The debate for or against having a literary agent is almost political in nature: people take strong sides on the topic and rarely change their stance. Some writers feel they are better off working directly with publishers. Other writers find the writer/agent relationship a very beneficial one.
To begin: what does an literary agent do? Tina Morgan writes in FictionFactor.com that literary agents “... act as middlemen for the publishing world. They sift through the slush pile to offer the best and brightest to the attention of the publishers. They work on a commission like the majority of salespersons on the planet. They don't make money unless they sell books. Which essentially means, they MUST work in your best interests, or the reputable ones won't be paid.”
So how do you tell a reputable one from the rest of the crowd? The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Association (SFWA) warns that, “Dishonest agents prey on writers by charging fees, promoting their own paid services, engaging in kickback referral schemes, and misrepresenting their knowledge and expertise. These agents don’t earn their income by selling manuscripts to publishers, but by extracting money from their clients.” The SFWA provides the following warning signs: Beware agents who require reading fees, require a submission fee, require an evaluation fee in order to procure a critique, offer writer’s manuscript copies for a fee, sell services such as website design or illustrations, refer writer’s to an editorial service, or offer deals with vanity presses.
So how does an author find a legitimate agent? First off, make sure the agent you deal with is a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives. The Association of Authors’ Representatives set strict guidelines for members and require all new members have at least ten sales in the last 18 months. Secondly, look for agents endorsed by legitimate publications, such as Writer’s Digest, who vet the agencies they place in their guides to literary agents. Thirdly, when in the bookstore, peruse some recently published books in your genre. Check out the acknowledgments page. Many authors give thanks or a “shout-out” to their agents. If so, you may be able to find the names of some professionals who already represent others in your area of interest.