You've written a manuscript and now you want to sell it. You don't want to self-publish, as that requires too much money up front and an intensely difficult marketing campaign afterward. Publishing through the conventional avenues means getting a literary agent, as no major publishing house these days will accept unsolicited manuscripts.
You've labored tirelessly over writing the perfect query, did your research online and through various Writer's Market volumes, and sent out your query to dozens, and for some, hundreds of agents. Most responses come back as a rejection form letter. The rest don't bother to respond at all.
Why? Don't they want fresh new talent? Other people get agents, so you ask yourself, "What am I doing wrong?" The answer: Nothing. The problem: Agents receive hundreds of queries every day, and unless yours is so out-of-this-world fantastic in the very first line, they will likely throw it in the discard basket and tell their intern to send you a form rejection. Some do take the time to read the whole query, but again, if it's not stellar, in the basket it goes. If you are exceptionally lucky, the agent will write you a short personalized note letting you know why your manuscript was rejected. That's a good thing, because then you can revisit the manuscript and make improvements.
The bottom line, however, is you've been rejected. What do you do?
You get out from behind your desk and go meet the agent face to face. That does NOT mean you drive to the agent's office and walk in with your manuscript, plop it on her desk and ask her to take a look. (If anyone has ever read John Irving's The World According to Garp, that's what Garp's mother did with much success. Remember, that was fiction. This is reality.)
The best way for you to meet an agent is to check around your area for writers' conferences. Many areas hold writers' conferences that are within a reasonable driving distance from where you live. See if those conferences offer a "meet-and-greet" segment with a literary agent. Some conferences charge a little more to take part in that. But some don't. If there is a conference that does offer such a segment that doesn't charge extra, sign up, follow the rules, and go. If there are only conferences that offer such a segment at an additional charge, I still recommend you go, but those have pros and cons. The pros are you will get honest, priceless, professional feedback that will only improve your manuscript, and you may actually get interest from an agent. The cons are, some of these agents may not be as interested in picking up new talent as they are in getting paid to do the conference.
Either way, the advantages are numerous.
1.) You are showing the agent you are active in the literary community by actually going out and attending conferences in order to improve your craft and advance your writing career.
2.) You are attending workshops that will actually help you grow as a writer. You will not only get creative writing tips, but tips on how to publish and promote your book.
3.) You will make a more lasting impression on the agent by meeting them in person and talking with them. That is something that isn't possible by simply sending out a query letter.
4.) You are getting critical advice on how to improve the manuscript. They know the market. They know what works and what doesn't. They read hundreds upon hundreds of manuscripts. They are not just giving you an opinion. They are telling you exactly what you need to do to get published. It may sound like a rejection, but it's not. It's a postponement. Once they tell you what needs to be done, do it! Which leads me to the next benefit.
5.) Once you make the suggested improvements, these agents are more likely to revisit the revised manuscript. That is not something an agent who rejected you letter query will likely do.
6.) If the agent rejects your revised manuscript, she will more often than not give you further advice on how to improve it, and she may keep the door open for you to resubmit.
At the end of the experience, the agent may sign you on, she may not. If she doesn't find, out why. She would have invested enough time with you at that point to be honest. The reason may simply be she thought she had a place for it but discovered she didn't. That will allow you to market it to another agent with more confidence.
It may sound daunting, but this method does work more effectively than sending out letter or email queries. And a wonderful benefit is, you have improved your manuscript in a way you never would have been able to otherwise. So, if you do decide to go the self-publishing route, you will have a much better product.
I hope this helps you. The best advice I can give you is don't get discouraged, keep writing, keep revising, take the advice of these professionals gracefully, and never, ever give up. It takes time. But it's time worth taking.