Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Getting an offer from an agent

No story today, I actually wanted to briefly mention something about submitting to agents. I received a really interesting query via my agency website submission form, and so less than an hour after the query came in I requested the first 30 pages. Less than a week later I received an email by this author informing me that they received an offer of representation from another agent and had decided to accept the offer. As a result, they were withdrawing the submission.

I actually read the first thirty pages and thought they were quite good, and was going to request the rest. I guess it's my fault for not reading the material fast enough, and I'm happy that the author got an offer. Still, I have to say that the writer didn't handle this properly at all. Sadly, it seems writers make this mistake all the time.

I encourage authors to submit to more than one agent at a time, and when a query comes in I am assuming you are. Still, its proper etiquette to inform other agents who have requested your material when you received an offer from another agent, and you should give them at least a little bit of time to finish reading the material, especially when they've only had something for a week.

Its comparable to agents submitting to editors. If I have an offer from another editor coming in, I'll let the other editors know and give them a bit of time to finish reading the submission and making a decision. Before advising my client to enter into a publishing agreement, I like for all options to be explored and pursued that make sense. The only time this doesn't happen is if the editor and publisher are a perfect fit for the book and they make a very good preemptive offer.

Agents shouldn't and usually don't give authors a deadline to respond to an offer of representation unless it drags on for more than a few weeks. So unless you're getting an offer from someone like Amanda Urban, who can and does sell just about every book she represents, there's no reason not to give other agents a bit of time. Not only is this basic etiquette, but is the smart way to handle making one of the more important decisions of your writing career.


Robert Henshaw said...

Just to play devil's advocate, Jonathan, if my boss were to ask me why I lost the contract, and I said "I was going to request the rest"....he wouldn't even need to ask me "Then why didn't you request the rest?"

In this author's defense, at least he was proactive instead of waiting for you to read through the 30 pages and request the rest. You say a week passed and don't really say if any expectations were set for turnaround. Remember, most authors look at agents as a black hole buried under manuscripts - they are used to being ignored and put off. Did he have any reason to suspect you were devouring his partial?

Maybe you can learn from this, though. Sounds like the next time you're in a similar situation, you can shoot said author an email letting him/her know you've started reading the partial and you really like it. You know, kind of be proactive to head off an abrupt submission withdrawal.

Jonathan Lyons said...

I read the partial the night before the email came in pulling the submission. Also, a few weeks turnaround time on a partial for agents is within the industry standard. If it had been more than a month it would be a different story.

I'll just ignore the condescending comment at the end.

Robert Henshaw said...

Sorry I came across that way, Jonathan...it wasn't intended. I look at situations like these as learning opportunities and since I'm used to giving loads of feedback in my work, I probably sounded flippant. Peace.

umo said...


Very interesting post.

Not long ago, I had eight partials out to agents. The ninth agent skipped the partial and requested a full.

Within 48 hours, agent #9 offered representation. I notified the others that I was considering an offer and would make a decision within a few days.

Two declined. The rest responded with a "Let me know what you decide. I'm still interested." But nothing more.

Sorry, I don't get it. If the others were interested, wouldn't they have shown some interest?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for that great advice. I think that many unpublished authors are so excited at getting an offer of representation, that they're afraid of losing the offer if they don't accept right away. Until I began reading a few agent blogs, I never realized that it would be acceptable to ask for time to notify other agents and then make a decision. I guess part of me would worry that it sounded like I was waiting to see if a better offer comes along. It does make sense to give all the agents reading your work a chance before making a choice because you wouldn't query them if you didn't think they could possibly be a good match for you.
One comment though - you say unless it's an agent like Amanda Urban who sells everything. I understand how to find out if the agent you are querying has sold any work similar to yours, etc. But how does one know which agents are considered the best of the best?

Jonathan Lyons said...

Well, I don't think it's possible to provide a best of the best ranking. Obviously the ability to sell your clients' works is the single biggest factor in ranking agents. And if that's the only factor then a list like this would be relatively easy.

But I believe that each author is different and wants/needs different things. Do you want or need an agent who edits heavily? Someone who you might call a friend? Or do you prefer to keep things as professional as possible? Do you have an attorney who can help with contracts, or do you need your agent to guide you? Younger or older? Who e-mails or calls?

Stuart said...

