Now please don't take this the wrong way, dear authors, but without agents I would look like that cartoon of a body being pushed down a hallway by a mass of paper. When I worked for Honor Books, we did a study once on the cost of reading unsolicited proposals, writing a decline letter (I hate the word rejection), and dropping it in the mail. We included the salary and time for our editorial assistant to read the proposals and craft the letter. In 1999, the total cost to send back all the paper that had been sent to us was more than $30,000. In all the years I've been in publishing, I don't think I've ever published a proposal from the slush pile.
Agents are an editor's best friends. Because of their years of experience, they look at your work first and can tell you whether it stands up to the test of quality demanded by publishers. If they think you have potential, they will work with you to lift the bar on your writing. It might mean rewriting your sample chapters or your proposal, but their advice is solid. They know what editors are looking for (most of the time. Editors change their minds a lot.) and can keep you updated on publishing trends.
They earn their 15% when it comes to contract time. If for no other reason than they can get your proposal to an editor's desk and can help negotiate your contract, they are worth what you pay them. Contract language is confusing, and I read it all the time. Why is it confusing? It was written by attorneys. They are trained to make the language confusing. The advance and royalty are negotiable as are some of the sub-rights clauses. Some clauses and percentages are non-negotiable. A good agent looks after your interests and can explain the contract to you. If they can't, you need another agent or an attorney.
I need to pause here and apologize to my dear friend and author Rick Acker, whose book When the Devil Whistles releases this fall from Abingdon Press. Rick works as an attorney for the Department of Justice in California, prosecuting corporate fraud cases, and writes fast-paced thrillers. Check out Rick's website at http://www.rickacker.com/ or his blog at http://rickacker.blogspot.com/. I meant no offense to you as an attorney, Rick.
How do you get an agent? Just like editors, they attend writers' conferences and are also looking for the next big author or that diamond in the rough that can be polished and sold. You can query them by e-mail or mail, and the agents I know have websites that list their submissions guidelines. Here's the deal. To sell a first-time author to a publisher, the agent requires that the author have written . . . a novel. Would you take a risk on someone who tells you they can write a novel when they've never done it before? Exactly.
I will never recommend an agent to you because the relationship between an agent and author is crucial to your success. If the two of you aren't in sync and can't communicate in the early stages, it will be a nightmare later. You need to trust your agent, and they need to be able to trust and depend on you.