This morning, I was pointed to a post over on GalleyCat explaining why nobody needs an agent. Apparently, the electronic revolution means that the "middleman" between author and editorial is no longer necessary. Who knew? Or at least, that middleman is on the way to becoming fully outdated. Naturally, at least one literary agency feels differently, and has said as much. I suggest reading both links before continuing, because I, too, feel differently, and will now say as much.
These are the things I do: write books. Make changes according to the requests of my editors. Discuss possible changes with my editors. Review page proofs. Blog. Run blog giveaways of ARCs and published books. Attend conventions. Write outlines and proposals for books I want to write. Play Plants vs. Zombies. Watch TV.
These are the things my agent does: get my books to the editors who are most likely to not only appreciate them, but work with them in a way that is beneficial to both the publishing house and my career. Negotiate advances. Negotiate sub-rights. Protect my interests in areas like audio, comic book, and foreign rights. Make sure that I get paid on time. Follow up with my editors when things are unclear, or when I need more time to finish something. Check in with me to see what space I have on my plate. Understand the industry. Explain things like "co-op" and how marketing budget works. Tell me where my energy needs to be spent, rather than where I necessarily want to spend it.
Beyond the fairly standard notation that many major houses no longer consider submissions from unagented authors, the agent serves a thousand functions that, frankly, I don't have time to deal with. It's possible that I would have time for them, if I wasn't writing four books at once; on the flip side of that, I can also say that if I was dealing with all the functions served by my agent, I wouldn't have time to write four books at once. It all feeds back to a question of resource allocation, and I have chosen to externalize certain resource needs in the form of my agent.
Agents don't just negotiate the size of your advance; they negotiate contracts, which are huge, complex, complicated things. Without an agent to go through the contract and understand it, you need to not only speak the crazy language of literary rights, you need to have strong feelings on all those things. What do you think about comic rights, merchandising rights, foreign rights, audio rights, film rights, the right to construct an amusement park based on your work? What do you think of the time the contract says you'll have to review your page proofs, of the concept of seeing your copyedits, of the way the next work clause is worded? Do you understand half of what I just said? 'Cause honestly, without my agent, I wouldn't, and even now, I'm a little vague on some of the specifics, although I'm learning.
Agents deal with your editors, and can mediate when, say, you miss a deadline because your cat got sick and you just can't cope and what do these people want from you?! Well, they want you to hold to the terms of your contract, and they want you to make a lot of money, because everybody would like to have a lot of money, and if you make a lot of money, so does your publisher. But without that buffer between yourself and the publisher, it's very possible that you could flip out and take somebody's face off, thus ruining the working relationship. Instead, flip out on your agent, and they'll take care of making nice while you hyperventilate in a corner.
A good agent will help your career in a hundred ways...and more, they're very often an excellent gatekeeper, because as soon as you're salable, the agents will be happy to let you know. It's not their job to get you to that point, but once you get yourself there, their job begins, and that job is a hard one. Frankly, it's not a job I'd want to do.
Are literary agents outdated? No. Are literary agents like having the cheat codes to the publishing industry? Yes. You still need to understand what you're doing, but they can make things go a lot more smoothly, and they can keep you from dying too many times before you finish level one. That's more than worth the cost of their commission.