Questions about agents came up frequently from aspiring writers in the "ask the author" comments and via e-mail, and I've decided just to do one big agent post and hope it answers everything y'all want to know.
First of all, folks want to know why agents are important. I actually had someone say, "Why don't you just deal with your publisher yourself and save the commission? Don't you resent paying someone for something you could do yourself?" I laughed hollowly and WALKED AWAY FROM THE CRAZY. Because yes, I could deal directly with my publisher. I could also have given birth at home and saved a few thousand dollars, but I didn't. I don't have the expertise or the inclination to do this myself, and for the record, my agent is GOOD. She negotiates things I don't even know to ask for. She asks and GETS THEM. And when there is anything unpleasant to handle, she does it. Now, this is admittedly a VERY rare occurrence with my publisher, but bringing out a book is a complicated process and from time to time, there will be glitches. This is when an agent will earn every SINGLE PENNY of her commission. (And your eternal gratitude.) So let us have no more doubts about the value of agents. There will always be people who claim they can have a perfectly fabulous career without paying a percentage of their income to someone else and negotiate all of their own contracts flawlessly and have a wonderful life. Fine, whatever. They are better folks than I. I NEED my agent. So there. (I also happen to like my agent. She's good people. And she reads my blog. Hi, Pam!)
People always want to know how I got her. Funny story actually, she rejected me on behalf of another agent and I liked her immediately. Totally true. I queried a woman who had her own agency and happened to employ my agent at the time. As luck would have it, the owner of the agency dissolved her business--to follow a religious call I think--and my agent responded to my query, rejecting me with such kindness and such professionalism that I kept her letter. I figured if she could be that nice to someone she had no intention of working with, she would be AMAZING to actually do business with. (Some of my other agent rejections were astonishingly rude. And I'm talking form letters here, where they presumably took time to craft a single response to be sent out en masse that could have just as easily been gracious. And don't think I've forgotten their names...)
So I kept the letter, wrote another book, and queried her directly. She kept my query for three months, and when I called her she confessed that she didn't know what to do with me. I had written a Regency and she had no contacts in that genre, but she liked my writing. I told her that if she was willing to take me on and TRY to place me, I wouldn't expect too much. She agreed, mostly because I think she saw a chance to build her contact list in a different genre, but perhaps because she liked me too. Whichever, she took me on and we've been together ever since. She didn't place that book--or two others after it, in spite of tremendous efforts on her part--but when I wrote SITG, she KNEW. She knew as soon as she read it that this was the one, and a year and a half later, we had a publishing deal for three books. She has negotiated my contracts, run interference, held my hand, and generally been a wonderful mentor and big sister type. I cannot IMAGINE doing this without her, and I wouldn't want to. Publishing is an extremely complicated and sometimes archaic business and what I still don't know about it would fill the Library of Congress. So I have Pam--expert advice when I need it, as well as the emotional support that we insecure writer types need.
Now, other people want a more solidly businesslike arrangement, and that's fine too. You just need to figure out what sort of person you want to work with and go from there. This is a hugely instinctive process, and it takes legwork and luck to find a good agent--and by good I don't just mean knowledgeable; there are loads of fantastic agents out there. I mean a good fit for you. I do not enjoy confrontation and so I want someone who can be my pit bull. I also want someone who can be personally attentive to ME, which is a tricky combination, but I was fortunate enough to find precisely the person I needed and you can too.
Also, by request, here's a link to an interview I did last year with the Kaleidoscope bookstore upon the release of SITS. Silent in the Sanctuary