Do I need an agent?
Question: Do you need an agent or can you just have a publisher? Do you not need an agent and it's just better to have one? If you don't have an agent and you just have a publisher what will that mean for you?
It is not absolutely necessary to have an agent, but there are advantages and in some cases it is practically essential. In other cases, there is no point.
For instance, if you are writing a book with very little commercial value, such as a book of poetry which may only sell a few hundred copies, you don't need an agent. An agent's commission on the sales might be less than $100, which is not worth the hours they would have to put in on your behalf. It is standard practice for authors in such niches to deal with publishers directly.
Sometimes, after you have found a publisher, you can hire an agent for a flat fee just to negotiate the contract for you. This can be helpful because agents understand what is reasonable and not reasonable to be in the contract and can help you protect your rights. They are familiar with copyright laws and standard industry practices. For this reason, publishers often prefer to negotiate with an agent rather than an author.
If your book has commercial value, and especially if it has the potential to sell very well, you can benefit a lot from having an agent. (Part of an agent's job is to figure out if your book has commercial potential.)
To reach your book's full potential, it helps to have one of the big five publishers take it on. And to sell a book to one of the big five, it
really helps to have an agent.
Agents can get your manuscript moved closer to the front of the line in terms of getting it read (and this is a very long line). A good agent will know which publishers to approach and have contacts throughout the publishing industry. They can often get you a bigger advance, and the bigger your advance the more money the publisher may put into promoting your book (so they can make the money back).
Agents can also help with selling foreign rights or film rights (should your book have such potential). If you don't have an agent, the publisher may also take on this role, but their interests and yours are not always completely aligned.
Agents can also be a source of career advice. The more money you make as a writer, the more money they make, so they are on your side.
If you don't want an agent, you can approach publishers on your own. It can be a much slower process, especially if you are targeting the big five. However, smaller publishers may be easier to sell to.
Whichever route you go--agents or publishers--I would recommend you do your homework. Look for reputable firms (check them out on Preditors and Editors) who are interested in your genre and have a track record of success. (Though it doesn't have to be a long record. Sometimes a good agent who is just starting out and needs more clients will be more receptive.)
Remember that agents and publishers alike often receive thousands of submissions a year, which they usually review in their spare time. So even a great book can take time to sell. Most authors collect stacks of rejection slips for every sale.
Best of luck.