Is it the ultimate nail in the coffin to find out the writer you just signed has already submitted to, and been rejected by, editors? We’ve seen where querying an agent with an offer in hand is always a bonus for the agent to accept you as a client. Should eager writers refrain from submitting to the publishers that still take unagented queries?
Actually what upsets me most would not be that the material was already submitted to and rejected by editors, although that comes in closely behind what really upsets me. What really upsets me is that if you signed with me and then told me the book had been sent around and submitted to editors, I would feel lied to. Lied by omission, but still lied to. Let’s look at it this way: What if you submitted to me, we had a long, pleasant conversation and finally agreed we were going to work together. Then, after signing on with me I told you that I had decided that from now on I’m only selling books to two publishers and will only submit to those two publishers. That’s not presumably what you signed on for.
This is why it’s so, so important to talk to a number of agents, if possible, before signing a contract with any one agent. Those conversations you have with an agent when an offer of representation comes up is the time to talk frankly and honestly about what you want in your career and how an agent operates. It’s the time to make sure that the two of you see your book in the same way and have the same thoughts in terms of submission style and the same goals.
Of course, if your book has been seen by a number of editors or is currently under consideration, that should be mentioned, at the very least, in the cover letter you send with any requested materials.
I know I’ve addressed this issue before, but obviously it never hurts to bring it up again: Shopping your manuscript around to editors should only be done on request. If you enter a contest and an editor requests your work or if you are a nonfiction author who has been approached by an editor, go ahead and send the material. Otherwise, if you really want an agent it might be wise to hold off.