Literary agents are very specialised animals.
They care passionately about books, writers, and writing, and yet must be ruthless when it comes to rejecting sub-standard work.
They are sharp business people with an eye for a deal, and yet are usually personable and approachable.
They can read lyrical fiction and dense publishing contracts with equal concentration.
They can sell their clients’ books and negotiate their contracts without alienating the editors on the other side of the deal.
They have a vast knowledge of publishing law, contractual law, publishing trends, literature and culture.
To have all this knowledge and skill they must have a solid background in publishing. A few months spent writing gift books or a couple of articles is not a good enough preparation for the agenting life: several years working in a publisher’s foreign rights department is.
I’d advise anyone who is considering signing up with an agent who is new to the business to ask them what they’ve done before, and how that has prepared them for agenting. Because usually it hasn’t.
If you want a good account of a literary agent’s work read Carol Blake’s detailed account, From Pitch To Publication, and learn how good literary agents earn every penny of their fees.