As threatened, here follows some thoughts on literary agents for the benefit of the great unpublished and indeed the struggling writer in the form of questions and answers.
1. Do I actually need an agent? Not absolutely necessarily but there is no doubt that it helps a lot. The larger publishers treat agents as a form of quality control and will not even consider unagented submissions. If your search for an agent is fruitless, Jacqui Bennett's website - http://www.jbwb.co.uk/ - has a list of publishers who accept unagented submissions. That was how I found a publisher for my novel twentytwelve (the first on the list, and first approached, he wrote smugly).
2. Is it true that a variant on Catch 22 applies - you pretty much need an agent to be published - it is practically impossible to attract the attention of an agent without having been published? Yup.
3. Should I make electronic or paper approaches to agents? Some agents are still furiously attempting to disinvent the wheel as regards electronic submissions and insist on paper submissions. I suspect that the reason for this is that these agents feel themselves besieged by a tidal wave of unsaleable rubbish and don't want the punters getting too close, ie all over their inboxes like a rash. Some also appear to live in permanent terror of attachments, I'm not quite sure why. Haven't they heard of anti-virus software? Christopher Hawkins on his LitMatch website - http://www.litmatch.net/ - of which more later, argues that electronic submissions are more ignoreable. There may be some force to this but two points arise. Firstly, agents are entirely capable of ignoring postal submissions. Secondly, postal submissions are a laborious process involving printing off letter of approach/synopsis/sample chapters, parcelling them up and taking them off to the Post Office. Then there is the cost of posting, especially if a sae for response/return of synopsis and sample papers is required. Unless you abolutely insist on approaching an agent who will only consider postal approaches, then I recommend electronic submission. It's so much quicker and easier. At least you tend to get your rejections faster.
4. Do they actually read what I submit? I suspect that most of the time they do not, or at least give it only the most cursory glance. They can be extraordinary capricious; one told me that he rejects any manuscript that starts with an alarm clock going off without reading further.This would have meant that he would have rejected David Lodge's rather good Nice Work among other works. My most blatant personal experience of non-reading was when I approached an agent as regards twentytwelve, sending her synopsis and sample chapters. She e-mailed me back, sounding very enthusiastic about what she had read and asked for the manuscript. I duly printed off the manscript and posted it off to her. Sometime later, she returned the manuscript with a rejection letter saying that she had read the manuscript and was not offering representation blah blah. Somewhat crestfallen, I removed the manuscript from its box. I had printed it off in 50 page segments on two elderly and temperamental printers. This created a castellated effect as the segments were not exactly aligned. The castellated effect was undisturbed. I e-mailed her saying that I wasn't seeking to re-open her decision not to offer representation but I didn't believe she had read the manuscript, saying why and saying that I was not aware of the castellated effect until I took the manuscript out of the box and this was not a trap. In fairness to her she wrote a very apologetic reply fessing up that I was right and she had not read the manuscript. In passing, some people do evidently put markers in manuscripts and then check the returned manuscript to see if they have been disturbed. My advice: don't bother. What's the point?
5. I have just got a standard form rejection. Is this fair after all my effort? Frankly, get over it. The agents are in business, they are not gratuitous literary critics. Albeit that the tired cliches of the standard form letter ('not for us', 'didn't feel strongly enough about it') may grate, there are only so many ways of saying 'no'. Intone the Tallulah Bankhead quote in the previous posting here and move on. Prove them wrong!
6. I have just had a 'rave rejection'. If they genuinely really like my writing why have they turned me down? I've had a few of these and the sense of 'so near and yet so far' can be dreadfully deflating. The answer is that writers tend to think aesthetically ('this is good writing') but the agent commercially ('is this saleable?'). Again, prove them wrong! At least you are getting warm.
7. What about multiple submissions? Just do it. Agents want to control the terms of trade between you and them despite the unequal relationship between agent and supplicant and hate 'reading in competition'. Multiple initial approaches seem to me to be an entirely legitimate way of avoiding growing old and dying waiting for responses to a series of one-off submissions. If an agent shows a genuine interest and asks for the full manuscript then that is different. You should put the brakes on further approaches until you get a response. If they take forever in replying, then a chasing communication to the effect that you have put other approaches on hold and how is the agent getting on can be a good idea.
8. Some agents never respond at all and others keep me waiting months for a form rejection. Is this usual? Yup.
9. What's the picture of Evelyn Waugh about? I just felt like it.
To be continued...