We all know that in order to get published these days, agents are pretty necessary. Occasionally, you hear of people getting published without them, but you hear of people winning the lottery, too.
While a publisher probably won't give you a good look if you don't have an agent, they might still give you a look. Unfortunately, that's not always a good thing.
Say you shop your manuscript to all the publishers you can find and get rejected because you're stuck in the slush pile. If you later get an agent, one of the first things that agent will likely request is a list of publishers to whom you have already submitted your work. Since most agents will not submit something to a publisher who has already rejected it, you could find yourself with a great agent, but no publishers to whom that agent can submit your manuscript.
So how do you get an agent?
Well, if your uncle is an agent, bingo; ask him to represent you. If you have friends with agents, ask for a referral. (Now is as good a time as any to do away with any last vestigial traces of shame; it will only get in the way later.) But if your uncle isn't an agent, you might have to look elsewhere.
Some people think you should always aim high; approach the biggest agents around and maybe you'll find a powerhouse to rep you. That might work, and if you do get a powerhouse agent, congratulations (although it is possible to sign with an agent so big that you are not on their radar and you end up neglected).
But if that doesn't work for you, keep in mind that one of the most important characteristics in an agent is that the agent is actually open to representing new writers, or even actively seeking them. Otherwise, they probably will not even consider you. If you can find an agent who is actively looking for writers to represent, you have found an agent who is much more likely to read your manuscript, and much more likely to consider representing you.
So how do you find such open-minded agents? Books like the Guide to Literary Agents, have lists of agents who indicate they are open to new writers or are actively looking, but since a year or more has probably passed between the time the agents fill out their questionnaires and when the book comes out, those agents will very likely have filled up. The strategy I found was to try to find an agent in a state of transition: newly hired, newly promoted, newly independent, etc.
Publishers Marketplace is a great source of personnel news, both the website and the e-mail, Publishers Lunch. Another site with a great newsletter is www.vistacomp.com (look for "Publishing Industry Moves"). Publishers Weekly also has a good website, although you need a subscription. It ain't cheap, but it gives you access to their archives. If you subscribe, you can search the recent archives, maybe a year or so, and read all their personnel news columns. These days, new sources of information are popping up all the time, and you can use them to find agents who will be as happy to hear from you as you are to contact them.
And if all else fails, maybe you can talk your uncle into changing careers.