One question that exercises the minds of many writers near the start of their careers is, when should they seek representation? As an author or screenwriter, the idea of having an agent seems very attractive. The fact they want to represent you equals instant validation, helps show the world you're a writer worth noticing.
Writers who don't have an agent [yet] sometimes labour under misapprehensions about what it is that agents actually do. Some believe an agent will get them work. It does happen, but far more likely is an agent will open doors for you, access people and opportunities you otherwise not have known about or be eligible for pursuing.
Whether or not you get the commission will be based on your track record as a writer, and the work you submit after the agent has opened the door. Once you secure the gig, then the agent really comes into their own, handling the negotiations, getting you the best possible deal, and protecting your rights. They have your back.
So, when do you know it's the right time to get yourself an agent? It varies for every individual. I had 20 novels published before I got an agent [proof that you don't need an agent to get a book contract]. I secured my first radio play and my first TV drama broadcast credit as a writer on Doctors before I got an agent.
In the case of my novels, they were all media tie-in tomes commissioned via standard boilerplate contracts. There was little or nothing for an agent to negotiate, and they wouldn't have made much money - so I didn't need representation. The same applied to my first radio and TV commissions, although the money was getting better!
But since getting an agent - the lovely Katie Williams, now at The Agency - I've had new opportunities that never arose before. Katie also negotiated a very good deal for me on one particular job that provided several months of financial freedom in which I developed and wrote the first draft of my new calling card script.
So having an agent has definitely paid off. I haven't got the job behind every door Katie's opened, but that's the life of a writer. You'll always hear the word no far more often than you'll hear the word yes. [If you can't cope with rejection, get another job - both you and those nearby will be much happier as a consequence.]
I made classic newbie screenwriter mistakes before I got my agent. I applied to multiple agencies as soon as I finished my MA course. Sure, I had a radio play to my credit, did well at uni, and even won a first prize at the 2007 Page International Screenwriting Awards. But I simply wasn't ready, and that showed in my writing.
More than anything else, it's the quality of your writing that matters for finding and securing representation. You want an agent who believes in you and your work, who will go out and promote you, open those doors. And you need to demonstrate that you'll make their agency money. It's called show business for a reason, people.
How do you demonstrate that you'll make them money? By already having paying work on the go when you approach them. In fact, this is the acid test for whether it's the right time to seek representation. Ask yourself this one, simple question - and be completely honest about the answer. Do you want an agent? Or do you need an agent?
Wanting is not enough. Desire is good, but there should be more. You should be in a position where not having an agent is detrimental to your career. Then you offer a clear narrative to the agent you're approaching. You have secured a commission, but need their help with the contract. They make money and help you simultaneously.
Representation is a two-way street. They work for you, taking a commission for all the work covered by your agency agreement. If you're not earning, neither are they. Just wanting an agent isn't enough. You should need an agent before you approach one. It's that simple, in my humble opinion. [Your mileage may vary.] Onwards!
UPDATE: If you're decided that you do NEED an agent, how do you approach them? There are many different methods people have used, but one that's proven to work can be found in Adrian Mead's excellent e-book, MAKING IT AS A SCREENWRITER. You can download it here for just £7.79 + VAT. [All proceeds go to the excellent charity Childline, by the way - Adrian doesn't make a bean from it.]