Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Are you ready for your mystery date?

I was at the Miami Book Fair yesterday and after our panel, a woman came up to talk. We had met the previous year, and she wanted to thank me because evidently I had said something that inspired her to quit her soul-killing job and finish her book.

Now, I remembered her but I didn't remember what I had said to her. If you read this blog you know I am a realist about this business so I'm pretty sure I didn't pull a Pollyanna with her. I'll do what I can to encourage other writers just starting out, but I won't give false hope because that is just cruel.

So, I didn't really know what to say to this woman. I mean, just because I might like skydiving and have managed to get seven or eight jumps under my belt, I'm not going to push someone else out of the plane. Only they know if they have the guts and can afford the parachute. But she was very excited, and said she was very happy with her decision, so we talked some more.

It went something like this:

"So, are you submitting it yet?" I asked.

"Oh yeah," she said, "And I got a letter from Big-Name Agent at the Gigantoid Talent Management. He asked to see some sample chapters."

"Great! That's farther than most folks get," I said. "What about the others?"


"Other agents. What did they have to say about your query?"

"Well, I only sent out two. And Big-Name said he had to have an exclusive. So I'm not doing anything until I hear back from him."

"Oh," I said. "How long has Mr. Big had your chapters now?"

"About four months."

Okay...can you figure out where I'm going with this?

This woman had worked hard for three years to write her book. She had gone to writing conferences and workshops. She had done her homework. She had quit her job so she had enough time to follow her dream. (Don't worry; she had other means of support, so that's not the issue here).

But then she fell for the first guy who said "maybe." As in, "Yeah, maybe we'll hook up. Maybe I'll give you a call someday, baby. I don't know when exactly -- maybe even never. But in the meantime, I don't want you to talk to any other guys."

Okay, I realize Mr. Big was her Dream Date. And it's easy to get blinded by good biceps and blue eyes. Or in this case, a 212 area code and a client list heavy with bestselling authors. But would you wait around for this guy?

Of course not. If your book is finished and you're ready to send it out into the cold, cruel world, why would you do anything that lessens your chances of success? Finding a good agent -- no, let's correct that; not just a good agent but the right agent -- is maybe the single most important business decision you make as a writer. This person will be your advocate, your guide, your champion, your career-coach. And the best agent for you might not be Mr. Big at Gigantoid Talent Management. The best agent for you might be Mr. Sincere at Small But Personal Inc. Maybe even Mr. Cassius at Lean And Hungry House. But most definitely, the best agent for you is the one who sees something so special in your work that they plucked you out of the 200 to 300 queries they get every week. The best agent for you is someone who will believe in you even in those dark moment when you don't even believe in yourself anymore.

Exclusives are bad things -- for writers. Why? Because you are giving that one agent the power to tie up your manuscript for months. Odds are, the sample chapters you sent will be rejected. (Maybe for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality remember). But by agreeing to an exclusive, you have lost six to eight precious months in what is a long and tortuous process even in the best of circumstances. Until an agent agrees to take you on as a client, they just don't have the right to control your work like that.

If you won't take my word on this, I bow to a higher source. Here is Miss Snark Literary Agent on the subject.:

"Exclusives stink...To ask an author to tie up his/her work on open ended terms is disrespectful and counter productive. It's also a lazy ass way to do business. You can't provide her an exclusive read and you shouldn't. If she doesn't see the merit of that, why would you want to work with her?"

But, you say, Mr. Big said he liked her stuff. What if she turns around now and sends out a hundred queries and he finds out?

Well, worse case scenario: No other agent is interested. She is back sitting by the phone waiting for Mr. Big to call.

Best case scenario: She gets responses from forty agents who want to see her sample chapters. Then ten want to sign her up. She now has the luxury of choice. She can talk to them all, make a measured thoughtful decision and find the agent who is the best fit -- for her.

I wouldn't sit home waiting for Mr. Big to call. Don't know about you, but I had enough of that crap in high school.

So don't give away your power to the first pretty face that says "maybe." Beneath that pretty face there could be a true Poindexter.


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

On one of the agent panels at Sleuthfest this year, the subject of exclusives came up, and Dan Lazar from Writers House (Dan doesn't ask for exclusives, btw), said the agents who demand exclusives do it "because they can."

That says a lot, I think.

Yeah, exclusives stink. But if it's an agent you're really interested in, I can see making the compromise for a predetermined time period.

Honestly, I wouldn't have a problem giving an agent an exclusive read, if a reasonable amount of time (say, a month) was agreed on. If 30 days passed and I hadn't heard back from them, I would then be free to query others.

7:11 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Oh Lord! I have talked about the exclusive thing time and again on my own blog when I do a post on getting an agent. My agent asked for exclusivity--2 weeks, and she responded in less than a week. In fact, if I remember correctly, she responded in about 4 days.