I agree with Anonymous said. If it wasn't for the blogoshere, I'd think that putting an agent who offers representation on hold before hearing from others would be rude.

Like being asked on a date and telling the person to wait for a bit because I'm waiting to see if someone else asks me. This happened to me once -- as the asker.

For curiosity's sake, what's the best way to tell an agent that you're waiting for someone else? Just say you have partials/fulls out to other agents and you're waiting for responses?

(Thanks for the blog, btw)

Stuart said...

Quick addition to my previous post: What's an appropriate way to "interview" an agent when you have multiple offers?

(This of course assumes the writer has done his/her homework and knows the agents' track records, client list, etc)

Do we talk to each one and ask questions like you mentioned in your post?

(All of this assuming I ever get lucky enough to have this "problem." :))

Jonathan Lyons said...

I suggest just being honest about the situation - a good agent will understand and respect that you have the project with other people and want to hear back before making a decision. Again, choosing representation is one of the biggest choices you can make in your career, so agents shouldn't be offended if you move cautiously.

However, the one thing to remember is that you can't keep us on hold forever - a week or two is more than enough time for other agents to read your work and make a decision.

Down the road I'll make a separate entry about interviewing an agent, but in the meantime I suggest checking out SFWA's entry on agents at:


Anonymous said...

It is common knowledge that writers multi-submit. It's also common knowledge that writers submit to both DREAM AGENTS and "others." In the writer's defense, she/he probably accepted the offer from the former. And even if it wasn't the former, so what? She/he got an offer and she/he took it. Considering the waiting game, rejections and "almosts" we go through, I'm happy for her/him.

Nobody cries foul when the rejection letters come months later, so what is so wrong with a writer taking an offer and letting everyone else know she/he's done so? Maybe he/she didn't need to hear what you had to offer. Maybe he/she was completely satisfied with the offer she/he got. I'm baffled as to why you think the author acted poorly. She/he submitted to several agents. One agent acted faster than you did. Obviously, the author went with the person he/she preferred. Nothing personal. It's just business.

Jonathan Lyons said...

Thanks for your comment. Perhaps it was the author's dream agent, but regardless, one day things might not work out with said dream agent, and it makes sense to follow proper etiquette just in case.

As I said before, this happens all the time, and my post will hopefully provide guidance as to how to proceed in such a situation.

Anonymous said...

It is a catch 22. Everything authors read, be it online or in a book, tells us that our work means nothing if we can't "sell" it to an agent. It then goes on to say how cutthroat and difficult the business is. Because of that, authors are overjoyed by the first acceptance, and terrified that an agent might cancel the offer if it is not accepted immediately.

Then again, I think some authors get a raw deal because they accept the first offer - at times ending up with a bad agent who locks up everyone into a 1-year contract and then bulk submits to publishers. My first "offer" was from a company that did just that. Excited and about to accept, I (thankfully) did a bit more research and ultimately saved myself from signing away the next year for nothing.

The problem is that agents make us feel this way (not you necessarily, but in general). Agents tell us that they want to be our friend, counsel, and mentor, then they won't accept anything more than an email or single-page letter. They judge the value of a 300-page book by the "hook" of a one-page letter that must be under 500 words and nail the work, the author, and the marketability.

So, we diligently craft these letters, upset because our work is so much more than the query, and we send it to a dozen agents. Then, we wait. Nobody responds. A week. Two weeks. An eternity to aspiring authors.

In my opinion, the entire system is screwed up in a cycle that perpetuates itself. Agents think it's okay to ignore works they can't sell, based on a query letter that doesn't explain the work in the first place, while authors personally take rejection on a work that wasn't given a chance.

Agents: It's not that hard to reject many people at once, even by email at the end of the day, so that they can move on. That's what BCC is for. Create a form letter email, reject people by adding them to the BCC of the email, and send it out at the close of business the day you rejected them. I have much appreciated form rejection emails than "no response" rejections.

Authors: You have rights. Relax. Your agent works for you, so you shouldn't settle for a raw deal. Unless an agent is trying to lock you up to see if something can happen, the agent is in no rush to get your contract. Your book won't hit the market for at least half a year. The agent can wait another week.

Robert Henshaw said...

Found this article on AgentQuery. It basically outlines what you should do when you get "The Call" from your agent. Basically, it echoes Jonathan's take on etiquette. You may have to copy & paste this into your browser: