You probably have read a ton of information on who literary agents are and what genre(s) they represent, including this very website.
What I haven't seen a lot of is explaining what exactly literary agents do. So let's get into it.
This is going to be different for every agent/client relationship, and all literary agents have slightly different ways of doing things. This is meant to give you a general idea. Okay, so with that out of the way, here we go.
Literary agents are important in that we represent your written works. That's a broad statement, but it includes novels, nonfiction proposals, memoirs, or graphic novels. But what does that all mean? Well it means a lot of things because literary agents have to be jacks-of-all-trades.
Starting at the beginning, when you send your cold query to an agent, we're going to look and read and evaluate what you've sent us. Before the query gets to us, you should make sure it's as fantastic as you can make it. Will there still be places where the story could be tightened or scenes that need to be taken out or switched around? Sure. But we're going to read and help you with that, too. So first on the list is that we're editors.
Then we work with you on the project, tweaking and getting it all put together. And the whole while, we're communicating with you, the client, about what we're doing, why we're doing it. I don't know what to call this role, but it should be transparent. Are we going to tell you the secret sauce of how we do everything? Not necessarily; that's where you should trust your agent. But you shouldn't be left with no word on what's going on either.
Then we go and sell your work. We liaise with the editors, we figure out who we think will like your project, and then we pitch it to them. Add salesperson to the list of jobs.
When/if we sell your project, then we negotiate the terms and make sure you aren't getting hosed. Part of this is also negotiating the contract, including the always dull, mostly convoluted, and sometimes baffling legal language. Most literary agents are not lawyers. But we can still do our best to make sure you're protected.
More than all of these small things, the thing that we, as agents, always are is your advocate. We may take a step back while you're working with your editor and publishing house, because that's another relationship that needs to form, but we don't (read: shouldn't) just disappear because your work was sold. We're there to make sure that publicity and marketing teams are doing what they can for you, to help in cover disputes, or to let you know that, yes, the editor is right and we really should take out that chapter. We work for and with you, not the publisher.