4 months? He's not getting back with you.

I think it might be okay, emphasis on might, to grant exclusivity for a limited (very limited) period of time. I would not grant it for more than a month.

I also think it's bullshit. If they're excited enough about reading your work to think they need exclusivity, then they can damn well jump on reading it.

I gave an agent just prior to getting my current agent (does that make sense?) exclusivity, of 3 weeks. My current agent contacted me about 4 days into the first agent's time period asking to read the manuscript of THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK ($13.95 at your local bookstore, oy vey, vhat a deal!), which I had, believe me, sent out to many, many agents. I politely told her that I had granted 3 weeks exclusivity to another agent, would she still be interested in reading it if it was turned down? She said yes. A week later the other agent turned it down. I e-mailed Irene and asked if she was still interested. She was--clearly, having gotten me 4 book contracts featuring the character in PITCHFORK.

Was I afraid that I was screwing up the deal by admitting that someone else turned it down? Yes and no. Yes, sure, I'm human. But this is a business relationship and I'm supposed to trust this person with my money. The royalty checks go to her first and she takes her cut and pays me! If I don't trust her enough to be honest with her, then how could I trust her enough with my money?

It's a business. Treat it like one. In what other business would you present a business deal and wait 4 months for the other business person to make a decision?

Mark Terry

7:48 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

I think you hit upon the deal-breaker when you say you'd wait "a reasonable amount of time." And 30 days if very reasonable, imo. Beyond that? Eh...

I am open to other opinions.

7:51 PM  
Anonymous Tattieheid said...

I don't see major issues with a short term exclusive 2 weeks fine, 30 days max.

Agents are human like the rest of us and may have times when they are struggling to balance priorities. Alternatively they may need time to live with the manuscript if they are picking up conflicting signals from the partials or it falls into one of those "difficult but not impossible to sell" categories.

Four months amounts to either an abuse of power or a degree of thoughtlessness that is totally unacceptable. A Client/Agent relationship has to be based on mutual trust, consideration and respect. That's no way to start such a relationship.

Even if that agent takes the book and sells it the author is going to find herself in an unhealthy relationship being dictated to by her agent and finding it difficult assert her views. Partially because she vests that agent with too much "superhero" status.

Part of the problem for aspiring authors is the "desperation factor" which has been strengthened by the realisation that the market is shrinking/changing but the number of would be authors increases daily. In such a fickle competitive marketplace it's inevitable, first sign of interest and commonsense goes out the window.

The writer you mention should notify the agent he no longer has an exclusive and start querying hard to make up for lost time.

When I get to the stage of looking for an agent I will be less concerned with the agent's "Gloss" and more interested in their ability and how we would get on as a team. I would probably give more thought to that relationship than I have to any "live in" personal relationship to date. (Maybe explains why I'm currently single again.) :)

In the current market the balance of power has swung well over to the agent and publisher side of the business but that just places the onus on them to act professionally and responsibly.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Breaking it down to "business", isn't the manuscript a product? If you were selling something and someone said, "Let me look at it for four months and I'll let you know." Would you even consider that? I've had requests for the full manuscript before but just kept sending out. (no one ever asked for an exclusive) First come, first serve? Of course each agent who read the full manuscript did turn it back around in a a couple of weeks. Four months? Sorry, I'd have to bail.
What would happen if you kept sending it out even though you promised an exclusive? How much trouble would that cause?

7:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I was reading your post I would think "uhm...four months?" and of course you would go right ahead and comment on that very thought.

I had the fortune of seeing Marcela Landres speak this past weekend and she said the very same thing.

She phrases it as "Rolodex and Reputation". Its all about who you know and who knows you. The only way to build both is to research, and submit to the right people that fit the research a writer has done.

I really appreciate the advice in your blog! I'll keep reading,
Milan Loka

12:58 PM  
Anonymous Tattieheid said...

What would happen if you kept sending it out even though you promised an exclusive? How much trouble would that cause?

Hi Aimless,

To answer that question - potentially a lot.

It comes back to an agency/client relationship being based on trust. Agents do gossip and if you got caught out on a fib of that nature it could come back to haunt you.

Legally if you have granted someone an exclusive then that’s what he or she has for the agreed timescale. It doesn’t matter whether that’s verbally or in writing as long as it can be proven or implied. Few agents would ever seek to legally enforce it but they could, particularly if the timescale is reasonable and not excessive.

In reality it comes down to your credibility and reputation. If you don’t care then it probably doesn’t matter just don’t be surprised if agents then treat you with the same attitude. These days as well as being a professional writer you are expected to be a professional businessperson and seen to act that way.

It would be helpful if all agents were professional and acted accordingly as well.

Better not to give exclusives or keep them short. :)

3:14 PM  

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