The first time I set out to be a novelist there was no Internet. You got yourself a copy of Writer's Market and looked under literary agents and tried to divine to whom you should send your manuscript. Unless you were clued in to the New York literary scene, you had no idea. It was like throwing darts at a board -- "Uh, I don't know, this guy sounds OK." You had no idea if the "agent" you were sending your book off to was a scam artist, an incompetent, or maybe just someone who only agented children's picture books and not the gritty, realistic sort of epic you'd written.
Now, though, the search for a literary agent has become an exercise in data-mining. You can go the the website of the Association of Authors' Representatives so at least you can be sure your agent-to-be adheres to a canon of ethics. You can check agents out at Preditors & Editors and see if they've actually sold any books lately. You can spend your days -- and nights -- researching agents and relating your experiences at the Absolute Write Bewares and Background Check forum. You can check out agents and track your queries at Query Tracker or use Agent Query or LitMatch or obsess over how quickly agents get back to you at Agent Turn Around Times. You can Google "[agent name] Publishers Marketplace" and see what it says. You can read blogs by literary agents, blogs by editors and blogs by publishers.
It can drive you fucking nuts.
So -- and I'm sure this is not an original idea -- I thought I'd set down my thoughts as I wander through this uniquely crazy process of desperately seeking someone who, in theory, wants to work for me.