While some of us now have agents, most were first published without one, and it's interesting to read the arguments for and against agents, both as readers and writers.
Personally, I think agents are a blessing and a curse. There is no doubt many literary agents can be blamed for the escalation of advances, though publishers are also to blame for caving into them. And literary agents don't always get things right, just as publishers don't. Agents are just part of that filtering process and are quite fallible. An agent needs to make a living as well, and whenever one listens to the pocket rather than instinct, mistakes get made.
That's why the Macmillan New Writing model works so well. And let's face it, while we haven't yet had a bestseller from the imprint, with all the nominations for high-profile awards there's enough evidence to suggest that it's a model that succeeds without that gatekeeper process. Though that's not to say it would work anywhere but Macmillan. Maybe Macmillan have the aptitude for spotting talent where agents fail? Who knows?
Agents do serve a purpose. They nurture young writers and provide good advice. True, there are cowboys in the business and I'm one such writer who has fallen foul of a dodgy agent in the past, but generally agents will look after the welfare of their authors - it's in their best interest to do so. And as Jane says, they do filter out the dross from hitting the desks of editors which is a good thing (there are plenty of deluded writers out there, probably as many as deluded X-factor contestants).
But I still can't shake the feeling that the current process of writer - gatekeeper - publisher does not work that well. There are too many stories of novelists failing at the first hurdle only to be taken on later by a publisher, becoming a best-selling sensation soon after. It occurs too many times for me to be comfortable with it.
But as Jane puts it, these are tough times for publishers and many editors have lost their jobs. With more work being piled onto the surviving editors, there is no easy solution.
Looks like the gatekeeper-situation is here to stay then... At least until the digital revolution occurs and it becomes a publishing free-for-all, that is.