A relative of mine who aspires to write for publication -- or wider publication -- e-mailed me a question:
"I was researching publishers for another bit I'm working on. Some say they prefer to work with literary agents. Can you make any suggestions here? I'll read up on it in my SCBWI manual, but I'd sure appreciate your insight. I don't know anything about agents (aside from that crooked modeling agent I had, years ago)."
This writer will soon learn what those of us who have been in the business for a while have come to understand only too well: Many if not most of the major publishing houses are closed to unagented submissions. The editors who have spoken about this at the conferences I've attended say it has become necessary to slam the door on over-the-transom submissions as a defense against the slush piles that have grown to unmanageable heights. With ever-fewer editors receiving manuscripts from what seems to be an ever-growing pool of hopefuls, they simply cannot handle the flood.
Enter the agent, who has become the gatekeeper for the gatekeepers. A manuscript must first pass muster with an agent. If an agent deems it publishable, then it will get passed along to editors who may or may not share the agent's opinion.
Finding an agent -- not just any agent, but the one that's right for you -- is no easy task. At the 2010 Austin SCBWI conference, one agent told of receiving something like 18,000 queries a year -- of which he might possibly accept four.
For the benefit of my relative who's looking, and anyone else who needs a place to start, I'll list some considerations and sources:
1. Find a Reputable Agent, not a scam artist
Check out Preditors & Editors: Literary Agents, Association of Authors' Representatives, Agent Query, Harold Underdown's Purple Crayon.
2. Write a Good Query
Of those 18,000 or so queries mentioned above, most were so poorly written that the agent could tell at a glance that the writer was not serious. To see how to write a query letter, study Nathan Bransford's Query Letter Mad Lib and Anatomy of a Good Query Letter.
3. Contact Junior Agents or Hungry New Agents
They need clients. Well-established agents don't have time for you.
This barely scratches the surface. Two minutes of googling "Literary agents" will turn up an inexhaustible list of resources. But maybe this will get you started.