First of all, in an ideal world, the publishers WOULD read the first chapter of everything that comes through the door. This is not an ideal world. The latest numbers I have say that the big publishers with popular lines are putting out 1 in 200 or less of submissions. For one LINE of Kensington alone...one out of 7 or so...that adds up to 10,000+ submissions per year. And, the editor in question is always hurting for assistants. So, they're swamped.
If the publisher says "agented only," you are only wasting your time and theirs to send something without an agent. They are likely going to open it and ditch it, because it didn't come from an agent.
A lot of NY publishers still accept unagented mss, though they may not accept unsolicited. Most indie/es accept unagented, as well. There are rare exceptions to each of these generalizations. Baen will accept (or did when I submitted to them) unsolicited mss. Some indie publishers will not accept unagented. Grant is a notable one. If your name isn't Stephen King, you might as well forget publishing with Grant. No, I'm not kidding. In fact, King IS publishing with Grant.
Keep in mind that "agented" and "solicited" are NOT the same thing. If a publisher says they don't take unsolicited mss, you can query them...JUST query. If they request it, it's not unsolicited. If they say no unagented, they mean that. Live to it. You don't make brownie points by ignoring guidelines for submission.
Actually, in general... If you send them something that doesn't meet their guidelines, you are wasting your time and theirs...and your money, in some cases. In addition, it will likely be trashed, the moment they realize it doesn't follow their guidelines. A couple little nits might pass, but a lot of them (enough to make it clear you disregarded what they asked for) will get you tossed.
Why an agent? Because that takes the first step for the publishers. They use the agents to vet the submissions coming in. The agent is out there to make money, so the agent SHOULD not be taking on something that doesn't have promise. In essence, they are using the agents as professional test readers. If an agent has spotty quality coming in or consistently poor quality, the publishers will stop accepting from that agent...or place them to the rear of the pile. For a group of people pressured for time to fill their slots, it makes sense to trust reliable agents to get the cream of the crop in for submission. Again...ideal? Maybe not, but it fits their needs. Right now, they aren't concerned with YOUR needs. They are concerned with theirs.
I'm not saying that what the agents have signed on is necessarily the best out there. There may be better mss that aren't submitted by an agent. What I am saying is that the agent is assumed to be showing the cream (by opinion...always opinion!) of what that agent has seen and signed.
In addition, I want to note that the agents are assumed to have intimate knowledge of what the publishers want/are seeking for their lines and what will mesh best. It's assumed that an agent (perhaps erroneously assumed, sometimes) will only submit things that won't be a poor fit for a particular line.
The bottom line is, NY is all about risk management, and agents are seen as a way to lessen the risk.
The bean counters are choosing the books published in NY instead of the editors. No offense to bean counters. I have my degrees in it. That doesn't mean I think the average bean counter necessarily has a creative bone in his/her body. But, we're back to risk management. At a loss for anything better to fall back on, they head to the numbers in NY, whether those numbers say to let someone else do the work to vet incoming submissions or to only sign what their formula indicates has worked before...or even to picking up indie/e genres and authors that have a proven sales record.
How do you find literary agents? There books that list them. There are web sites for them. You can ask around and see who others are using. What genre/s do you write in? Start there. The big agencies will take one of two routes... 1. Only take a couple of genres and hit them hard. 2. Take on a lot of agents and let them focus on a couple of genres each, spreading out what the agency as a whole covers.
A couple of things to note... Even if you go about submitting to NY without an agent, you may want one for the contract stage. Now, it's easier (or so I hear) to get an agent, when the contract is on the table than it is to get one to start with. It's also easier to get one once you have a writing resume going than it is as a newbie.
How much do you pay an agent? Some friends who have agents say they are paying 10%, and some say 15%. I'd say that's your ballpark for an agent, but I don't know every agent.
Remember to choose someone AAR, so you are sure there aren't hidden fees. It doesn't mean they are adept at what they do, but it does mean they agree not to charge hidden fees and such. They sign an agreement about how they will operate that means they agree to certain ethical practices. I did tell you about this earlier. AAR. http://www.aar-online.org/mc
If you can find someone with an old copy of (or borrow a current copy of) the Guide to Literary Agents, take a look at it. They put out a new version every year, but even last year's version will give you a list of agents in your genre/s. Then you can go to the web and see what they are seeking currently, what sales they've made, what genres are up or down with them... MOST agents have web sites to refer to. I've met a few that don't, but they aren't on my short list, anyway.
I use Vivisimo for searches, but use whatever makes you comfortable.
Of course, by borrowing an old one, you miss the new entries for that year, but they aren't likely to be established agents, UNLESS it's someone formerly with a publisher or with another agency who has just struck out on his/her own. And, who can afford to buy the new year's book every year? What a waste!
Check out agents with P&E to make sure they aren't known scams, as well. The link you want to check is http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/pubagent.htm
The Writer Beware's List on the SFWA site is another good one to check:
There are a lot of ways to raise the numbers in search engines to get an agency to the top of that list. The fact that it's top does NOT mean it's the most people visit or that the agency is the best there is. They can pay to raise it...or they can have a lot of links to them, even negative links. Have you ever heard of a Google Bomb? If not, I can explain it.
