Not every writer is a candidate for author's representation. Assuming that you really do need and want the services of a literary agent, you're now faced with the challenge of identifying prospective agents who are legitimate, competent, and interested in your writing genre.
Ask a friend.
The best way to track down an agent is by word of mouth. For example, if you write detective novels and your old college roommate is now a successful mystery author, don't hesitate to ask that writer for advice. If you're lucky, you may get a referral. And even if you don't, the author may be able to suggest another agent with a decent reputation in your genre.
Read a book.
A second approach (and the method that most aspiring writers use) is to examine the agency listings in published directories. The three most useful directories for book authors are:
Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents, 2001-2002
Paperback, 936 pages
List price: US $29.95
2001 Guide to Literary Agents
Donya Dickerson (Editor)
Writer's Digest Books
Hardcover, 394 pages
I recommend Jeff Herman's book over the Writer's Digest guide for several reasons: (1) It includes detailed agency profiles that give you a sense of each agent's personality and idiosyncrasies; (2) It doesn't list agencies that charge high reading fees or "book doctor" fees; and (3) It includes profiles of U.S. and Canadian book publishers, complete with editors' names and specialties, at no extra cost. The book also has 20 essays on book publishing that were written by industry insiders.
Search the net
By now, you're probably wondering if similar resources aren't available on the Internet. The answer is "Yes and no." There are a few Web sites devoted to literary agents, but they aren't nearly as comprehensive as the published directories.
In your eagerness to get published, it's easy to be taken in by scam artists who pose as literary agents. It's also possible to be exploited by otherwise reputable agencies that take advantage of new writers by charging excessive fees. Here are some guidelines to protect your pocketbook:
There's nothing wrong with a modest fee (say, $25) to cover return postage and clerical labor. Agencies are inundated with book proposals and manuscripts, most of which are unpublishable. Charging a nominal reading or handling fee is the only way many agencies can afford to consider manuscripts by new writers. (The key word here is "modest" or "nominal." If an agent wants $100 or $150 to read a manuscript, look for another agency.)
Be suspicious of any agent who says, "Your manuscript needs work, but we can fix it for $500" or "I'd like to suggest a book doctor for your novel before I take it on." It's likely that the so-called agent is making profits not from commissions on sales, but from editing fees or referral kickbacks.
If an agent says, "I'd love to handle your manuscript, but I'll need $500 up front to cover marketing expenses," head for the nearest exit or hang up the phone. (Don't be surprised if you're asked to pay for copying expenses up front, however--and don't be afraid to say "Thanks, but I can get the copies made less at my local Kinko's shop.")