I'm often asked what an agent does for a writer and if an agent will do more than the author can do on his/her own. Most of us know that an agent finds a publisher for your manuscript and negotiates the contract, but is there more? If you have a good agent, you should expect more. Even if you can sell a book on your own, and agent will likely get you more money. They know what similar books have gotten and what your manuscript is worth. With some manuscripts they can even set up a bidding war between interested publishers.
You should also consider an agent a member of your publishing team--someone who's looking out for your welfare. If there's a problem with your editor or publisher, the agent goes to bat for you--and perhaps finds another publisher for the next book. A good agent will also help you plan your career long term--not just the next project. They can let you know if your proposal is ready or needs more work--or if you need to tweak your next idea to better fit the needs of the market.
Negotiating the contract for you becomes a bigger deal all the time. As someone who evaluates book contracts, I can tell you it gets more complicated and difficult as new clauses are added that protect the publisher but do little or nothing for the author. An agent intinctively knows what clauses might cause you problems down the road and how to negotiate something better, as well as what clauses to have added. More on agents tomorrow.