It's a reaaaally small world.
Everyone says publishing's a small world, but nothing brings it home more than a roomful of agents from different agencies going "Did you get that query about the time-traveling tabby cat?" "Yeah!" "Me too!" "So did I!" "I requested the full!" "What did you think of the sample pages?"
You will be pleased (and, INTERN hopes, not surprised) to know that the above exchanges never consisted of making fun of someone's query or manuscript, but were made in the spirit of comparing notes, the same way writers compare notes over requests, rejections, and offers of rep.
Publishing, by definition, is the act of making your writing public. That begins with your query. Agents read; agents talk. As if you needed another reason to put your best foot forward in everything you write.
Competition for writers is fierce.
As writers, we like to think we have a monopoly on wallflowerdom—watching our manuscript sit on the shelf while every other manuscript gets whisked off to dance. But agenting can feel like that too, especially when you're just starting out.
"I offered rep the second I finished the manuscript, but she'd already signed with so-and-so!" "We talked on the phone for two hours and I thought I had him for sure!" "The time-traveling cat manuscript went to the Paradox McBean Agency—did you hear?"
It's tempting to imagine that agents have it easy—they just sit around on velvet pillows rejecting manuscripts until something tempting comes along, at which point they simply pluck it out of the air like a ripe mango! But the truth is, there are plenty of other agents reaching for that same mango, and you can watch an awful lot of mangoes go to other agents before you finally win.
You are being scouted.
Ever post your work on AbsoluteWrite, Verla Kay, or another popular critique forum? Agents (at least the young, ambitious, web-savvy ones INTERN had the pleasure of hanging out with) scout writers from these websites more often than INTERN would have guessed. The market for great manuscripts (not "any manuscripts"—great ones!) is so fierce that some agents don't want to wait for writers to come to them. These agents use forums to find promising writing and, in some cases, request materials.
INTERN knows from experience that agents and publishers also scout non-fiction authors, although this is more likely to take place from published magazine or blog articles than from writing forums.
It's a hard game for everyone.
In the same way most writers hold down day jobs while they're struggling to make their first (or second, or third) sale, agents who are just starting out don't exactly have it easy. 15% of 1 or 2 book sales isn't very much, and until an agent has developed a strong list of clients and book sales, he or she might be working behind the coffee bar, right next to you (ever asked your fellow barista what he does on the side?)
This being said, agents have a pretty sweet job. In her next life, INTERN wants to be one. All those wine-soaked conferences! All those lunches with editors! So much tasty gossip it makes Gawker look like Watchtower Magazine! Oh, and that whole part about selling books.
So what divine secrets should aspiring writers take away from all this? Play nice. Write your best. Know that agents are just people (unusually intelligent and strikingly attractive people, but still—just people) and they truly want to discover great writing. Maybe even yours.