive notes, mind you, than a paragraph or two in my rejection letter; this is after I’ve talked to the writer at length and they’re well-aware of how much potential I see in their work.
Now, this next scenario hasn’t happened to me personally, but I hear about it happening frequently to colleagues. Most writers will send the manuscript back to the agent who gave them notes and invested the time. This is the decent thing to do. Other people take the feedback, revise, then send the manuscript all over Creation in its stronger, more saleable state, attract other agents and then choose to sign with them. This isn’t necessarily a good thing to do but, like I said, it happens all the time. In this unique situation, yes, I expect them to send it to me if and when they revise, but I wouldn’t outright demand it. At the end of the day, it’s the writer’s choice who they want to be represented by.
It seems like exclusivity as a trend might be declining among agents. It’s no longer as easy to demand it when there are lots of people out there who understand how impractical it can be for the writer. So consider this before locking up your work with someone. At the end of the day, it’s your time and it is precious, especially when you’ve got a career to get off the ground.