Question of the day: Do you think having an agent is critical in getting your book published? Does it make you more legitimate?
Ooooh, I want to handle this one with kid gloves. :) But, the quick and dirty answer to both of your questions is yes. And yes.
I'm pretty sure that I've talked about this before, but an agent, or at least a GOOD agent, goes way beyond just introducing your material to the right editors. A good agent helps guide the overall arc of your entire career, and at least for me, this is invaluable. Furthermore, a good agent helps you vet your contracts (look, when you're signing your life away, you want to know what the fine print reads), helps you negotiate said contracts, and often finds ways to garner your more buckaroos than you would on your own.
As to your second question, well, this is where it can get a little tricky because I know that there are plenty of talented unrepresented writers out there, and I'm certainly not looking down on any of them. But the bottom line is that, like it or not, landing an agent is sort of like competing in the Olympic Trials...it's a gate-keeping process that attempts to ensure (though it doesn't always) that the cream is rising to the top. (Wow, that's a bunch of analogies - sorry!) While not all good writers will get agents and certainly, some crappy ones will, for the most part, most writers who land agents have some sliver of saleability. I know that it's not necessarily what you want to hear. But I've always promised to be honest with you guys about the industry, and that's the truth. Having an agent helps prep you for the big leagues, and without one, it is very, very tough to make it there. Why? Because again, editors use agents as filters: they assume that if a writer has landed an agent whom they (the editors) respect, that chances are, they might like the submitted ms. And why wouldn't they? It's more efficient, and certainly, the system works.
Look, getting an agent isn't easy. It's not supposed to be though. We all go through the same process: I landed mine via a blind query. So did lots of other great published writers I know. So you have to get out there and do it because honestly, without an agent, I don't think you can ascend the ranks of the industry.
I'd love to hear how you guys out there landed your agents, and if you think they're a critical part of this process.