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.