So you've written a book. Now what? Don't just stare at the computer screen, it's time to get to work! Yeah, work. Writing the book is only the beginning! After you've re-read your book numerous times and edited out all the junk, and maybe have some friends at your critique group give it a read and cut out some more crap, you are ready for the next step.
You may be wondering just what one needs an agent for. Can't you just write a book and get it published? Why, no, friend. It's more complicated than that. Once you have written a book, you need to get someone in a publishing house to read it. Many times you will need an agents' help with that. There are a few other angles you can approach the situation from, but we'll discuss that in a minute.
Now mind you, this is all coming from me, who is no expert, but is becoming experienced in the ways of the writing world. I currently do not have an agent, but I would love to find an excellent one...hint hint...
If you are writing non-fiction or picture books (even novels, but less so), it is possible to get published without an agent. Many publishing houses (smaller presses, indie presses, etc.) will take submissions from the unagented crowd.
Joining an organization such as SCBWI and attending conferences can also get you an in at publishing houses big and small. Doesn't mean they will buy your book, but you are allowed to submit without an agent.
If you are writing fiction novels, an agent may be helpful to you as the bigger publishing houses are generally not interested seeing unagented manuscripts. In this respect, if you have a good agent who is good at what they do, they will be able to direct your manuscript to the right houses and editors. Picture book and non-fiction writers do also use agencies, but seem to have success without them as well.
NOTE***You should never pay for an agent's services. If anyone asks for payment up front, run away! Agents are supposed to work hard to sell your book and then they take an agreed percentage from your earnings.
Finding a great agent does take some research. I've used the Writer's Market books (Guide to Literary Agents & Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market) to start research on literary agencies. Once I find an agent that looks like a good match, I will follow up with checking out their website and any blog they might have. There are also some good websites to check up on your possible agents. Absolute Write Water Cooler offers a feature called Bewares and Background Checks and Preditors and Editors are good places to start. It appears that Preditors and Editors is being sued, so I'm curious to see how long it continues operating.
After you find your dream agent, it's time to query, which we will discuss in All About Agents...Part 2!