They are wrong. All authors seeking publication should work with agents on their projects. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule. But even the exceptions are ill-advised.
I am not conceeding anything on this. Sorry. I'm not posting this to be mean, or contrarian, or pig-headed; I'm posting this because I'm looking out for your interests.
Here are the reasons you want an agent.
-Agents target the editors who are best suited to your work, and thereby more likely to a) not reject it, and b) have the mechanisms in place to publish it well. This is a more complicated task than it sounds like. You may notice if you surf publisher websites that editors often have no profile at all, not even a name mention, never mind a list of what we like and/or acquire. Unlike agents, editors do not have much incentive to disclose these details to the world, since it would get us burdened with slush and spam. But the agent has special magical information and will do all that grub work for you.
-Frankly, editors rely on agents to cull out what's good. We editors simply don't have time to read everything in the world AND do our jobs. (Sorry.) If you have no agent--particularly if you are a fiction author--editors/publishers are going to assume you *couldn't get* an agent. This instantly knocks you to the sludgy, fetid, barnacle-encrusted bottom of the submissions barrel. Does your book deserve to be there?
-Yes, it's true, editors and agents build relationships, and yes, we like to populate our publication lists with projects that our friends or respected acquaintances represent. We only get to publish a limited number of titles each year, so it's nice to make them count in as many respects as possible.
-Editors are wary of the post-acquisition editorial process with an unagented author. Agents exist as a go-between, and as we all know, edits can get taken very, very personally. We really like agents to provide a cool head and some middle ground so we don't tear each other's eyes out as we try to make your book better. Also, unagented authors don't have as much guidance on publishing protocol, and might do something innocent but very, very, very stupid, like, for example, helping a college buddy out by "giving" them an excerpt of your book to print in their church newsletter, not realizing that Time will then have to rescind its offer to serialize part of your book because it has been previously published! Yeah, editors would like to avoid situations like that.
-If you submit to houses now, you will negatively impact your chances of ever finding an agent, ever. If you manage to get an agent somehow later, your poor agent will find his or her work daunting. As discussed above, you'll probably get categorically rejected without an agent, anyway, so now your new agent has to somehow combat the rejections you've already racked up. Most houses do not want to see the same proposal twice, even if it has an agent the second time. So those submissions amount to bridges burned.
-Without an agent, even if you manage to somehow secure a book deal, you will get nickled and dimed to death by your own beloved publishing company. It's not that we're bad people at publishing houses--it's just that we make so little money off books anyway that we go into a contract asking for what we construe as *our* best-case scenario. If you don't know the specific questions to ask and breaks to haggle for, you'll seriously come out of it with nothing. Oh, also, you don't have nearly as much negotiating leverage without an agent behind you, so you can't ask for as much.
So a short FAQ, for those of you who think you might be exceptions.
Q. I don't want to waste 15% of my earnings on an agent, who won't do anything but sit on their thumbs after book publication, anyway. Besides, I bought myself a book on contracts and I'm pretty sure I understand all these clauses and how to protect myself. I'm an exception, right?
A. WRONG. UGH. This is the WORST kind of wrong. Because if you have an agent representing you, I PROMISE you SOLEMNLY that you will absolutely without any question make at least 15% more than you would have without that agent (but, more likely, much, much more than 15%). I promise, categorically, absolutely no exceptions, you will. Now is not the time to be cheap. I'm going to just ignore the rest of your faulty logic, because it's so secondary.
Q. I'm having a lot of trouble finding an agent for my book--it seems everyone's lists are full. I understand that in an ideal situation I would want to work with an agent, but I think I just have to submit myself because I haven't found representation. I'm an exception, right?
A. WRONG. You are exactly the kind of person editors are afraid to find in their slush pile. We editors really rely on agent recommendations (see above), and yet you think you can sidestep that whole process and that we will still take you at all seriously? I know it's hard, but if you're in this situation, you need to step back and ask yourself if your book is ready to be published. If everyone is rejecting you, it's very possible that the answer is no.
Q. I met a publisher/editor at a conference/social function, and that editor solicited my manuscript. I'm an exception, right?
A. WRONG. You should absolutely submit your manuscript to the editor who requested it, but don't think this whole promising situation precludes your need for an agent. The editor reviews the manuscript, but not with any great urgency, since you don't have an agent. After that, this scenario goes one of two ways:
1) you get rejected, possibly in part because you aren't bringing an agent relation to the table, or because editors are almost universally wary of unagented authors (see above).
2) you get offered a book deal, and you get whimsically taken advantage of on the contract negotiations (cf above point re: nickle and diming).
Q. A publisher approached me as an expert and offered me a book deal to write on a certain topic. Since the whole deal is already nailed down, an agent would be taking a commission after I've done all the hard work. I'm an exception, right?
A. WRONG. Please refer back to my earlier point about how the publisher, as much as they love you, will try to nickle and dime you in ways you can't even anticipate. A good agent will earn their commission on the contract negotiation alone. Plus, the author-agent relationship should be nurtured over time, and will hopefully point you in the direction of many other book or article deals. Oh, by the way, since you have a book deal in hand, you're pretty much guaranteed your dream agent, so you might as well aim high.
Are there still any unbelievers?