Friday, 8 January 2010


Having promised to go with my heart AND my head by blogging much more about writing techniques than submitting techniques during my second blog year, which starts on Sunday, I thought I'd do my last post of my first blog year on one detail of submissions which often crops up and which I haven't fully dealt with. I'm doing this because a) it's tricky, so I want to get it out of the way and b) it's damned boring but generates loads of verbiage.

As you know, I write from a UK perspective, but actually the answer is going to be remarkably the same wherever you are, although UK agents may more often request that you don't do multiple subs, mainly because they are more often smaller or sole-traders and simply can't afford the time to read your work if they've little chance of you ultimately choosing them in a competitive situation. [Hooray for competitive situations, I hear you say.]

SO: "Should I / may I submit to several agents or publishers at once? What if their guidelines say they don't like multiple submissions? Exclusivity, srsly?"

The over-riding answer to this conundrum is as follows:
Let common sense and decency prevail. HOORAY! Do as you would be done unto but don't prostrate yourself at the altar of anyone - any agent who demands abject subservience and doesn't understand what it's like for writers doesn't deserve clients; any writer who can't see how to work decently and fairly with an agent or publisher, doesn't deserve one. Follow Bentham's principle of utilitarianism, "the greatest good to the greatest number of people."  This means that, in each situation, work out how your action will be fairest and best for both you and the agent / publisher. Clearly, if you think only of them and not of yourself, they could have exclusivity for ever. In which case, you'd suffer and your book would probably never be published, thereby depriving readers of your wondrousness. Which would never do.

If, however, you think only of yourself and disobey a request for exclusivity, you'd be likely to land in deep water, piss people off and show yourself as a very dodgy person to work with. In which case, you would also end up probably not being published.

So, realise that agents and publishers are neither stupid nor cruel**.  They are realistic, mostly decent and very, very busy, if they're any good. Each one is also different and you usually don't know what they're like until you approach them, so do so politely and open-mindedly, as you would anyone you wanted to do business with.
[**Actually, some are, but these are not the mainstream ones or ones that any published author has heard of. Yes, there are some oddballs, but oddballs tend to get stuck in small holes and with any luck you'll never come across them. If you think you might have found one, Google them before proceeding. It's called "due diligence" in the business world.]
I started to write a list of does and don'ts, but it became too prescriptive and at the same time couldn't cover every eventuality because, to repeat, each agent or publisher is different and has a different situation. The best thing for you to do is see them all as human, in a human situation, and to realise that they DO want to find good books but keep having dross chucked at them. Accept that they understand the situation for writers, too, because all their clients are, by definition, writers. They know that we can't wait months and months for each agent to reply, and they will do their best to be reasonable. But an agent's first duty is to existing clients [and publishers to authors] and when some of the limited remaining time is spent considering a new writer's work, only to find that the new writer has secretly already approached other agents who are also all working on it, it's very galling. They're not usually salaried, remember, so they need to know whether their work is likely to pay off.

This is why, further than exhorting you to be sensible, rational, decent, and the sort of person you would like to do business with yourself, I cannot tell you more precisely what to do. I do really think you need to rely on your common sense for this. Common sense is a very important asset for a writer at any stage of his career and I can't recommend it enough.

Luckily, however, there is something to help inform your common sense. I'd like you to hop right over to this excellent post by a real agent, Mary Kole of the Andrea Brown Agency in new York. I think Mary gives a really good insight into how a "normal" agent thinks, though note that she does point out, as I have done, that everyone's different. These are not rules, just clues to common sense. It's the fact that they're all different that makes this hard to make rules for, but actually rather easy to find a way round: be decent, sensible and human and you'll get it right.

And if in doubt: be open and up-front. Ask. What is the agent going to do? Reject you because you asked a reasonable question?? I think not.
Since from next week I'm going to be majoring on writing not submitting, let me answer one other submission question I am often asked:
"What is the longest we should be expected to wait for a response before we could politely nudge the agent or publisher to see if they're going to reply?"
I offer you my shortest answer yet: three months.

