I think I was even more excited when I got my first literary agent, than when I got my first book deal.
Basically, to get a look in at any major publisher you ABSOLUTELY need a literary agent. The vast majority of publishers these days (at least the mid-to-large sized publishers) no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts, as in manuscripts where they haven’t actually said, <INSERT NAME HERE>, PLEASE SEND ME YOUR MANUSCRIPT! (This happened to me once—alas it ended in rejection. SOB!)
The other UH-MAZING thing about agents is they get you the deal, as in the dosh, the cash, the moola (if you get enough to actually start using mobster slang, well done!). You have to remember that agents only get paid if you get paid (if your agent is asking for any money from YOU—RUN, RUN FOR THE HILLS!) They will know what is fair and how far to push the publisher.
Once a price is agreed, your agent will also negotiate the dreaded contract (they are seriously angels—or superheroes—or ANGEL-SUPERHEROS).
As a comparison between having and not-having an agent, let me give you an example of my non-agented deal and contract negotiation:
PUBLISHER: Our offer is two cents and a pickle for two books.
ME: Wow! Where do I sign?
PUBLISHER: Right here—after you give us your kidneys.
ME: Sure! Do you have a scalpel?
OK, I admit. That’s a gross exaggeration. They only took one kidney… Boom-Tish! But there are a few things I wish I’d known before signing my first contract (like world rights is not actually as good as it sounds… OH BOY! YOU WANT TO PUBLISH MY BOOK INTERNATIONALLY. Um, no. We just want the rights to do so, which means if we sit on them until your book is out of print, TOUGH TATERS).
Of course, you can (and should!) read up on publishing contracts—there are also legal services available for a fee through many writer’s associations—but do you really want to be telling your new editor to go shove their film rights where the sun… ahem. The contract for my last agented book was pulled apart and put back together again by the legal area of the agency while I stayed out of sight. They were scrapping and adding clauses all over the place, whereas I would have just said, “Sure. Will one kidney be enough?”
Depending on your agent, you may also get editorial support. My first agent gave me a lot of editorial comments on my manuscript, which I took on board before she submitted it to publishers. Her suggestions were invaluable to the final product. If your agent provides this service (again, for free!), consider yourself blessed (by an angel-superhero).
I’m now SUPER EXCITED to be working with a new agent where I live in Australia. I’m hoping to have more news to share on that in the coming months!