The first thing you need to know is that agents are business people. They need to make money just like the construction worker down the street. Just like an office manager, or a boutique owner. They make contacts in the publishing world just like a dress manufacturer makes contacts with warehouses and stores.
They are the middle links, the facilitators. Nothing more. They don’t hold life or death over your novel. There are millions and gazillions of small and mid-range publishers out there that work directly with the writer.
The agent’s job isn’t to market your book to the public. It’s just to take your manuscript a decent publisher (not necessarily a top publisher) for the best possible outcome.
Your manuscript will go to the publisher with whom it fits. If your manuscript is messy, full of errors, a poor storyline, disjointed, hard to read, etc., it will go to a publisher who wants to spend lots of time correcting your mistakes. Guess what, that’s not a top line publisher. In fact, it’s not even a mid-range publisher. You’ll be lucky if a small publisher takes it. And if that’s the case, you probably won’t get an agent.
So, your first job, is to get your manuscript as clean as you can. Have lots of people check it for errors. Hire an editor if necessary.
Second, research the agents. Make sure the people you send your manuscript to even like the genre you wrote. Check Preditors and Editors (pred-ed.com) to see what reviews your agents have. Take a close look at those the agent represent. Did they go to a decent publisher? Are their books languishing? If you pick a small agent no one’s heard about, you’re not going to the big publishers. Also, pay attention to the agent’s personality, you have to be able to work with this person.
Third, In the old days — you know, last year — you’d then go to a conference or workshop where this agent is appearing. Get on the docket to give a pitch. You then would follow the conference with the manuscript, saying thank you for listening to your pitch and specifically mentioning what the agent said (they see tons of people and probably won’t remember you). Nowadays, it’s kinda the same. Lots of conferences are doing online things, agents included. It’s just a bit more difficult.
Fourth, if an agent is interested, he/she may want changes to your manuscript. Be willing to work on it. If you don’t want to change anything, you should probably self-publish. Ask questions to get a precise idea of what the agent wants. Remember, this person probably knows what publishers are buying better than you do. And be timely about any changes requested.
Fifth, if you’re luck enough to get a contract, don’t sign it right away. Wait, what did I say? That’s right. Don’t sign it right away. You get a contract, you’re excited. That’s never a good time to sign anything. Stop. Think about it. There may be one or two details you can negotiate.
Sixth, don’t pester your new agent friend. He/she has lots to do. Several weeks between Emails is normal. But if it stretches into months, give them a nudge.
Seventh, don’t be afraid to walk away. I’ve had to do that. It’s not the end of the world. But when you do, make sure to get a few names of other agents that might represent you.
Best of luck!