Jill Marr - If you want to go through traditional publishing, you definitely need an agent. We not only have the connections at publishing houses so we can find the very best home for your book, but we also negotiate the contract for you and help you promote the book when it publishes.
Agents also help in ways that writers wouldn't necessarily consider. I had one of my authors decide to self-publish a series--she had done her homework and knew she could publish it well on her own, without an American publishing house. She made the USA Today best-seller list and we took the series and then sold it to a variety of countries around the world for translation rights. So her books are now also in Germany, Italy and many others. We're currently shopping the film rights for it as well.
BH - How much do you charge?
JM - An agent doesn't make money until we make money for you. So we charge 15% on domestic sales and 20% on other subrights sales, such as film and foreign rights. This is because there's another agent on the other end of the equation doing work for you there.
Agents do not charge for editorial work we do with you in order to make your project as strong as it can possibly be before we send it to editors.
BH - May I send you a really good story idea I've been thinking about? Or should I send you the full manuscript?
JM - I'll answer both questions together. Agents like to see a fully-realized project. Which means, the novel is finished, edited, and polished to your best ability (for fiction) or the book proposal is finished, edited, and polished to your best ability (for non-fiction).
After you are signed on as a client, we always discuss next projects and big picture plans for your career. But when you are just coming to an agent for the first time, definitely have your project ready.
BH - Should I query you first?
JM - Yes--please send a query letter and I can read it and let you know if I'm interested in seeing pages. Don't send pages unless an agent asks for it. I don't even do that with editors I work with, unless I've already spoken with them.
BH - If so, how?
JM - Email is best.
BH - I'd like to talk to you. How can I do that?
JM - I often work from home so the very best way to reach me is by email: email@example.com
BH - What's the most common mistake authors looking for an agent make?
JM - I'd say that the most common mistake authors make is submitting before they are really ready. Agents don't want to be the first person to read your project. So have beta readers take a look and advise, work with a read & critique group so that you are reading other's work and evaluating as they are evaluating and offering suggestions on your work. It's a great and inexpensive way to hone your craft.
Then be sure to do your homework, look for agents who are representing and selling books that are similar to yours. It's easy to find lists of my recent sales and you can immediately see by my list that, for instance, I love history and suspense--especially. See what agents will be a good fit for you and then look online for their submission guidelines so you can follow them. They vary by agency.