So you're asking yourself, do I really need an agent?
All I can do to answer this question is share my own experience.
When I started really working hard to improve my fiction skills, I had this dream: I wanted to be that golden treasure some unsuspecting editor unearthed from the slush pile. I wanted to have one of those magical stories to tell about getting discovered. Amazingly, children's literature and poetry are two genres where this actually happens. But it didn't happen to me.
After submitting various manuscripts to various editors, all of whom I "met" at SCBWI Southern-Breeze conferences, and getting very warm feedback from editors at houses like Tricycle and Jump at the Sun/Hyperion and Milkweed... BUT still not getting any offers, I was feeling a bit impatient and wondered if perhaps I had chosen the wrong fork in the road. So when the registration form came in for Writing and Illustrating for Kids 2006, I marked a session entitled "Agent and Author: the road to representation." Or something like that. Honestly, I can't recall. But what I do recall is how much I liked agent Rosemary Stimola and her brand-new client Hester Bass. Ro (as I've learned to call her) also represents much-admired authors like R.A. Nelson and Suzanne Collins, knows the business inside and out, is a straight-shooter AND is super quick to respond to e-mail (my preferred method of communication). So, I thought, okay. Maybe.
About a week later, I got brave enough to send her my manuscript, which was a story set in Gee's Bend but told in verse. (Poetry is SO my comfort-zone, and wow, have you read Out of the Dust??) She shot me an e-mail right back that said she was interested in the story but already had a novel-in-verse sitting on her desk that she'd been unable to sell. In short, thanks, but no thanks.
So. What did I do? I re-wrote the darn story in prose. Then I shared it with a writing buddy who shredded it. Absolute total annhiliation. Or at least that's the way it felt. I wanted to give up. I wanted to throw the whole story in the garbage and never look back. And I almost did.
But then I had a lightbulb moment. I suddenly knew what to do with my story: Change the boy main character to a girl (who was a minor character in the earlier version) AND switch it to first person. Major, major changes, right? Ones that take sweet time. But when I finished that first draft (can I still call it a first draft??), I knew I had turned a corner. I knew THIS was a story worth writing.
So what did I do? Oh, impatient impulsive me. I zipped off that first draft to Rosemary Stimola. My raw, chapped poor little newborn who was still recovering from surgery. I didn't bother to mention that I had previously submitted a manuscript to her -- I just sent the thing straight-up, as if I had never ever contacted her in the first place. (Like if I didn't mention it, it hadn't happened?? Something like that.)
This one she liked. This one she said, yes, I think I know just the editor for this story. How 'bout I send it out?
Which she did, of course, and after some drama I'll save for another day, I had an agent and an editor and a book contract wonderfully negotiated by a real live professional who is so worth her commission. Who knows how much longer it might have taken me to get a contract without her?? And now I have her sheperding through the whole process, and I couldn't be more grateful.
So to those of you wondering about agents, I say YES. Go for it. Maybe it doesn't have as much magic as a slush pile miracle, but it's still pretty amazing.
"One's own self is well hidden from one's own self; of all mines of treasure, one's own is the last to be dug up.”