There is a concept in publishing that writers 'need an agent to get published, and agents only take on writers who have been published'. A 'chicken and egg scenario' if ever there were one.
However, this isn't necessarily true.
A writer can submit direct to publishers without ever using an agent, and likewise an agent will take on unpublished authors. Both routes have pros and cons.
- Going direct means that your novel will go straight to a publisher and save you a percentage of any money you make from a sale, but chances are without an agent the novel will start on the slush pile awaiting the eagle eye of a junior to pull it from obscurity.
- The second route ensures your novel gets seen by the right publisher at the right time; a publisher with an interest in your themes and novel. However, if a sale happens (and only when a sale happens - never before. If anyone takes money off you before, they are cheating you), you pay a percentage.
A good agent is worth more than their weight in gold. 'Juvie' has been sent backwards and forwards between Edwin and myself about five times. This is to ensure the novel is perfect before being submitted. I thank him for this, because I know that the book is far better now than when I originally sent it in. A good agent will take their time with a first time writer, telling them where they are going wrong and what works. What is good form, what is bad. They understand that they make money if your book is a success, so they want it to be a success. A good agent is patient and sees your career as an investment.
How to get a good agent? Well, that is the million dollar question. Like everything in writing and publishing it requires skill, luck and patience. Lots and lots of patience. I know from personal experience that writers want to finish a work and then see it in print a year later. This doesn't happen. You have to persevere as much with your writing as you do with finding the correct agent for yourself. You need an agent who understands the landscape, has good contacts, spends their own money promoting you to publishers and only sends your work out when its in a the best state it can be in. A good agent should make the publishing process that little bit easier for you.
There are reference books out there that list all literary agents, but don't choose one at random. You need an agent who can work with you and you with them. Find a local agent, someone you can meet face-to-face. Go and see agents at local book events or literary salons. Talk to them, find out what they are looking for and then approach them with your novel.
With a bit of luck, you'll find the right agent for you.