...or maybe just mine.
Soon after I'd signed with my agent Stephanie, an acquaintance said (appalled): "but why would you want to work with an agent? they take 25%!" Well, first off, my agent is not taking a quarter of my royalties. Secondly, there would be no royalties without her.
Look, I think it's like real estate agents. Sure you could buy direct from the owner and negotiate a three per cent price reduction or whatever the realtor going rate is these days. But a good agent will save you from a lemon, point out the water damage, the cracks in the foundation, have advance knowledge of a gem before it hits the market. Of course a useless agent will do squat all and give the entire profession a bad name. So in all things the advice is: find a good professional.
Agents have knowledge of, and relationships with, editors. They don't just send your manuscript to a house, they target specific editors who would be a good fit for you and your book. Second, they know how to play the game. I only have the murkiest sense of what this game is to be honest but it involves a clever balance of hype and reticence, careful timing, and the intervention of benevolent deities called scouts. Stephanie has tried to explain it all to me but it's like when my husband Tom starts talking about string theory (or whatever it is that he does). My eyes gloss over and all I hear are cats.
International sales are a completely different beast. Agents go to the big book fairs where they champion your book. They have contacts with overseas editors and subagents. They know how to time submissions. In short, agents get you the best deal possible and as many deals as possible.
And then once a deal is made, they negotiate the finer points of the contract. Even after you're working with a publishing house, the agent stays close, to make sure you're getting good editorial support, the right sales and marketing treatment. If things go pear shaped, they intervene. It's not just the business side of things either. Agents can help with interview prep and presentation skills. They check in to make sure you're not hiding under the bed hyperventilating into a paper bag. Sometimes Stephanie really feels like my personal cheerleader, therapist, and coach, all rolled into one. But most importantly, she takes care of a whole ton of stuff behind the scenes (and there is A LOT going on back there) leaving me free to WRITE.