One of the misconceptions is that once you have an agent, you will never have an unsold project again, that the agent will wave a magic wand and sell everything you write, or even everything that he or she has approved and believes in.
- The Hot-Shot Uber-Agent - often referred to as a shark by publishers and a god by authors - who only takes on sure-fire commercial winners, and therefore sells pretty much everything, all around the world and with champagne at every international book fair. This agent works damned hard to get as much money as possible for his authors, which is great for those authors, but those authors will be carefully selected for selling power: the agent is enormously tactical about who he accepts as clients. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not going to work for most authors.
- The Jolly Decent Very Professional agent who obviously hopes for some commercial winners but also believes in a whole range of books and is prepared to take YOUR book simply because he loves it and will fight for its right to be published. This agent works damned hard to nurture your career, whether you're a literary fiction writer or a children's writer or a historian, and even if he knows you probably won't be a No 1 best-seller because you write a different kind of book. But some projects won't sell, because this agent is taking more risks.
- The Crappy Agent who couldn't sell a pair of boots to me or else who wouldn't know a termination clause if it came up and bit him. But he'll say yes to all sorts of writers because then he can say he's got some clients. He is either not really serious about this job, or is useless. If he sells anything it will be to a terrible publisher who will take anything. Sometimes these agents also call themselves publishers. Which is a rather large conflict of interest. (To avoid confusion, let me stress that I'm not referring to Andrew Wylie, who falls into the shark-god category, and his plan to publish his clients' e-books is a whole different kettle of sharks. No, I'm talking about three recent examples that have crossed my field of vision, in which the parties concerned have shown a huge misunderstanding of how agents work for authors, which should involve the agent looking for the best publisher, not themselves.)
Trying to get an agent is often a deeply and horribly frustrating process. Remember, I have been there. I was there for a very long time. During that time, I ranted and railed against what I perceived as the blindness, the slowness, the vagueness, the contradictions. And I now believe that understanding the thought-processes of good agents (in categories 1 and 2 above), and the markets within which they work, will really help your equilibrium during the process when you go through it.
And there is no better way to understand how good agents think than to go and read Rachelle Gardner's post here, in which she sends you over to another series of posts from another good agent. Go read, and think, and understand. And then go get yourself the right agent for you.