Clare Coombes is an agent at The Liverpool Literary Agency, the first literary agency based in Liverpool. A published author herself, with her background in PR and Marketing and an MA in Creative writing under her belt, Clare is uniquely placed to break down the traditional London-centric publishing barriers and create opportunities for authors in the North.
I never thought I’d be a literary agent. It wasn’t a career option ever mentioned to me in school or university, and I had that little confidence in becoming one that my first idea was to be a “pre-agent” agent – kind of preparing writers to be ready for the publishing industry. Imposter syndrome at its highest level there! But then I started to put together my random CV and thought, well, I’d co-founded an editing company in Liverpool, did an MA in Creative Writing as a mature student, worked in PR and marketing, been published with an indie press and with my own imprint, and I started to realise I maybe had a good idea of what publishers expect to see from a submitted manuscript. I’d been working with the acclaimed Liverpool writing and literature organisation, Writing on the Wall, hosting writing competitions and editing anthologies, and I thought, with their backing and finding so much local writing talent through them, then I could do it.
And I really wanted to help other writers break into publishing, especially as there was no literary agency in Liverpool. The report, Common People: Breaking the Class Ceiling in UK Publishing, gave me a boost too, when it said that many promising authors see their careers stall in the face of limiting barriers, including “a lack of support networks and contacts, lower levels of self-confidence and the publishing industry’s lack of social diversity.” It definitely looked like a case of confidence, contacts and cost being a barrier for many northern writers (and for me). In all honesty, it was also the right time as I was lucky to have some financial backing so I could take a break from full-time paid work and concentrate on the agency (which is a commission-based system and even harder on the finances if you’re starting one yourself). I do have a part-time communications job at the moment, and I think it’s important for people to know that you don’t have to go financially all in. I certainly can’t afford to at this early stage in agenting. But it works as I can control my agent workload and list.
I started the agency in the pandemic with two kids, so some days would start with me googling what a diagraph is off camera during a Zoom online reception class while muttering, “no one would think I’ve got an English degree…” but, seriously, now I have some space my agent days usually involves email exchanges with writers and publishers, editing work for writers (we’re heavy editorial as we don’t want writers to miss out when they’re coming from the confidence, contacts and cost barriers set a lot higher in the North, in my opinion), creating pitches for books – including the logline or elevator pitch which I do love – meeting with commissioning editors on Zoom and building relationships and giving out snacks of dubious nutritional quality so I can finish something (obviously my kids here and not the writers). Sometimes prepping for or teaching and leading workshops about writing, agenting and editing.
I love signing an author, then getting a book deal for them. The latter can take a while, and sometimes you’re close but it doesn’t quite get there, so you regroup, re-edit, re-plan and go back out there. I also love seeing the creativity come out of the region, the amazing stories people tell, and the ethos, the moral compass and messages within the books. Even a crime book can have a message about social inequality but keep the plot exciting and the reader hooked.
My advice would be don’t be intimidated. The publishing industry needs you. Find your niche so that you enjoy what you do. What can you offer as an agent that stands out? How can you help to diversify the industry? Look for the free schemes and online workshops or the remote, paid publishing opportunities which are starting to becoming more popular, ask and apply. Look for beta-reading opportunities so you can add this to your CV. Don’t worry about what stage you’re at in your life. I eat Nutella out of the jar while reading a submission on my Kindle App with two kids dancing to One Direction (it isn’t 2011 but my six-year-old has just discovered them) and I’m still here. Be honest and ask for advice. Other agents have been so supportive in offering their time and advice, and many publishers have been too. It’s a supportive community and I’d love some local competition.