Are agents really necessary? What would an agent do for me and how could they help me reach my goal of being published? These are all valid questions for any prospective author. While not everyone goes down the traditional route of getting an agent, we thought we’d ask Sunday Times Bestseller Beth O’Leary to tell us about her relationship with her agent, Tanera Simons, and why finding the perfect agent for her has been so crucial on her journey to publication.
When I’m out and about meeting readers at events, I often get asked about literary agents. What are they for? What do they do? Do I really need one?
I know not everybody feels an agent is for them, but I couldn’t do this job without mine.
Tanera and I met back in 2017. She was the only literary agent who asked to see more than the first three chapters of The Flatshare, the book that would become my debut novel. I’d been trying to get a literary agent since I was 17 years old; I’d read pretty much everything Google could offer about how to get published, and the consensus seemed to be that a literary agent was a crucial first step (and that the whole thing was really, really hard).
When Tanera said she loved The Flatshare and wanted to meet me, I could hardly believe it. Agents were the gatekeepers to publishing, that’s how I saw it – they were the special VIPs who could help you jump the line, the big wrought-iron key to the box of getting-published dreams.
At that first coffee, Tanera said she wanted to represent me. I was totally giddy, obviously, though I managed to save the squealing for the phone call to my parents as soon as I left the café. Only my boyfriend and my best friend had read The Flatshare before that point, and I remember the thrill of talking to Tanera about The Flatshare – actually discussing Tiffy and Leon like their story mattered, like they were real characters. It was bizarre and wonderful.
But we didn’t just talk about The Flatshare. We talked about other story ideas; we talked about the sort of writer I might want to be. I’d never spoken to anybody about that before.
I said to Tanera, ‘and if we don’t sell this book… what happens…?’
‘We’ll work on another one,’ she said. And then, to my slightly pitiful worried expression, ‘and I’ll still be your agent.’
I think that’s the key thing that I hadn’t realised. Your agent isn’t just there to get you a foot in the door in publishing – though they do that, of course, and most publishers won’t accept submissions except through agents. What I hadn’t understood was that literary agents are there with you for the whole journey afterwards too. The next book. The one after that. And all the stuff you haven’t thought of yet: negotiating contracts, figuring out royalty statements, handling tricky conversations with your publisher.
Writing can be a lonely job. You spend a lot of your time sat at home wearing all the clothes you’d never be seen dead in (my favourite: a woolly grandpa-ish jumper with wonky wooden buttons and a hole in the sleeve from when the puppy was teething). If you’re used to a job where you work in a team, it can be odd to suddenly feel like you’re flying solo.
Having an agent means you’re not actually on your own, not really. There’s someone else in your corner. Tanera is the bad cop to my good cop, the one who asks the difficult questions, the person who notices the problems (and then – and this is potentially my absolute favourite thing about her – if possible she doesn’t tell me about said problems until they have been fixed).
Speaking bluntly, if you succeed, your agent succeeds. They earn as you earn. So your interests are pretty much always aligned, which might not be true with a publisher. Your publisher might not want your next book; your genre might not be quite so trendy right now; they might just tell you what you want to hear to avoid upsetting you. If those things are happening, it’ll be your agent who is helping you navigate your way through it, whether that’s selling your next book to a different editor, helping you switch genre or telling you to stick to what you love, giving you the hard truth so you can make an informed decision about your career.
It’s one of the most important professional relationships you can have, I’d say. So when you finally get that email – when you go for that first meeting – no matter how giddy you feel, remember it’s not just about them choosing you. You’re choosing them too. Ask yourself… is this person going to have my back? Are they going to tell me things I might not want to hear? Are they going to push for the absolute best for both of us?
If yes to all the above, then I reckon you’ve found yourself a Tanera – congratulations!
Beth O’Leary is the bestselling author of The Flatshare, a Sunday Times Hardback Bestseller and WHSmith’s 2019 Fiction Book of the Year. With over 300,000 copies sold globally, The Flatshare is an international hit and has been translated into 33 languages. Beth’s second novel, The Switch, published in April 2020 and is already a Top 10 Sunday Times Bestseller. You can follow Beth on Twitter or visit her website for more information on her upcoming projects and events.