Sending a Multiple Submission to Literary Agents

Pretty frequently, actually, I get a question about sending a multiple submission to literary agents. And I’d get them all the time when I was an agent. 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.

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By submitting exclusively, you’re hoping your submission stands out as special. But is this the best approach, compared to a multiple submission?

Unless an Agent Requests an Exclusive Submission, Send a Multiple Submission

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, exclusive submission to a literary agent won’t give you an advantage. Go for a multiple submission instead.

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.

Exclusive Submission to a Literary Agent After a Request

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, exclusive submission to a literary agent can create a huge disadvantage 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 you went with a multiple submission, you’d only be out the three months.

Agents Have to Play the Multiple Submission Game, Too, and Exclusivity Is Cheating

What do literary agents do? They 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. In fact, I expect that most writers will be in a multiple submission scenario. 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 exclusive submission to a literary agent, 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 you’re doing a multiple submissions 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.

When An Exclusive Submission to a Literary Agent is Appropriate

There is one situation, however, where I would expect exclusive submission to a literary agent, 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.

When An Agent Gives You Notes, Give Them Preferential Treatment (But Not Forever)

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, instead of forging ahead with a multiple submission. 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 sending an exclusive submission to a literary agent, and do a multiple submission instead. 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.

Not only am I a book editor, I also work with writers as a writing career and publishing strategy consultant. If you want some in-depth questions answered, one-on-one, let’s connect.

38 Replies to “Sending a Multiple Submission to Literary Agents”

  1. This is very interesting and clear. It’s something I often get asked (I’m not an agent or publisher, but a multi-published writer who also blogs about how to get published). In fact, I plan to link to this post very soon because I’ve just been asked the same question again! And I appreciate that you’ve said that you’re speaking personally rather than for the whole industry. Also, you’re US and I’m UK, which makes some difference. But it’s a very interesting and important post because you show how AGENTS ARE HUMAN and therefore different.

  2. I’ve only had one exclusive ever and it seemed to be more an agency policy and a fairly loose policy at that. The downside of having a policy like that for them was that they have to hurry on requested material and give a reasonable deadline to the writer. I would think exclusives on the agent end would get in the way of focusing on your current clients, wouldn’t it? Because you would have client’s work as a priority but still have that looming deadline of requested material to boot.

    And having seen how much thought you put into critiques, I should think you would get see work first from those. Your edits are very thorough and I hope you never havesomeone take your free advice and then turn to another agent first.

    Thanks for another great post!

  3. Nicola — Thank you so much and it’s great that you’re providing a resource to writers with your own work and blogging.

    Jackee — You’re right. With everything else on an agent’s plate, our loyalty and biggest commitment is, of course, to our clients and their projects. So having a ticking clock looming is an additional stress factor. And thanks for your kind words. 🙂

  4. Mary, thanks again for your sensible wisdom. I find that as a new writer, I’m so eager to please agents/publishers/the lady at the front desk of the Writer’s Centre that I can sometimes agree to just about anything. I don’t want to do anything ‘wrong’, however I also need to remember that I can be an advocate for my own work without necessarily being seen as pushy or demanding.

    It amazes me how many publishes also want exclusivity, especially when the wait to hear back from them can be 6 months or more. I’ve developed a new strategy where I submit to all the publishers who do accept multiple submissions first, then resort to the others later on.

    I imagine that your job would contain enough pressure without someone independently placing all their eggs in your basket and then reminding you they’re doing so. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  5. You know, as an unpublished author I think I would try to avoid anything that makes an agent feel guilt-tripped. I can’t imagine that’s a good start to a working relationship.

    Thanks for the advice!

  6. I have a question if you have time, Mary. If you do submit a manuscript to several agents (I’m thinking of PBs here, where quite a few folks ask to have the story along with the query), what’s the etiquette if one agent gets back to you and loves it but they’re not your all-time favorite agent and you’re still waiting to hear from that one? Obviously you don’t want to email the favorite agent and say, “Hey, you’re the best so I just want you to know that X person is into my story” but what can you do in this situation? Nothing?

