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An Exclusive Submission? In This Economy?

Updated: Mar 11

I recently participated in an online pitch event and, I'll admit, I was thrilled to receive an editor like within minutes of posting my pitch! For those who are unfamiliar, pitch events are opportunities for authors to pitch directly to agents or editors via a post on social media, usually with a hashtag signaling their involvement. Agents or editors show their interest in receiving a query - or even a full - by "liking" the pitch. This particular event was run by a small press interested in signing authors in a variety of genres and a cursory inspection of their submission guidelines seemed straight-forward.

However, after receiving my "like," I revisited the website for more thorough consideration.

At this point, I'm often looking for signs they might be a vanity press in disguise. Any implication that money must be spent for either manuscript consideration or for publication is a red flag. Likewise, I'm carefully combing through their formatting suggestions, word count preferences, and manuscript wish lists. I want to give my project the best chance it can have with every place I submit it, and that often means paying attention to the small details like centering page numbers, adding the title to headers, and tailoring my query letter to their specific interests.

Just as I was beginning to sense this might be a good match for my current manuscript, I stopped dead in my scrolling.

Exclusive submissions only.

An entire paragraph explained their reasoning in succinct detail, but ultimately, it disallowed any form of querying to any agents or editors during their consideration window. This isn't the first time I've run across similar verbiage; it is becoming more common.

Now, to be clear, I can understand why a small press might make this choice. It must be wildly frustrating to make offer after offer and then see those authors leverage their good faith contracts into "bigger" and "better" things: an agent, a larger press, a better advance, or higher rate of royalties. Not only that, but it must be disheartening to feel again and again that you are nothing but a stepping stone to something greater.

That said, isn't this the chance every agent takes when they make an offer? I wish we had statistics showing how often an author does or doesn't choose the first agent who offers on their manuscript. I know my first time through the process, I didn't choose the agent who initially offered. Likewise, books sold at auction mean that even Big 5 editors regularly miss out on projects they'd love to acquire.

To make matters worse, this particular small press requested that authors complete their querying process before contacting them. It says a great deal to me about how they see themselves by this request. They don't perceive themselves as a part of the dynamic, exciting, sometimes frustrating, always evolving world of publishing. Worse, as a potential submitting author, after reading that, I saw them as a press who saw themselves as a last-ditch effort, not a competitive and savvy opportunity.

It's true, that historically, small presses have largely been seen as a second choice after the traditional agent-to-publisher pipeline options have been exhausted, but that is changing. With the coalescence of large publishers over the last decade, the small press has surged in popularity, both for agented and unagented writers, and even among previously represented, previously Big 5-published authors. The boutique experience is highly desirable among many querying authors these days, and with marketing budgets shrinking at larger publishers, the strength of many of these small presses is their close attention to author desires and their ability to leverage their deeply-committed communities into extensive marketing opportunities.

Finally, in the current publishing economy, long wait times are the norm, often up to six months on a full, and without sharing their minimum advances or royalty packages alongside their exclusive submission clause, an author is left taking a true shot in the dark. I'm left wondering if these are minimal and that's why this press is particularly interested in authors who might have begun to lose hope. When you are desperate - and what author isn't feeling a little desperate these days? - a low advance or low royalties feels better than nothing.

To be sure, there are occasional times when an exclusive submission might be requested. Perhaps an agent gave in-depth, actionable feedback on a manuscript when offering an R&R. In this case, they might request an exclusive submission to consider the revised manuscript. I've had four R&R's over my publishing career and not once has an agent or editor requested an exclusive, but I've seen agents at several AMA's discuss this topic, so I know it can happen, I just don't know how often it does.

So, what should you do when a small press you're considering has an exclusive submission clause? Well, I think that will depend on your own, individual journey. If you know you want to publish with a small press and the long wait times aren't a deterrent, you might consider submitting to this type of press. You'll have lost nothing but time if you ultimately decide their offer isn't commensurate with your expectations. Likewise, if you truly are at the end of your querying journey, you might consider several of these types of presses and work your way through them one at a time.

On the other hand, there are many small presses out there that don't have exclusivity clauses. Yes, they risk losing out on great projects, but they also understand the publishing industry, fraught as it is with uncertainty, and, to my mind, they respect the author's agency much more. The offer can be one of the only times when an author holds any power. Seeing a small press respect my right to make the best choice for myself and my project makes me more likely to choose them, not less.

In point of fact, when I signed with Conquest, it was only after I'd nudged several other editors and a handful of agents. Owner and editor Brittany McMunn's passion for my manuscript was a defining factor in my decision. Another was the rave reviews that current authors gave Conquest. As soon as I heard these, I knew I wouldn't consider any other editor offers, nor would I consider any agent offers that didn't result in a contract with Conquest. I chose to be with my small press not because they were the last choice, or the only choice, or because they forced my hand, but because they genuinely loved my story, saw my passion, and offered a community of close-knit publishing siblings who could walk this crazy publishing path together.

In the end, I chose not to submit to the exclusive submission small press and deleted my pitch. While I appreciated their interest, and the quick response gave me continued hope for the journey of this manuscript, the drawbacks did not outweigh the possible benefits for me. While I can understand and respect the place from which they are coming to ask this of authors, it is too much of a struggle for me to take a chance on a press who won't take a chance on me.

Rebecca Minelga is an author and speaker who uses the power of words to navigate the liminal spaces between who we are and who we are becoming.

She raises Guide Dog puppies and two sons - in that order - with her husband just north of Seattle. She has been most recently published in "Roi Fainéant," and "Wild Ink," and her debut novel, Third and Long, is due out Summer 2025 from Conquest Publishing.

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