A snarking wonders if indeed the Emperor has no clothes (we know Miss Snark does. We've seen her L&T bills)
when do you think a writer should GET an agent? With their first book, after they get one book published with a small publisher, or have a long list of magazine/ anthology/ article/ whatever publishing credits? Do you think, with some genres, that writers don't really need an agent. I know that sounds stupid, of course writers need agents, or how would agents get paid? But it's an honest question.
Do you really need an agent?
Ok, take five and everyone revive.
No, you don't need an agent.
There are many places that take unagented submissions.
And trust me, if you're the flavor of the month and Judith Regan wants you for a book, the lack of an agent isn't going to deter her one tiny little bit.
Now, before tossing aside your tomes on acquiring agents, let's look at a different question:
What value does an agent provide?
Assume you have a good agent.
Lousy agents are worse than no agent in my opinion, but that's cause I have three clients who are on their second agent now (me) and I'm picking up the pieces of the damage.
Back to value.
Agents know a lot about parts of the publishing process that never get covered in writing conferences or in books on how to get an agent. Things like how to get the editor, the publisher and the sales force moving to print more copies. How to read royalty statements. What language in letters or emails signifies editorial acceptance. What IS editorial acceptance. What to do when you get a contract that talks about indexing and you've written a novel. What to do when the contract is wrong. What to do when they want your next novel and you also write non fiction. What to do when your editor is fired/moves on/goes over to the dark side.
You can learn all that but why would you? Why make all the first time mistakes yourself?
Agents are a pretty fair value for what they can provide,
But no, you don't have to have one.
And if you think they are pond scum, out to get you, and general sharks...you probably shouldn't have one anyway.
And when should you get an agent? When a good one makes you an offer? When should you start looking? When your novel is FINISHED. NOT before.