Pandemic spurs literary agents to leave London

Pandemic spurs literary agents to leave London

Literary agents are increasingly leaving London with more agencies also setting up outside the capital, spurred on by changing working conditions in lockdown and a desire to diversify the trade.

Agencies spoken to by The Bookseller described wanting to represent the UK outside London, a year on from The Common People report which urged agents to leave the capital.

Emma Shercliff was spurred on to start her Suffolk-based agency a few months after the pandemic hit last year. She said: “I launched Laxfield Literary Associates in October 2020 in direct response to The Common People report calling for more agents to set up outside London. Lockdown was the catalyst I needed to feel bold enough to start the business — I’d been working with authors based all over the world via Skype for many years, but it was only during lockdown when publishers moved to remote working that it suddenly felt far more feasible long-term to base myself in Suffolk, rather than feeling the need to show my face in London twice a week as I’d been doing for several years.”

Shercliff cited the importance of collaboration to start up outside London, urging others who are interested in doing this to contact her for advice.

Clare Coombs also formed the Liverpool Literary Agency in lockdown and hopes one of the Big Five publishers may develop a presence in the city. She said: “If we'd launched during 'normal times', there is no way we could have been travelling to London for meetings and this process, and us closing deals during it, has proved that we don't need to. I do worry a bit now that more publishers and agents seem to be meeting up in person, and will we get left behind because of this. I hope not but if I can do a lovely Zoom meeting with no travel costs and still make the school and nursery run then I'll take that over a lunch in London.”

Natalie Jerome (pictured), co-founder of Aevitas Creative Management UK, was recently shocked to discover she was the only literary agent based in Wales from a recent profile in The Bookseller. “It just didn’t occur to me that there wasn’t anyone else in the whole of the country doing it, especially on the Welsh language side of it,” she said. 

Pre-pandemic it felt like there was some shame attached to living outside London while being in the publishing industry, Jerome said. “I got my house here 15-odd years ago and was up and down the M4 in that time, I didn’t feel like I could say I had a house here because I was worried about what people would think in London, like I wasn’t serious about my career,” she told The Bookseller. “But I had this double life going on.”

When asked if lockdown gave her “permission” to openly live outside London in publishing, she said: “Oh my goodness, yes. It was not long after I’d had my daughter, as a working mum sitting in the office at midday on a Friday when my daughter was nine months old on my lap, thinking, ‘All I’m doing is reading and writing, I can do this at home'. And then going into London for a coffee for an hour. I thought, ‘This isn’t efficient’. And people would ask, ‘Are you on holiday in Wales? When are you coming back?’”

Rachel Mann, agent at the Jo Unwin Literary Agency, moved from east London to Sheffield in lockdown, describing the pandemic as “the final push”. She said: “Previously we were living in a very damp, mouldy flat and now we’re in a three-bedroom house and we’re paying less. It was a necessity. I’d always felt in publishing that I was clinging on but struggling. Eventually I thought ‘I’ll have to go out of London but that’s a good thing for the industry’.”

Mann believes that too much of agenting is based on old-fashioned hierarchies which are now outdated, with many formed “through an element of hobbyism from people who could afford it”. She said: “There a lot of powerful, persona-driven agencies so there’s a lot more that agenting can do to open itself up.”

Now she wants to see more big agencies committing to a presence outside London. She said: “There are few who’ve moved out but it’s normally just one or two people going out and doing it themselves. We need one of the big central agencies to open up an office [outside London].”

Mann recently met Daisy Watt, newly appointed publisher at HarperNorth, and the pair are hoping to engage with as much as the local literary culture as possible through bookshops, the university and nearby writing groups.

The importance of publishers such as HarperNorth was also heralded by Esther Harris, publicist and literary agent of the agency Bookollective, in Portsmouth. “I think more hub offices like Harper North is a great idea, perhaps more collaborations/regional hubs with people like Bookollective. Companies should be really doing it — no more PowerPoints and blogs saying it, actually build the collaborations and make them happen. “ 

Harry Illingworth (pictured, right), who was recently promoted to director at the DHH Literary Agency, agrees that moving outside London could help democratise the industry. He left south London for his native North Yorkshire last summer. He said: “I believe the move will also help diversify my list as I would like to help represent my area, which already has a strong book community, and find regional voices. It’s really important to me that authors don’t feel like the whole industry revolves around London, and I’d like to be part of the movement that helps decentralise the publishing industry.”

“I’d never thought that it was possible to do my job from up here with everything being so London-centric, but the months leading up to that point, and my time up north made me realise that actually, I could.”

Curtis Brown co-agents Becky Brown and Norah Perkins moved to Bath and Kent respectively after both “struggling” in lockdown, managing their shared client list between them. They agree that greater representation of agents across the UK will help inclusion in the trade. “We both passionately believe that decentralising publishing is going to be absolutely critical to it becoming more inclusive and accessible,” they said. “Curtis Brown has been so forward-thinking in this sense, when we said we wanted to effectively relocate the whole heritage office out of London — we’re a three-person team, our assistant also now lives in Bath — we were met with positivity and broad support.

“So many talented younger people are driven out of publishing by the London property market – even if they can last long enough to become an editor or an agent, the salaries simply aren’t high enough to buy somewhere without parental help or a higher earning partner.”