To an aspiring writer, literary agents can seem like a parasitic race - they take their percentage, but what do they give back? And is it worth having one?
The short answers are 'lots' and 'yes'. Read on!
An agent sends your manuscript out to see who would like to bid on it for publication. They're effective because they have more knowledge of the editors and publishers than most. An agent knows who is on the look out for the next big historical novel, whose lists are full, who is looking for a new crime writer, and can target their submissions accordingly.
It's a two-way street, as publishers will know what genres the agents are likely to be submitting, which ones specialise in crime, which ones are more literary etc.
Once an agent has matched your work to the right publisher (which doesn't always mean going for the biggest advance, sometimes a publicity commitment is worth more than upfront cash), they are the professional whose job it is to negotiate the best contract for you. Unless you're confident about tackling aspects such as high volume discounts, territorial rights, and the tricky area of electronic rights, these are all best left to someone who fully understands them.
A good literary agent will be the buffer between the publisher and yourself, negotiating, say, an extended deadline, better dates for a book tour, or fighting for improved deals as needed.
A strong agent/author relationship can be incredibly beneficial for a writer as it means having someone who's always 'on your side', who is enthusiastic about your writing, and whose desire for the best deal is for both your benefits.