There has been some debate on whether a bad agent is better than no agent at all, so I thought I'd weigh in on it using my experience. Now I am not saying that I had a 'bad' agent. My agent was inexperienced, but she was a very nice person, and I liked her.
First of all, if you are looking for an agent, there are several online sources like Agentquery (dot) com where you can find a list of agents interested in the type of book that you write. I also like to check Preditors and Editors (not sure if I spelled that right) to see if they are legitimate.
You should research a literary agency thoroughly before handing over your life's work to them. Also, it is good to research the hows, whens, whys, etc. about having an agent. Learn what questions you should ask before agreeing to anything. Unfortunately I knew the questions to ask, but I didn't do it because I was so thrilled to have an agent interested in my book. Nathan Bransford has some great posts on agents on his blog.
I always heard that first you sell yourself to them (through your query letter). Then they are supposed to sell themselves to you, convince you that they are the right agent to represent your work. Some agents even say that they expect you to ask them questions before telling them that you need to think about it. The agent who called me was from an excellent agency, one of the biggest, but she was newly promoted. She didn't try to 'sell' herself to me. In fact, our conversation was short. But I had an agent... so I was thrilled. Now, looking back, I can see the warning signs.
1. The Phone Conversation: It didn't go at all the way I'd been told that it would go. She didn't sell herself to me, didn't tell me about the agency or ask if I wanted her to be my agent. In fact, it was a done deal as far as she was concerned. I felt rushed and should have put the breaks on here.
2. Unreachable: From what I've heard, agents will do their best to keep in touch with you. They don't want to be on the phone with you every day, but they will keep you up to date. This agent only contacted me every six to ten weeks. I was 'agentless' for over two months before trying to conact her only to discover that she'd quit. Before that I had tried to contact her a few times to ask a question or find out if there were any new rejections. Rejections don't bother me, but I wanted to know about them. I had told her that straight up, but she only told me about them after I tracked her down. Once when I desperately had to talk to her, I called the number she'd given me, and it wasn't in use anymore. That should have made me wonder, I guess, but I was too happy about having an agent to care. She eventually gave me a number that worked. Part of all of this was my fault because I didn't want to 'bother' her.
3. Doesn't do what they say they will do: I lost track of how many times she told me she would do something only to tell me later that she hadn't. She had told me at least six different times that she was contacting editors about my book. Later she would tell me that it hadn't been the right time, edtiors were out of the office, etc. Now I wonder if she'd done the same thing to editors, telling them she was going to do something and then not do it. That's not good.
4. Did not ask for editing: This should have been the biggest clue that she might have been in over her head. I know my books are not in perfect shape even now, but she took the first manuscript on each book and told me she loved it. She never asked me to change anything. At the time I thought I was just that good. Oh boy, was I delusional.
Anyway, there were several red flags that should have tipped me off. Don't be so thrilled about finding an interested agent that you ignore these flags. You might live to regret it. Happy writing!