It's lovely to be able to refer to "my agent." Just saying "my agent" gives you the feeling that you're special, that you've got an edge, that you're not alone in the world. I've always enjoyed it immensely. It's sort of like referring to "my guardian angel," only your agent is flesh and blood and, you hope, bustling from publisher to publisher trying to sell your book proposal and make you as much money as he or she can.
The agent most people are familiar with is Entourage's Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), the vulgar, hyper, fast-talking shark whose character is widely believed to be based on Ari Emanuel, founder of the Endeavor Talent agency (which last year took over the famous and venerable William Morris agency) and the brother of President Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, also reputed to be a vulgar, hyper, fast-talking shark.
Literary agents, however, are not like that. In my experience, literary agents are polite, soft-spoken, book-ish sorts. And that's nice. Who really wants to associate with Ari Gold? But you do want a little of Ari in your agent so that he can pry the best possible advance out of increasingly penurious and always miserly publishing industry.
How do you find an agent? Well, one way is to search online. There's a site, 1000literaryagents.com, that, one supposes, has 1000 literary agents. (I haven't counted.) But that's a tad impersonal. A better way is to ask a lawyer because a lot of agents are also lawyers and lawyers tend to know lawyers. (Birds of a feather, you know.) If you find an agent that way, you have a built-in personal connection and that's important because you want to like your agent and you want your agent to like you. If you're that rare person who doesn't know a lawyer, ask your friends if they know any.
And make sure to meet with your prospective agent face-to-face. You don't want to be an anonymous client, a revenue source from which the agent takes 15 percent. You want to be a pal, someone in who the agent is personally invested.
A good agent--meaning an agent with a track record who can get your proposal in front of an editor with decision-making powers--is a pearl beyond price. Without one, you and your book proposal will be alone in an increasingly cold and brutal publishing world.