Finding an agent
It's easy to understand why some authors believe agents are as rare as the mythical unicorn. Finding an agent can be one of the most challenging tasks faced by writers these days. The truth is these elusive creatures really and truly do still inhabit the earth. But it's going to take some hard work on your part to find a real one.  There are plenty of people out there who claim to be agents. But finding one with qualifications and a track record for success is an entirely different story.  Many online 'agents' have no real experience.  Some are just looking to make a quick buck by capitalizing on your eagerness to get published (read: agents who ask you for money up front).  The hard part is finding someone who is competent and capable of representing your work well.  

So where can reputable agents be found? It's not as difficult as one might think.  One way of finding an agent is by attending some of the larger writers' conferences.  But be warned, you don't want to spook a unicorn and send it running off into the woods never to be seen again.  Should you happen to have the great fortune of meeting an agent do not, I repeat, DO NOT pitch them at an event.  Have a friendly conversation, exchange business cards, and follow up at a later date.  Make sure you throw in a comment in your query letter such as It was great visiting with you at the XYZ Conference.  At this point you're still going to have to WOW them with your manuscript just like any other author. Only now you have a connection that will hopefully help set you apart from the others long enough to grab and hold their attention.
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Another good way to find an agent is through writers' groups and associations.  Many such members' only groups publish directories with contact information for businesses and individuals in the industry. This often includes agents.  Just keep in mind, that being published in such listings does not guarantee quality or experience. You'll still have to do your homework to make sure you've found an agent you can trust and who will be a good fit for you.  It's important to realize most agents typically represent books of a particular genre.  So make sure you don't pitch a murder mystery to an agent who only represents children's picture books.

One of the most effective ways to find an agent is by perusing the acknowledgments in books similar in genre to that of your manuscript.  Take a trip to your public library, or a local bookstore and flip to the back of the book to see if an author has written an acknowledgment to their agent.  Jot down that agent's name and agency and do a little research later on to find out if they are accepting queries.  You'll usually be able to find their contact information with a little bit of effort.  

Once you've done your due diligence and found your dream agent, you're going to have to convince them that you are worthy of their time and effort. This is not easily done, as you'll be competing with countless other authors who are also seeking representation. Now you'll want to make sure you get your pitch - ahem . . . pitch perfect. Be courteous, follow the steps as outlined in your prospective agent's submission guidelines. You want to make an exceptional first impression. One sure way to blow it is by ignoring the rules.  Don't send your work right away if an agent's website states they do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Remember, every agent has their own specific set of rules.  Take the time to read through their submission guidelines.  - Also, take the time to learn as much as you can about an agent before sending a query. Your efforts will pay off when the agent is able to sense the personal attention you are able infuse in your query letter to them. Don't come across as though you're trying to impress them with your stalking abilities. Believe me, they won't be pleased. Just be genuine and sincere.

You may ask yourself, Am I better off without an agent?  Most likely not. In most cases you will benefit from the representation of an agent. There are however, a few rare instances when you may not need an agent. You will probably not need an agent if you are trying to publish poetry, short stories and some non-fiction or children's books. Also, if you are planning on pitching your work to a small press, or if you intend to self publish you will not need an agent. But if you're hoping to land one of the larger traditional publishing houses, chances are you'll never get a shot without the representation of a qualified and reputable agent. 

It's industry standard for agents to make around 15% of what the author makes (a little more on foreign rights).  Keep in mind an agent will almost always get you a better contract in addition to advances and other perks.  So while 15% may seem like a lot to give up, remember your hopes of getting locked into a sweet deal usually hinge upon the strengths of your agent.  Think about it this way . . . it's in their best interest to get the best deal for you.  
"Choosing an agent is a bit like getting married, and you need to be equally cautious. Love at first sight seldom works – so don’t leap into an arrangement with the first one who offers to have you. Before you sign, talk to publishers about how they respond to the one you have in mind. Treat their answers with a degree of caution but keep your antennae bristling – are they putting you off someone who will strike a better deal than you currently get (good for you), or because they personally can’t stand the sight of them (not so good for you). Think clearly about what you will do for each other; look each other in the eye. Meet and talk, for goodness sake. Consider a pre-nup. But once you are married, stick with it, and work at the relationship – for the sake of the children, in the hope that they might grow up to be best-sellers."
- Stewart Ross, speaking at the Society of Authors' Annual General Meeting, 2006
"If one agent wants you, the chances are you are going to be in a happy position of being able to choose. Appointing the right agent is the most important decision you will make – they can make and break careers."  - Simon Trewin, United Agents
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