Agents are not pimps; most of them really want to help a talented author sell a good book. These college graduates, with degrees in english and law, wade through piles and piles (mountains, to be more exact) of submissions. The economy no longer allows for the hiring of some young person to act as assistant, so the agents frequently do this duty themselves; scrolling through a massive amount of digital submissions, looking for that golden needle in the haystack. I don't envy the agent who has to do their own grunt work. This is why the writer is left waiting for weeks or months before getting the form rejection e-mail. Nothing personal, the same form was sent out to many other writers on the same day. An agent didn't get back to me until a year later, this agency a big, well-known agency.
I grew tired of looking for an agent, not because anyone was mean to me, but because I couldn't seem to bend and twist my writing into anything a busy agent would want to deal with. They want paranormal YA, but I don't do paranormal with YA. Romance? I don't do love stories, more as a subplot. Literary fiction? What the Hell is that? Something Oprah would read? Zombies? No, gross. Dystopian? I'll have to look that up in the dictionary. How about time-traveling gay zombies who fall in love? I don't want to feel pressured to write something I don't care about. The indifference will show on the page if I try to write a futuristic story about members of a royal family that are really cannibal aliens from a famine-plagued planet. I'm not even picking up the damn pen to write something I wouldn't read for free.
Agents, however, are wise to keep up with trends and markets. Publishers do the same. If a self-published book on Amazon makes enough of a splash, this book could create a new trend that traditional publishers will be watching. Agents can always change what they're looking for in terms of genre, depending on the editors they know. Writers may sometimes feel they are jumping through hoops to get published, dreaming of that big advance. This can cause anxiety and depression, which chokes creativity. A sensible agent would tell you to write the story you want to tell, because the chances of the book being a huge best-seller are so slim, that the author might as well get off while writing it, because any other pay-off is unlikely. There are agents who discover brilliant manuscripts, but decide to pass for many reasons.
Former book editors, laid off from their publishing houses, are becoming agents while former agents are getting jobs as free-lance editors or going into marketing or promotions. Their worlds are changing and the mid-list is disappearing inside self-publishing. The 'quiet, well-written book' is getting another life in e-publishing, but the author suffers because the money isn't the same. An author can self-publish several books on Amazon KDP, but it seems as if the only books that are downloaded the most are .99 cents or free for members. Anything over a dollar is hard to move without paying for a lot of promotion. The author ends up investing more into the book than the royalties can ever repay. This is where an agent comes in handy in the traditional print world because nothing comes between them and their commission. Agents have bills, too.
I have four novels published and have earned about six dollars in royalties. Not from Amazon, haven't received a dime from KDP yet.
I completed a novel four years ago and sent out almost two hundred queries. Many of these agents asked for pages, which I promptly sent. All rejections. The book was YA with a gothic slant. The agents liked the premise, but not the execution. They didn't like my style. I accepted my failure, but started to feel a bit burned-out by the query experience. I later sent out as many queries for The Last Girl, and the cold reception left me shocked, with many agents not even bothering to respond with a form rejection. I started to consider other alternatives.
Big literary success is in the luck of the draw, just like the pretty blonde actress who auditions for one role after another until she gets a break on a soap opera or a tampon commercial. There's no easy way to deal with so much rejection, so expectations have to be readjusted, self-esteem kept in a cool, dry place. The writer will want to write again, free of the imaginary disapproval of agents that the writer will probably never meet. These agents are too busy working for the writers who are already their clients, and the job of selling a book to a major publisher is more difficult than ever with publishing companies struggling to stay afloat. Every blockbuster novel, every DaVinci Code or Twilight or Fifty Shades of Gray, is the exception, not the rule. However, every writer should value themselves more, because writing a novel isn't easy and there's always hope for some kind of emotional pay-off, even if it's found in self-publishing with less than a hundred people downloading the book you've been working on for years, the story you think about at work and in your dreams(I sigh as I write those words). A good agent understands how hard writers work, but they also work hard, hoping to discover the next great book in that bloated inbox, hoping to make a dream real. :)