There is no denying finding an agent to take on your work is not easy. Agents are inundated with manuscripts daily, and there simply is not time for them to look through them all. 90% is likely to get thrown in the shredder, but that does not mean it is a hopeless cause. Half of those manuscripts are probably poorly written and unpublishable, and another quarter won't have followed the proper submission guidelines. As for the last quarter, the writing will be good, but the timing might be wrong - agents can only take on so many writers at a time.
Although sending your work off may be daunting, it is worthwhile, and you have a far better chance of getting published with an agent than without.
1. Most publishing houses do not look at unsolicited scripts. Unless you have an agent, it is unlikely publishers will be even willing to look at your work. They do not have the time to read through your work on top of all the thousands of other manuscripts recommended by experienced agents. Smaller publishing houses might still take on unsolicited scripts, but you have no chance with the big names such as Penguin, etc.
2. If you submit your work to publishers without an agent, you have not given yourself the opportunity to go back and revise your work. Agents can recognise work with publishing potential, and even if it is not perfect, they might still be willing to take it on. They will give feedback so you can make the changes needed to make your work as appealing to publishers as possible. If you send it in its raw form, then once the publisher's have said no, you can't just rework it and send it in again.
With an Agent you can...
1. Rest assured that they will send it to the most appropriate Publishing Houses. Not only will they find publishers who fit your style, but they will also try to go for the most well known publishers. They will have the most money to spend on promoting your book, and will be more appealing to readers.
2. Be sure they will get you a fair price for your work. If you go it alone, publishers are likely to pay you a lot less than if you have an agent, because they can get away with it. You know less about what a fair price is than an agent.
3. Get feedback on your work so you can revise it before it gets sent out.
4. Be sure that it will actually be read by the publishers.
Increasing Your Chances of Getting an Agent
1. Agents will not take on every kind of genre. Just like you certain genre preferences, an agent is no different. There is no point sending your romance novel to an agent if they specialise in horror. On the agent's website, they will usually indicate what genres they are and are not interested in.
2. Format your work according to the guidelines. Most Literary Agents will ask for you to send the first two or three chapters, with a summary and cover letter. If they are interested, they will then ask you to send them the rest of your work.
3. Make sure you have a finished piece. Don't write half a novel, send it off, and then expect the agent to wait for you to finish the other half.
4. Send your work the way requested. Some agents prefer old fashioned snail mail and do not accept email submissions, while others will only look at work sent by email. Just take the time to find out which they want.
5. Appeal to their ego. Do not write a cover letter starting 'Dear Sir/Madam'; it is impersonal, and makes the agent feel like you have not taken the time to learn about them. It also gives the impression that you have written a bog standard letter and sent it out to several different agents. You should send your work to several agents at a time, but make sure each cover letter is specific to that individual agent. Appeal to their ego. Say why you want them to be your agent over anyone else. Maybe you like the work of one of their other writers, for example.
You are going to get a lot of 'Thanks, but no thanks' letters during this period. It can be demoralising, depressing and make you doubt yourself, but don't be put off. Persevere and and don't give up trying.
When Malorie Blackman, author of 'Naughts and Crosses', was first trying to get published, she decided that if she got to a hundred 'no's from agents, she would finally give up. She got to a hundred, and then decided, to send in just one more time. She is now one of the most popular children's authors.