I love Dean Wesley Smith's jaundiced blog posts looking back over 40 years in publishing. He's got one up about agents, and maybe if you read it, come back and let's talk about this question: Are agents still essential? Were they ever? If you have decided to go another route, how does it work without an agent? Will agents be useful in the new publishing climate? How?
I was just in a discussion of "how to use IPads in a writing center," and I thought, "We're trying to come up with a purpose for the hardware!" So tell me if you think delineating "roles of agents in the new publishing climate" is sort of like trying to invent a purpose that isn't really there-- to help agents out, not expecting agents to help writers. I'm wary of that, because as Dean points out, the 90s and later, the industry kind of shifted in order to create roles for agents. Many writers were enriched that way, yes, but many never got past the door too.
Anyway, read the post (and comments-- Laura Resnick's is intriguing) and maybe tell what you're doing, how you've dealt with agents in the past, whether you're looking for or using an agent for your NYC-submissions, and whether if you're going direct or small publishing, whether you're using an agent, etc.