Anyway, people, I hope that helps and I hope that you're looking forward to improving your writing before you ever get to the point of submitting. Because, you know what the one big mistake writers make with their submission?
Submitting it too soon. When is too soon? Now is almost certainly too soon.

On the other hand, at some point you've got to do it... Yes, at some point you have to stop angsting and fretting, stop removing commas and putting them in again, and just send it out there. And my job over the next year is going to be to show you how to get to that point.

Stay with me!

Meanwhile, don't forget the birthday blog party, here, on Sunday. And if you're far away from this time zone, don't worry: the party continues for 48 hours!


Catherine Hughes said...

I have always been put off my agencies that require exclusivity, but I am finding that, this time, my thoughts are changing.

I know exactly which agent I want - badly - to represent me. So I am going to send the latest WIP (when it's ready) to her exclusively. I want to convey that I believe in my work and that I believe in her. And I have learned enough about her to feel confident that she will reply promptly if she's not as taken with my novel as I hope that she will be.

After that, there are two more agencies - who do ask for exclusivity - that I am interested in and will probably query in order of preference. And then I will send out multiple submissions. If it comes to it (and I am hoping, of course, that it won't).

I am always worried, though, by agencies who insist upon knowing to whom you have previously submitted a novel. If you have to cite a long list of rejections, it feels as if you would be damining your chances before you even lick your stamps. What do you recommend, Nicola, in such a situation?

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about my submission strategy, is it ok to submit to say one publisher and one agent at the same time, they are after all not after exactly the same business and if by some fluke both the publisher and the agent were interested, you'd be able to say to the publisher, hey I've got an agent, here's her details? Or, due to the minuscule chance of getting off the slush pile without an agent, is it just worth not even bothering submitting to a publisher and concentrating on agents instead?


Theresa Milstein said...

Catherine Hughes, be careful about sending an exclusive if the agent doesn't require it. I just read a post from an agent who specifically requests writers not to send an exclusive to a multiple submissions agent (Or at least, not to her).

Here's the link.

Nicola Morgan said...

Catherine - unfortunately, you do have to be honest, if they ask for this info. If you don't tell the truth, there's too good a chance they'll find out, and that would look bad. However, you don't have to give info that they don't ask for. "How many other agencies have you sent it to?" would generate a different answer from Which agencies have you sent it to?" What you can and should do is make some revisions after a number of rejections, so that you can at least say that you have made revisions since those rejections.

Lacer - you can certainly do this. It's what I did! Some publishers DO look at unagented authors, remember; and some might THEN suggest that you get an agent, which would put you in a stronger position with an agent. There's certainly no reason not to sub to agent and publisher at the same time, as long as (as always) you're choosing the right ones.

Theresa - you're right, but that's also the link that I put in the original blog post! it's an excellent one and I recommend it to all.

Catherine Hughes said...

That's exactly what I did - I was able to point out that previous versions of the MS had been submitted to other agents but that the particular version in question had been seen only by ... whoever. But the request for that info made me feel distinctly uncomfortable and worried that perhaps any MS which had been seen by more than x agents would be automatically rejected rather than judged on its merits.

I did read the link through from your post and am now reconsidering what I want to do. There's plenty of time - MS isn't ready yet!

catdownunder said...

So it could be summed up as "good manners"?

David Griffin said...

Clear and sensible advice, thank you!

Personally, I think I'll wait for an answer from the one agent I've sent to, then if it's a no go, start multiple submission, but in moderation. I guess it's polite to mention that you're sending to other agents at the same time in the query letters...


Jean said...

On more than one occasion in the past, after sending multiple queries and partials, an agent requested my full manuscript, and then I received a request for a full from another agent a couple of days after sending it. Neither had requested exclusivity and it said nothing in their guidelines about multiple submissions. I thought, therefore, it would be okay to send it to both, but I'd had it drilled into me that we must always tell them if we decide to do this. I rang the first agent and was told in no uncertain terms that to send it out to another agent at the same time would be unethical. She sounded annoyed with me for just thinking of doing it and being honest enough to tell her!