  7. Siski — Actually, that’s exactly what you do, although not in the same words. I should do a post on this. But yes. If you get an offer — not just an agent who loves you — if you get an offer, you should contact all the other agents who have your project (and who haven’t previously rejected you) and you say “I’ve received an offer on this project. Please get back to me by X day and let me know if you’re interested as well.” Give them a week and put “OFFER RECEIVED” in your subject line. Once an offer’s on the table, the rules are different.

  8. Ooh, really? I had no idea, I would have thought that was being ‘pushy.’ But I guess it’s just being good at communicating. Fingers crossed I’ll actually get myself into this situation one day. Thanks so much!

  9. Thanks for this post, Mary. I’m a new reader here, and it’s always nice to find another agent who doesn’t like exclusives:)

    Also, I had a question about your January contest: You said we need to mention the contest in two different places to be eligible to enter, but I was unclear as to whether posting a link on our own blogs could count for one of those mentions. Thanks!

  10. This is one of the most clear and comprehensive posts I’ve ever read on the topic. And a belated thanks for your revision posts in December — I didn’t do NaNoWriMo, but I happened to be revising my novel at the same time, and I bookmarked every single post! Just wanted you to know that the time and effort you put into this blog is much appreciated.

  11. Thanks for the helpful hint! This post made the process a lot clearer. I’m currently querying and looking forward to an agent asking for a partial/full. (But hopefully not 30 pages, then 60, then 100, then a full, as you said in your other post.) Thanks again!

  12. Krista, Donna, Katie-Marie and all — Thank you for your kind words. Glad this was helpful. Also, Krista, sure, your own blog can count as one.

  13. Thanks, Mary, for the clarification – although I’m sure the fogginess was just in my own brain:)

  14. What about agents asking for exclusives? I’ve heard of some agents asking writer’s to submit their manuscript to them exclusively from the beginning. What’s your take on that? How should an eager author respond when they want to keep their options open but don’t want to slam the door that’s cracked open at the moment?

  15. I didn’t get any requests for exclusivity, which surprised me just because I hear about it all the time.

    I have a couple thoughts.

    If it’s fairly common that people take revision notes and run, wouldn’t it make sense to have a 1-book contract w/ the person and see if it works out? I guess, to me, it seems like you’re already taking time to give notes. In order to do that, there must be some kind of spark.

    And when people DO go and shop said ms around the world with your notes, doesn’t that speak to their integrity? Is it worth representing a client whose integrity is in question? I would bet that this personality streak would extend into other parts of their writing life…


  16. Fantastic post. Wow, that’d be horrible to spend all that time, then the writer take the notes and run. Grrr.

    Hey, thanks for the post. Great topic.

  17. There was one writer who granted Jodi Reamer an unlimited exclusive on the writer’s partial (the writer had told us this on Absolute Write). Not a smart thing to do considering how busy Jodi is. Her average wait time was six months. Sad thing was Jodi wasn’t asking for exclusivity, but the writer was positive Jodi would fall in love with it. She rejected it in the end, and the writer wasted all that time in which she could have been querying someone who might have loved it.

  18. Thanks for sharing your viewpoint. It’s such an important topic!

    I find it interesting that, for me at least, I feel a great sense of pressure to get my stuff “out there.” At the same time, I realize it takes time for the manuscript to mature, and when the time is right, something will come of it. It is difficult finding balance between these two things, and I think the issue of “the time involved in exclusivity” speaks to that.

  19. Mary – I’ve just written a blog post in which I link to this post (and praise you!) It goes out tomorrow afternoon UK time. Thanks for doing some of my work for me – it was a perfect illustration of whatI wanted to say!

  20. Wonderful post, Mary. I agree that exlusive submissions just seem like unnecessary pressure, on both the agent and writer. But I also agree that, as a writer, you should submit first to an agent that helped you with revisions. Really, it only seems fair.