Why would you need an agent to find you an agent? I heard about this one for the first time, the other day. I wouldn't bother. If the agent is established in a genre and making sales, the agent knows the publishers and what they want. What more do you need to know?
Well, you need to know whether or not you mesh...and whether or not your book meshes with that agent. That's much more important than many people take into account. Beyond that, you have what you need to know.
Many agents do allow e-query and e-first three chapters, one of the many things AAR lets you search for, actually. That's something you can check in their guidelines.
I think it's easier to find a good publisher than a good agent, but that's my own two cents.
Why would publishers sign on a book they don't intend to market, if they make money on it too? Well, they DO market, but it's not indiviualized marketing for all authors. They have catalogs they send to book buyers and such, but only the headliners...the A-list or perceived A-list get individualized attention beyond that.
It seems odd that NY invests so much marketing on someone like Nora Roberts, who will sell millions of copies without that investment in individualized promotion. That money would seem better spent building up NEW bestsellers, but the truth is... In this business, those that have get more and those that don't get the bare minimum a publisher does for everyone in their catalog.
If you've read the article that was posted a few weeks back, you'll see that publishers have no clue what is going to even earn back the advance, let alone hit the big times, so they focus on a few books and push them, good or bad, into bestsellerdom. The chosen books may STINK, but the focus on them nearly ensures they will succeed.
They cannot, however, afford to do that for every book. Nor can they expect that it would work as well, if every book got that sort of attention in the media. It would become white noise.
They feel they are taking enough of a chance with their investment in the book (just getting it out for sale and distributed). With the number of options out there for self-promotion and the fact that they can simply drop authors who don't sell well and pick up ten more in their place without breaking a sweat, the heat is largely off the publisher and on the author (except for the fact that the publisher has to answer to the investors every quarter, but that's always been a problem). If you want to stay in NY, you're going to make sure your book sells, personally. While they WANT someone who can self-promote to avoid building up too many new names in a row, and while they seek out authors who can prove a knowledge of the market, replacing a certain percentage of "non-performing" authors is expected.
Final one I'll touch on? The publisher does know one solid fact about marketing. NO ONE can promote your book as effectively as you can, if you take the time to do it right. Now, where this logic fails me is in the following... Okay, if the author is capable of writing her own blurbs, why not let her do it? Because some monkey with the company that's been writing carbon copy blurbs for ten years won't get his money for that one book? Tough. I'd rather let the author write something representative, original and memorable, if it would help the book sell.
Yes, some agents are asking for marketing/promotion plans from authors (though they don't have to be as detailed as you might believe). So are some editors...IN THE BIG HOUSES. Does every one do it? No, but please do not believe that you won't be expected to make one, because when you are asked for one, you will be that much further in the hole. It's better to know HOW to do it and not need it than to be asked and have no clue.
Marketing/promotion plans are more COMMONLY used by non-fiction authors than by fiction ones and by indie/e for fiction than by NY, but there are always those exceptions to the generalities, and an author should be prepared.
Why do they ask for a marketing/promotion plan? Because they have a glut of good books, and they need to capitalize on something else to make the final cuts. Because they can make the requirement and have a reasonable expectation that the person who submits what they will do will follow through on it, that the person is a team player and that the person knows the "product" and can present as a knowledgeable individual in the face of media and readers. Because they would rather not build up a new author and then have the author flop. Because they know the fact is...no one can promote you better than you.
They certainly don't have the time and money to promote every author they have on the lists. (I don't mean the catalogs...I'm not cutting that down, but it's not personalized selling...it's your name on a list.)
An article...two...maybe three years ago...stated that the agents and editors are looking at what you're already doing as a sign of what you will do in the future, even if they don't ask for a more detailed list from you. Are you proactive or retroactive...or non-responsive?
That's one of the reasons I tell people to have a site set up before querying. In fact, if possible, have a blog and/or MySpace set up as well. Just remember the rules of thumb about excerpting and professional appearance.
You don't have to make the marketing plan a blow-by-blow one. You don't have to say that you're going to place X number of ads in RT, for instance. You can say that you plan to place ads in review magazines like RT and Realms of Fantasy, that you plan to get a line-announcement of release in LOCUS, that you plan to do chats, contests, spotlights and banner ads on several genre-specific sites, send promo gear to conventions as the opportunity arises to do so, attend at least one convention per year (and that can be a local book fair, if you can't manage travel cons)... You see how general you can be? There is even a type of marketing/promotion plan in which ALL you tell them is what percentage of your advance you're willing to spend on promo. I prefer the former.
Ah...genres! Keep it simple. Where would you shelve it in a bookstore? But, remember that you CAN use one of the established cross-genres, though they aren't shelved separately in the bookstore. This is especially the case in romance and erotic cross-genres. It's perfectly acceptable for me to query with "This is a fantasy erotic romance." That gives them all the information they need and places it in a very hot cross-genre, at the moment.
If you have one of those books that just smashes genre lines, choose the strongest one and leave off the "elements" or go with Mainstream, if it will fit there.