Waiting for one agent (who might take six months to reject it) risks losing a chance with another who might no longer be interested in a full when months have passed since requesting it. Over the years I've had requests for the full ms from seven agents and each one took over six months to reject it (except for one who took that long to accept it). After a while, I became agent-less again (my agent became ill and died).

The final straw about 'no multiple submissions' came when I spoke on the phone to an agent who'd requested my full ms and then hung onto it for months. I rang to ask him how long before I could try elsewhere. He expressed surprise that I hadn't been doing so. I reminded him that the submissions guidelines for his agency says 'no multiple submissions'. He said he'd forgotten it said that but he didn't think anyone would take any notice of it anyway! I felt a prize idiot for being daft enough to try to do what I thought was the right thing.

Theresa Milstein said...

Nicola, I did see you link, but I thought Catherine didn't, but she said she did, so that settles that. I think.

Jemi Fraser said...

Gotta love sensible advice! Thanks :)

Sharon Mayhew said...

Great, informative post! I think everyone in the writing blogosphere is thinking about agents...

Happy Blog Birthday! Enjoy your writing time.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to post as anon when I'm actually a regular here, Nicola, but I don't want my agent to identify me!

This is not really a q about multiple submissions but it is related. I am not especially happy with my agent. I approached another agent but she said it would be unprofessional for her to look at anything my current agent had already seen, and to go back when I had something new. This is a problem, as it means writing something I'm not immediately trying to sell, and I live on my writing income. Would all agents take this view, or would some look at my published work and say whether or not they would be interested in representing me? Or look at something that my current agent doesn't want to represent? If some agents read this, please tell me what your stance would be on this (not so that I can approach you, but so that I can judge what is right).

I don't want to do something unethical or rude, but it seems very dodgy to have to fire my current agent before I can look for another!

Catherine Hughes said...

Theresa - I read Nicola's post; I commented; I read the link; then you commented.

After I read the link I thought about it. I'm still thinking about it! But there's plenty of time for me to decide what I am going to do.


Nicola Morgan said...

Anonymous - re your agent situation, this is tricky. Yes, agents do have a code of practice and certain things they can't/shouldn't do. However, you are also right that an agent ought to be able (if approached by you and not the other way round) to judge you on the merit of your published writing and give a view as to whether he/she would be interested in representing you after you had terminated your contract with your existing one. One issue, which I'm sure you've thought about, is that (depending on your contract with the agent) you are likely to need to leave your backlist with the old agent; this MAY make a new agent less keen. However, i know several examples where this has not been a problem. One thing which will make a difference is whether your split from the old agent is likely to be acrimonious; there is no reason why it has to be, though it depends on circs and personalities.

Further than this, let me ask around my agent friends and see what they say about the actual process / ethics of talking to a potential agent before terminating with the old one.

Jean - I think you've been a bit unlucky here. You say that one agent "sounded annoyed" when you asked the question; it is possible that this was because of something specific, or perhaps a misunderstanding or innuendo. It's mainly situations like this which made it impossible for me to set out specific rules over and above the "use your common sense" one. Clearly, even with common sense, you may get an unfortunate response!

Your final para underlines that agents etc are human and fallible! But you should not have felt like a "prize idiot" - you were in the right. I know that being in the right had not helped you, because you'd had to wait so long... Again, that's why i say that 3 months is long enough to wait for an answer. BUT I do think that an exclusive should NOT take as long as that and you'd be within your rights to ask sooner for a reply in that case. Also, your last para underlines the need to ask / be open at the start. I'm sorry you've been messed around despite your best efforts. It's not a simple situation, for all the reasons I gave.

Jean said...

Thank you, Nicola, for your sensible comments. Your blog is a pleasure to read, and you are always so generous with your info and advice. See you at the party on Sunday.

JaneF said...

Interesting - everyone seems to have their own take on the multiple submissions question.

