I've heard far too often how agents are the Evil Gatekeepers of Publishing, elitist literary snobs who wouldn't know a good book if it leapt up and bit them on the ass. Generally, this comes from frustrated writers who have had no luck in the process of finding an agent or from people who see stuff hitting the shelves they consider to be dreck. I can certainly understand the frustration. I've submitted to a lot of agents and received the rejection letters. My basic message to all of those folks is this: learn to deal with it.
Publishing is a business, which of course, everyone knows. Publishers are in it to make money, otherwise they couldn't exist. They also want to publish good books. Nobody gets into publishing without a serious love for great books. It's also a very subjective business. There's no set rules about what works. Readers are fickle. Wonderful books often don't sell. Books you can't believe anyone would read become bestsellers. There are no hard, fast rules about finding books that will sell. It's something of an art and a guessing game. Also, there are far more books submitted than could ever be placed on bookstore shelves. It goes without saying that many good books get passed over because the market just has no room for them.
How many writers have heard something to the effect, "This is wonderful, but I just don't believe I can sell it"? It's hard news to take as a writer, other than knowing someone out there likes your writing. Agents have to do this all of the time. Out of the great writing they find in their inbox, they have to figure out which of them is most suitable to the current market, i.e. what editors are acquiring and/or looking for. Most agents get dozens of queries a week, thousands a year, that they must cull through to find what not only what they would want to rep, but what publishers will be looking for. Obviously these two things don't always coincide. I hear far too often how agents and publishing in general are too afraid to take risks, to publish the good stuff people will not only want to read, but even need to read. They want to do this. It's one of the main reasons they have the jobs they do. It has to be tempered of course with the reality of paying the bills and giving people paychecks.
There's no question that the publishing industry is in a major state of flux right now, with the rise of digital publication. Self-publishing is flourishing like never before. Vanity/subsidy publishers are cropping up all over to take advantage of this state of change and the frustration of writers (this is a whole other post I have strong feelings about). Readers are buying fewer books. It's harder than ever to get noticed and break into publishing. To say however, that agents are basically ruining it for writers everywhere by being timid or too afraid to take on great books or just plain not knowing good writing is to ignore the truths about writing in today's market. They have to find great books that will sell, pure and simple. If they don't sell, they make no money. There are tons of great books out there which for many reasons, just won't sell. It's not fair perhaps, but it's the reality, and blaming agents for that accomplishes nothing. Not to mention that it's just flat out wrong.
As much as many writers believe some writing needs to be published regardless of its potential to find readership, for the sake of art or culture or whatever, publishers just can't afford to do it, though they do on a limited basis. Small risks are taken on books they love in the hopes it will catch on. Agents do this on occasion too. Sometimes a book is too good to ignore. It happens. When every agent is seeing 20k queries come across their desk every year however, you can see what your chances are.
Writers are free to turn to non-traditional methods. You can self-publish. You can make the mistake of dumping money on a vanity/subsidy publisher. You can get your book printed and sell a few copies, but the odds of finding any kind of success, i.e. readers, not so much millions of dollars, is about like winning the lottery. Your chances aren't much better. You're far better off continuing to hone your craft, write the best story you can, and get in line to speak with the gatekeeper. They're nice folk. Smart folk. They love books and want to love yours too. They also might not, which means you swallow your pride and write more and try again.