An author seeking a literary agent will be best prepared, psychologically, for the inevitable slew of rejects, if he or she understands the motivations of the literary agent. It is always better to stand back when appraising, look at the herd and not the lone animal. What is the herd doing? How did it get there?
Before literary agents were considered compulsory, J.R.Tolkien sold The Hobbit straight to a publisher. However, he did not knock on his door with the manuscript. It went through a string of friends (whom you know counts). Although Tolkien was friends of C.S. Lewis, it was Tolkien’s student, Elaine Griffiths, who knew Susan Dagnalls, a staff member of the publisher George Allen & Unwin; Elaine showed it to Susan when the latter came a-calling. Susan thought it a great story and asked Stanley Unwin to consider publishing it. Unwin gave it to his ten-year-old son to read, and got a thumbs up. Consider for a split second how this might have turned on a dime: if Unwin wanted his son to read it because he, the publisher, was very, very busy . . . what might have happened if Unwin had no son? Or a son who preferred building blocks to books?
The Hobbit came out in 1937 and did exceptionally well. No literary agents those days. Let’s move to Harper Lee, who showed To Kill a Mockingbird to Tay Hohoff, an editor at J.B. Lippincott & Co. He liked it but worked with Lee on it for two and a half more years because the form that he read it in was still not the novel we know but a string of stories. (Story collections don’t sell well.) To Kill a Mockingbird was finally published in 1960 and was an immediate best seller. Both The Hobbit and To Kill a Mockingbird won literary prizes.
When books make so much money, people who like and want to write will try to write something wonderful. Money attracts people because we all need money to live. The growth in the number of writers worldwide reflects population and the lure of gold–represented in the publishing world by book (series) like Twilight, Harry Potter,Gone Girl, and Fifty Shades of Grey–that have made a fortune. However, in the last couple of decades of the 20th century, publishers could no longer cope with the number of writers applying for notice. When there is a need, humans will be yanked in to fill the gap. I presume the first literary agents were lawyers with a liking for literature–or at least for money.
We writers are the gold nuggets, but we could also be termed miners who are mining their own souls and skills. Literary agents metaphorically make better gold miners if we think of them as mining writers. That said, how many gold miners in Deadwood or California or any other mining camp saw or caught every nugget? How many let some slip because the current was too fast or they were tired out in their tunnel? How many were dazzled by fake gold?
(Harper Lee eventually acquired a literary agent: their lugubrious story was recently featured in Vanity Fair magazine.)