According to Wikipedia, a literary agent is someone who "represents writers and their written works to publishers, theatrical producers and film producers and assists in the sales and negotiations of the same." I was having a conversation with a writing friend a while ago, and they mentioned how hard it was to get published because they "had to get an agent." My immediate question (in my head) was, "Why?" Well, there are several reasons why you should or shouldn't.
SHOULD. If you plan on querying big publishers. I'm talking Big Six, people. Big publishers like Harper Collins, Little Brown, Sterling, etc., will only take agented submissions. Don't even try hawking a manuscript to a publisher that says very plainly, No Unsolicited Manuscripts. Your agent is the solicitor.
SHOULDN'T. Self-publishing? You don't really need to worry about querying those big publishers. Why? Because with self-pubbing there is no need for an in-between-man (or woman). You are the agent, publicist, author, cover artist and everything else that falls under the category of WRITER.
SHOULD. Okay, so you're self-publishing but you still want to send your work off to publishers. Bigger publishing houses will toss your work into the trashcan faster than I can unwrap a Hershey's Kiss - and that's fast - if you don't have an agent to solicit the work for you.
SHOULDN'T. Small presses - like Entangled Publishing, Curiosity Quills, Decadent Publishing, Sapphire Star Publishing, Spencer Hill Press, etc. - are special. You don't need an agent (99.9% of the time) to send your novel in to an editor. You can do it cold turkey and you have a pretty good chance of getting published.
FAQs about Agents
Q: How much do agents cost?
A: Basically, this is between you and your agent, but the standard fee is usually 15% of whatever you bring in as a writer.
Q: What does an agent actually DO?
A: Everything. They negotiate deals, look over (and explain) contracts with publishers, hook you up with publicists and schedule interviews. They get on a publisher's case if you haven't been paid and they use their experience with negotiating to navigate you out of choppy waters in the writing world.
Q: How do I find an agent?
A: You can find a literary agent by searching through an online directory such as Poets & Writers. You can find agents or agencies that are perfect for your needs. Another way to find an agent is when you are recommended by someone - a friend or co-worker. Recommendations are big.
And that's just about the gist of it! Have any questions? Leave a comment and I'll try to answer them below. :)