Emily Williamson is a Baltimore-based agent and the founder of Williamson Literary. She represents a variety of projects in non-fiction and fiction. A graduate of the M.A. in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University, she also worked for 13 years as an archaeologist.
We’re very grateful she’s willing to answer a few questions for us.
Q: Because of the internet, it’s easy to think that I can do a lot for free. And as a writer, “free” is a word that resonates in more ways than one. Why might I think about an agent?
That’s a very important question these days. There can be many advantages for a writer in this world of self-publishing (print and online). When you self-publish, you take home a much higher percentage of the sales than you would with a traditional publisher, you have more control over the finished product, and you can get your work to market on your own schedule. But understand that when you self-publish, throwing a book up on Amazon doesn’t mean it will instantly sell. There’s a lot of noise out there, so how do you rise above it? As a self-published author, you are the creator, the editor, the publisher, the accountant, and the publicist. It’s a full-time job.
Self-publishing doesn’t help you to get a traditional publisher either. Many publishers want new content, so unless your self-published book sells hundreds of thousands of copies, you’re unlikely to get their attention.
What an agent can do for you is put your book in front of publishers with a long track record of success and quality, whether they’re big or small, and these are often the ones who won’t accept an unsolicited manuscript from an author. Agents open doors. They can provide you with good advice to help you to get the best deal possible, retain valuable rights to your work, and ensure that you have the editing and marketing support that you need.
Q: You write that Williamson Literary is “about building relationships: agent-author, agent-publisher, author-publisher.” I just want to get published. How do I get out of this mindset?
There’s nothing wrong with feeling that unabating desire to just get published. As long as you’re continuing to write, to learn, and to make the most of criticism and rejection, then the desire to be published can be a motivator; just try to temper that desire with careful, informed decisions.
It may feel like you are entirely at the mercy of the “gatekeepers,” but this doesn’t mean you can’t control your destiny. Remember that what you have to offer as a writer is a valuable asset. More than that, it’s your creative property and your hard work, so treat it as such. Have a clear vision of what your expectations are from a publisher or an agent. Having a good relationship with your publisher or agent is important because it takes a lot of trust to put your work in the hands of someone who will be making the big decisions about what your book will look like, from the revisions requested, to the royalty percentage you take home, to the cover design. If that trust isn’t there at any stage, what you hoped might be the fulfillment of a dream can become a huge disappointment.
Ask yourself what’s important to you as a writer. Why do you write? Why do you want to be published? What does success look like to you? Giving those kinds of questions some serious thought can help guide you toward the right publishing path.
Do your research about an agent or a publisher. Contact authors to find out what their publishing experience has been, and don’t be afraid to turn down a bad deal. If you don’t have an agent, it’s worth it to seek out professional editing companies that offer publishing advice. You might also consider joining Author’s Guild; they can help you review book contracts.
If there is a secret to getting published, I would say it’s perseverance. It only takes one “yes,” so keep submitting until you get one. For some tips on how to approach an agent or publisher, check out my article on LinkedIn.
Q: Now for a question about you. As a writer, what prompted your decision to become an agent?
It’s pretty simple. I love books, I love helping writers, and I love the excitement of seeing their work get published. Because I’m a writer too, it’s interesting being on both sides of the court. When I began to submit my first completed short stories and poems, I became intrigued by what the process was on the other side of the publishing wall. I wanted to know more about the decisions that are made by the gatekeepers and what sells and what doesn’t. As my community of letters grew, I saw a lot of great writers out there whom I wanted to advocate for. Some of it was a personal challenge as well: could I succeed in this business? It’s a tough one, so perhaps I’m a glutton for punishment, but it’s well worth the hard work and moments of doubt.
Q: Do you have advice for people who might be thinking about a similar move?
It’s a strange, slow moving, and difficult business. You have to believe in your own taste in books. It’s not at all pleasant having to turn down manuscripts, but there’s a limit to what an agent can take on successfully, so all you can do is hope the writers you turn down will find the right home for their work elsewhere.
It’s not a heavily regulated business—anyone can decide to be an agent tomorrow. If that’s the path you choose, always keep in mind the responsibility you have to the writers whose careers are in your hands. Learn from other agents (many agents who strike out on their own got their start at an established agency), make good connections with publishers, understand the ins and outs of book contracts.
Q: What new projects are you working on?
I’m working on a lot of non-fiction these days. I’m currently shopping a book about a turn-of-the-century socialite whose life is revealed through a 30-year correspondence with her daughter—letters serendipitously discovered by the author in a Roman flea market of all places. Her circle of friends included a slew of women whose contributions to society have long been forgotten, now resurrected. Another is a terrific collection of political comebacks, including essays on humor in politics with editorial cartoons. Forthcoming in 2020 is a book called America’s First Freedom Rider: Elizabeth Jennings and the Early Fight for Civil Rights, by Jerry Mikorenda. It tells the story of the woman who desegregated Manhattan’s transit system in the 1850s and the lawyer who won her case, the would-be president Chester Arthur. We’ve just gotten the cover for that, which is thrilling. One of my authors whose new book has been really successful this fall (Jack Gilden’s Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, and the Rise of the Modern NFL) is putting together another book about the gilded age of horseracing and the dark, drug-induced culture that surrounded it.
As you can tell, my interests vary widely. I will probably focus more narrowly in the future, but for now, I want to keep the door open to whatever might come my way. One thing I’m on the lookout for in 2019 is some great middle grade fiction (and non-fiction).