I found this informative and useful interview on http://www.crimefictionblog.com. Many thanks to them. I reproduce it here for the benefit of a wider audience as the advice given still very much holds true today as it did in 2008.

Simon Lipskar, a literary agent at Writers House, is one of the top agents in the business. He represents a wide range of writers, including major authors in literary and commercial fiction, narrative nonfiction and young adult fiction. He graciously agreed to answer some questions.

Q. What’s the best way for an unpublished writer to get an agent?

This is going to sound agonizingly reductive, but the answer is to worry less about finding an agent and more about writing the best possible book.  If the book is great, old-fashioned queries (though hopefully with less paper waste via email submission) are the best way to garner interest.  But don’t bother looking until you’re confident your book is as good as it can be.  I guess part of the question you’re asking is if going to conferences and meeting agents on the prowl will help; my basic feeling is usually not.  What you’re selling is on the page: if it’s there, it’s there, if it’s not, it’s not.

Q.  What do you look for in a prospective client?

More reductiveness: a great writer.  A determined writer.  A writer who’s willing to work as hard on her craft as her career (and vice versa).  Recognizing that writing is a solo act but publishing is a team effort is helpful, but I’ll represent a raging egomaniac who is a brilliant writer — the work always comes first, period.

Q. What are publishers buying right now?

The further adventures of reductiveness: books they can sell.  What that is precisely changes from time to time, of course.  In terms of thrillers, which are your primary area of interest, editors are looking for thrillers that aren’t like all the others.  Sure, there’s still money to be made writing Da Vinci Code knockoffs, but that’s growing staler by the moment.  Originality and freshness seem to be the watchwords on everyone’s lips.  I should also add that there’s a pretty sour vibe in publishing these days about the marketplace, even more so than usual; nobody is feeling all that great about the health of the bookselling market, and that makes for nervousness all around.

Q. Does it make any sense for writers to try to write to the market or is that a futile enterprise?

Almost invariably futile.  I know one or two cases in which writers wrote books specifically to catch a particular wave in which this gambit worked, but usually this just serves to waste vast amounts of precious time.  Writers should write the books they love.  That way, no matter what the market says, their time wasn’t wasted.

Q. What’s the one thing that you think all writers should know about the publishing business but don’t?

That most of us (publishing folks) really love books.  That most of us really care about publishing books well, that we take it personally. This is not a business for folks who are just looking for a job to pass the time — it’s well beyond 9-5 for most of us, and it usually doesn’t compensate the average editor or agent nearly well enough given the amount of time, dedication and passion he or she gives.  So often I get the sense that writers think we really couldn’t give a damn about books and publishing them well — and that’s just a profound misreading of this business and the people who work in it.