A good literary agent is a bridge between the novelist and publication.
He or she understands the publishing industry, knows who the most appropriate publishers might be for your novel and is persuasive in approaching them. A good agent is also financially savvy, good at bargaining over the most lucrative deal for you (and for them), and is experienced in scrutinising legal contracts and checking royalty statements.
It’s an added bonus if the agent also provides critical input into further developing the work before it goes to a publisher. A good agent won't care only about the commercial aspects of the novel, but will also care about its quality, and can help you develop that. After all, it reflects poorly on the agent and their reputation (and royalty income) if the novel isn't up to scratch.
The agent will collect around 15% of your hard-earned royalties. This 15% is worth paying. Most publishers view the agent as the gatekeeper who’s able to block out all but the best manuscripts, thereby saving the publisher's time in doing the screening themselves. So it's hardly surprising, from the publishers' profit-orientated perspective, that they prefer dealing with an agent.
Once my first agent and I signed up, she was great at telling me what she didn’t like about the first draft. Too many sentences starting with he or she. Too many deaths (and it wasn’t even a murder mystery). The nasty people were too nasty, she said… after all, everyone has some good points, don’t they? A villain with some good points can be even more threatening than one who is thoroughly bad.
Was I still glad to have the agent after the publication of the first book? The publisher purchased world rights when they took on Stillwater Creek. In doing this they took over some of the agent’s role. World rights meant that it was the publisher who sold the book to Presses de la Cite in France, it was the publisher who negotiated the large-print deal and the audio rights (no royalties on either of these as it was a charitable concern), it was the publisher who offered the two book deal, and it was the publisher who sold Stillwater Creek to Reader's Digest in separate deals in the United Kingdom and in Australasia.
In spite of this, I was still very glad to have the services of the agent. Why? My agent not only pointed me in the right direction with the first book but she also helped me complete the second book The Indigo Sky in time; the agent read my drafts and made largely constructive comments about them. This sped up the process in meeting the deadline. And it was my agent who championed my proposal for a third book, A Distant Land, and who guided me in writing the treatment for this. Until this time I hadn’t even known what a treatment was… (yes, really!). Clearly none of this would have been possible if I’d been operating on my own.
For all these reasons I remain very glad to be represented by an agent. And there’s another compelling reason: having an agent frees up your time. If your family responsibilities and your day job are demanding, you too may want to avoid the hassle of dealing with many of the time-consuming administrative aspects of being a novelist.
How can you get a literary agent to take you on? There's lots of advice out there on this. A good place to start looking if you are in Australia is The Australian Writer's Marketplace. For the UK, look at the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, and for the US, try the 2015 Guide to Literary Agents. These volumes are available in bookstores and online.