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.
Thank you so much for making the time to answer these questions, Clare, I know how busy you are. To start us off, can you tell us about your route to becoming a literary agent?
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).
Given all of your experience, it's incredible to think that you initially felt that hesitation about being an agent – but at the same time I know that so many people in and around the publishing industry share that feeling of imposter syndrome. I definitely felt it myself for the first few years of my career.
So what does a typical working day look like for you?
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 day 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 and building relationships, changing nappies 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.
Meeting with other writing industry people across the region. For example, we’re involved in the Liverpool Year of Writing for 2021 – celebrating all things writing in the city and we meet up to plan events, share stories and connect.
I am in complete awe of you juggling a new agency alongside your family in the middle of a global pandemic. And I love that you’re giving that extra level of editorial support to your clients – it’s so beneficial for writers to get used to that editorial exchange so that it’s not a complete shock when they work with a publisher. As your workload is so varied, what is the most satisfying part of it?
Two parts, really – 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 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.
What is the least satisfying part of your job?
I don’t like having to turn writers down, but if I feel we’re not the right agent to work on the book (due to trends, knowledge and connections in a certain genre or area), then I can’t start to work on it. We always give feedback to help the writer with their next steps, but as we feel a publisher rejection as much as the author, we have to be confident we can do the book justice.
You’re absolutely right – the agent-author relationship is such a vital piece of the puzzle but people don’t often talk about it. I’m not sure that people talk much about agents in general, actually. What are some of the common pre-conceptions about being an agent that you’re aware of?
That it’s all about the reading of submissions. Research takes up so much time – finding out what the publishers are buying, what’s selling, what a commissioning editor likes and wants to read right now. There are contracts in legal jargon which need to be read too. And it might rely on commission, and yes it’s a business, but we feel for each author when it works and when it doesn’t. I am 100% behind every author I sign. It’s definitely people over profit.
The writer has to want to work with the agent too and feel they’re right for you.
Definitely. I think people sometimes don’t realise just how much publishing is an industry built on relationships.
So, what are some of the skills that an agent will develop?
How to make a book ‘work’ for the industry and trends without taking away anything about who the writer is and the message they want to put out there.
Legal jargon expertise (for publishing contracts).
That first point is so far-reaching and incredibly important in helping an author stay positive about their work.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to be an agent?
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 five-year-old has just discovered them) and I’m still here. Be honest and ask for advice.