''I think if anybody can possibly get an agent, that's the way to get a book published,'' says author Anne Bernays.
''If you don't have an agent, and you send a manuscript to a publisher, it may get held for six months -- or it may not get read at all. Whereas an agent can say to a publisher, 'Look, you've had this manuscript way too long.' ''
Mrs. Bernays, who currently is finishing her seventh novel, ''The Address Book,'' for Little, Brown, & Co., says questions about agents come up regularly in the creative writing classes she teaches. ''People want to know how to get published, and I try to tell them what the reality of the publishing business is.''
The ''reality'' is that because today's market for fiction, particularly for first novels by unknown writers, is extremely tight, having an agent can be especially helpful. Some new writers say they have turned to literary friends for advice on finding an agent, while others have found local names in the national listing of agencies in the Literary Market Place, available in most public libraries.
Boston agent Helen Rees says the majority of her clients are referred to her by other writers she knows. But whenever new writers contact her, she asks them to send in a ''query'' letter, no longer than one page, telling something about themselves, whether or not they've published, what they're writing, and whom they're writing for. ''If I like their ideas and handle their kind of work, I'll write back saying I'd like to see two chapters, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Or I may try to help them get in touch with someone else.''
What does an agent look for in a new client?
Patricia Berens, who works for the Sterling Lord Agency in New York City, says: ''I'm always looking for good literary writers, and I'm also looking for things that are commercial. In nonfiction, the idea is extremely important; it has to be good and solid, something no one else has done -- or done well -- and the writer has to have a reasonable talent for writing.''
Literary agents come from many backgrounds -- editorial, marketing, secretarial -- and the services they provide vary from agency to agency. Ms. Berens explains: ''Primarily we sell books and evaluate material. We check over contracts and advise clients whether to accept offers or not. We also work with publishers on publication dates and getting good (book) jacket copy. We sell excerpts and movie rights and foreign rights. And we try to see that the publisher does the kind of first printing they should.''
''In our work, we think primarily about . . . what is good for the writer. We work for the writer, not for publishing houses.''
Fees for agents vary between 10 and 15 percent of an author's earnings. Says Helen Rees: ''I think that writers tend to think, 'Well, I'm going to sell a book for $10,000, and why should I give $1,000 to an agent?' What they don't understand is that the $1,000 could really benefit them because they could be protected in a variety of ways.''
Ms. Berens and Mrs. Rees agree that not every writer needs an agent, however. ''A person who is doing craft books for small publishers doesn't really need a full-time agent,'' Ms. Berens explains.
Mrs. Rees says: ''You have to test your own ability to negotiate, and you have to question whether or not you want the support services that an agent can provide. If you've written one book and you're never going to do another book and you don't need the money, you probably don't need an agent.''