We recently wrote a query letter for a client. When we sent it to her, we explained that she could send it exclusively to a single literary agent or submit it to multiple agents.
The next day she e-mailed to say that she had sent her query to almost 90 agents. So much for exclusivity!
She is a business woman and probably reasoned that if she has to compete for business so should literary agents. We have some sympathy with that point of view. Having to apply to agents one by one is a ridiculously slow process. An agent may take weeks before fishing out that one query and reading it. There is no guarantee it will be read at all. If the answer is a rejection, the author has to go through the process all over again – and again. When years of hard work are at stake, it can be a long and excruciating wait for a conclusive answer.
But exclusivity has its place. Obviously, if the author really wants a certain literary agent to represent him, he should offer his work to that agent alone. Agents justify the request for exclusivity on the grounds that they have to invest considerable effort and time in reading whole manuscripts. Presumably then, a manuscript that is presented exclusively will get more of that effort and time. And the author may get points for choosing a single agent.
When you are faced with this choice, think about the book you have written and which route may best benefit it. Mass market books might fare better with a mass agent approach, while something like literary fiction, with low sales expectations, might best be offered up on an exclusive silver platter. Marketing your book begins here. As close to impossible as publication is, you want to give it your very best shot.