Jean, you say:

Waiting for one agent (who might take six months to reject it) risks losing a chance with another who might no longer be interested in a full when months have passed since requesting it.

Yes, exactly! I had this happen to me. So annoying!

If I am ever in that situation again, I think I would be inclined to say, when sending to the first agent, something along the lines of 'Here's the full on an exclusive basis - I've someone else interested so I'd really appreciate it if you could get back to me by... [whenever].' Or is that too pushy? And how long would be reasonable to give them? Has anyone else been in this situation before? I imagine it must be fairly common with all those multiple queries flying about...

Nicola Morgan said...

JaneF - ok, here's what I think about your particular question, bearing in mind that I know nothing about you other than what's there. (Eg you might have a great publishing history that would allo you extra flexibility.) I feel that your suggested wording makes you sound too confident; the problem with that is that, while belief in your own work is excellent, over-confidence can look like naivete or arrogance. (Forgive me: I am NOT saying that's what I think, just that jaded agents and publishers see so much naivete and arrogance that they tend to be over-sensitive to it!) It may make you seem as though you think you are superior to the agent - and you may be in many ways, but this is about position in the pack and the writer's position at this particular point needs to be submissive (without being cowed). No doubt Proe will disagree (!) but honestly you do need to think of your position in the pack at this point.

So, I'd favour something more like this (adapted to suit the precise situation): "I note that you do not favour multiple submissions. My MS is not with another agent at the moment, as I hope very much that you will be interested in representing me. However, I hope you will understand that I would want to send it elsewhere soon, if you are not interested. If I have not had a note of interest from you by (insert date c 4 weeks away) I would like to try elsewhere. Please tell me if this is not acceptable to you." Then you see what they say. You should receive a reasonable reply. If the reply is unreasonable, I'm afraid you should take the view that the agent doesn't expect to say yes to your work anyway...

Does that help a bit? I do think that a balance bewteeen what's fair for each party is the way to think. If we treat them right they'll tend to treat us right. Usually...

Jean - thank you. It is a minefield and giving general advice always risks not being able to cover every eventuality. I'm glad you appreciate my effort!

JaneF said...

Thanks for that very detailed advice, Nicola - much appreciated! I certainly wouldn't want to come across as arrogant as I have no reason to be - I've no publishing history and I'm definitely not confident about my work. (BTW I wouldn't use that actual wording in a letter - sorry, I see that was misleading - I was trying to summarise.)

Good to know that in principle you think it's OK to tell the agent (even if implicitly) that you have someone else waiting to see the full ms. I wondered whether that was 'done' or not.

Nicola Morgan said...

JaneF - agh, sorry, I've realised I haven't properly read your full question and I need to rethink this. I'd been juggling different comments on the iPhone, which is v tricky, and means I have to rely on my crappy memory, so I missed the bit about you having the full with someone else. Can you wait till tomorrow when I'm back at my desk and can read it properly. It's a complicated one and I may need to get more info from you before I fully understand.

Meanwhile, sorry. I'll be back tomorrow.

JaneF said...

Hello again

Sorry to be hogging the comments here... Of course I can wait till tomorrow - I'm amazed you have time to respond to people personally at all.

I think you read my comment correctly the first time! The hypothetical situation is that two agents have requested the full ms at the same time. What to do?

When I was in this position a while ago, I sent the full to Agent A, exclusively (they said they would only read it exclusively), without saying anything about Agent B and without any intimation that time was of the essence. I thanked Agent B for their interest and said that another agent was reading the ms exclusively - and would they still like to see it if Agent A passed? Agent B said yes, that was fine.

A looong time later, Agent A rejected it. I got back to Agent B, who said they didn't want it any more (the person I'd corresponded with before was no longer working there).

Should I have told Agent A up front that someone else was waiting to read my ms? Or would that get an agent's back up?

Pen said...

Happy Blog-birthday!

kanishk said...

I believe in her. And I have learned enough about her to feel confident that she will reply promptly if she's not as taken with my novel as I hope that she will be.

Work from home India

Kamagra said...

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