    I apologize in advance if this question is too specific, but here goes: so, if you showed interest in projects at a workshop and gave revision input, I’m assuming it would be okay for those writers to send a handful of query letters at the same time they submitted to you their shiny, sparkly, nicely polished fulls? 🙂 If I’m understanding correctly, you’re saying that you’d like the first shot at that material, not that you can’t also start querying at the same time.


  21. The only time I ever offered (!) anything like exclusivity was when, like you mention, I’d already had contact with the agent and they had shown interest prior to me completing my novel manuscript.

    When that agent politely declined to take me on, I sent the MS out to three agents at a time and found representation at the second round of three. If that makes sense.

    I would never expect an agent/editor etc to treat me or my work differently because I’d told them they had an ‘exclusive’.

    Great post and excellent advice!

  22. This is good news. I’ve had half a dozen requests for exclusives and I’ve never felt good about saying yes for just the reasons you give. We spend so much of our time waiting as it is; why make it any longer?

  23. Allison Edwards says:

    This makes a lot of sense and gives me some insight on submitting my book.

  24. Mary, this is why I keep coming back to read Kidlit! Great googly moogly, this is timely post. As a writer, I always want to be honest, professional, and aboveboard. At the same time, I need to be smart about options. Thanks again for the (eerily prescient) words of wisdom.

  25. Thanks for this post! This subject is a bit of a quandary; most books and articles on querying urge the author towards multiple submissions, but then those authors run into agents who won’t accept it.

    I can understand from an agent’s perspective why it would be more efficient to only accept exclusives. Nothing that you spend time on is ever going to get snatched up by others in the meantime. Still, at the end of the day, my personal feeling is that the whole publishing process moves faster for everyone if authors aren’t tied down to one person at a time, three months at a time.

  26. Lisa Gibson says:

    I would say it’s a bit presumptuous of the writer to offer exclusivity when it was an unsolicited query. I could see if you had asked for a full after they had queried, then maybe some parameters on time for the exclusive. Hmm, that’s my thoughts anyway. Great post.

  27. I found this post interesting and helpful. Thank you.

  28. This is just what I like to read when I’m perusing an agent’s blog. I’ve been reading more and more that writers should ignore requests for exclusivity, and it’s always a relief to hear it from someone at the source. I gave an exclusive once, and waited four months for what ultimately turned out to be a rejection (the original promise was 4-6 weeks for a response.) So, I lost a third of a year waiting for what turned out to be a “No.” I’ll never do it again.

    Thanks for all your straight-forward advice and information. You’re a great source for aspiring writers.


  29. I’m new to your site too and am enjoying going through all of the wonderful posts I have missed. Thanks for generosity in sharing all this information.

  30. Diana Murray says:

    Oops! I had no idea that an exclusive (one that is not required) could make an agent feel pressured to hurry. I always thought the opposite was true. Glad I know for future reference. Thanks!

  31. Quite often I have heard that once agents or publishers have responded to a query and asked to see your work, they expect exclusivity for a certain length of time. I never thought that was fair to the writer, but I thought that was what they expected. So I was happy to read that you agree that it’s not fair and don’t expect writers to send their work exclusively to you (unless there are mitigating circumstances such as you mentioned in your article).

  32. This has been an incredible eye opener. Just this morning, I was reading an article debating why it was important to include the exclusivity of agents reading ones novels. You have put a new spin on this debate for me. Thank you.

  33. Thanks so much for your thoughts. I’m currently on the agent hunt for my alternate history civil war YA novel, and I am submitting to selected groups of agents, for example my top five. I wait to hear (have a couple of partials out with crossed fingers), and then will continue on. That way no single agent has an exclusive, but that way, if I get some excellent feedback, I can incorporate it before heading out into queryland again.

    As a writer, I have to say that I like the non-exclusive policy. Thanks!

  34. Thank you, Mary, for your insight. Now I get it!

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