Literary agents are quasi-mythical creatures, more often spoken of than seen, said to inhabit the downtown labyrinths of New York, Los Angeles, and a few other major metropolitan centers. Writers have been known to spend endless hours trying to capture one.
This is because, for fiction writers especially, agents are a virtual necessity if you want a trade publisher to read, let alone publish your book. For non-fiction writers, working through an agent can be very helpful but is not an absolute necessity.
If you want an agent to represent you, there are three things you must understand:
1. What a good agent does
2. Why he does it
3. And how, given those facts, you an contrive to get an agent's attention and enter into a mutually profitable relationship.
An agent, contrary to popular belief, cannot afford to work virtually pro bono for writers whose books—even some very good books—have little chance of success in the market place.
An agent may or may not love your book, love the literary world, or even love writers. But like you, the agent has a mortgage payment and a car payment, kids to send to school, doctor bills, braces, and all the onerous expenses that the rest of us have. Except that the agent lives in New York or maybe Los Angeles, so his bills are even higher than ours. If he does not bring home the bacon—and fairly large slabs of it at that—he is soon languishing in the financial doldrums.
Agenting is not a business for the weak of heart. One who engages in it has little time to waste in unproductive effort. An agent lives by his wits. He is not salaried, has no company retirement fund, no sick leave, no paid-for hospitalization. He banks on two things, and two things only, to pay his bills:
1. His ability to pick from the many thousands of books submitted to his agency each year those few that he thinks he can sell, and . . .
2. His intimate knowledge of the publishing business, of who is looking for what, of the current needs of each of as many publishing houses as he can gather information about. The agent must choose books that not only get published but sell in large numbers after they are published. That is because an agent lives by commissions alone, getting (usually) fifteen percent of the royalties that the author earns. If the author earns little or nothing, the agent also earns little or nothing.
So write a book that an agent can make money on. Little else will work.