An Interview With Anne Williams

Hi everyone, and this morning I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Anne Williams to my blog. Here, Anne answers my questions on how she became an agent and what she looks for in a submission letter.

Over to you, Anne…

1) Did you see yourself becoming a literary agent after you left school? Did you actually have any other career plans? 

I went to university after I left school (following a gap year working as a tour guide in Italy, which I loved) and, once I got my degree, it occurred to me I could try publishing.  Before that I didn’t have the confidence to have a go at an industry that I had felt was too daunting to get into.   I barely knew that there was such a thing as a literary agent then, though a university acquaintance’s mum was one, and very generously helped me with a list of publishers to write to.   One of them had a gap in their publicity department and so I got my first job, as a publicity assistant.  I’d had to learn to type though, first, which was a huge obstacle.   That was in the days of typewriters…

2) In your view, how has the publishing industry changed since you first started out as a commissioning editor? Firstly for Michael Joseph and then Headline?  

It’s changed enormously.  First of all, whilst Headline was in its infancy, the Net Book Agreement went, which meant that booksellers could discount books, opening up the way for the supermarkets to stock books, and leading to a boom in commercial fiction, but making life tougher for traditional booksellers.   Then, after my Headline days, came the ebook revolution, and the increased dominance of Amazon. So life became tougher once again on the high street, with so many bookselling fixtures falling by the wayside, making it much harder for authors to get a traditional print publishing deal than had previously been the case.  But ebooks also mean that more authors can be published in e only, either through self-publishing or e first publishers, which has meant more opportunities in many ways.  Ebooks have marked a seismic shift in the industry.

3) How did you find the jump from editor to literary agent and what do you enjoy most about your job?  

There is great freedom, in that I can pretty much take on any author I feel I would like to represent and can sell, and the sense of possibilities can be very exciting.  As an editor, I was lucky to have a lot of commissioning freedom (much more than would be the case now) but you were always part of a bigger organisation, and what you could and couldn’t take on depended on them.  Now it’s a much more individual decision, whether to sign up an author or not.   That can be fantastic when it works out, since their success vindicates your faith in them, but you feel it more keenly when it doesn’t, since you are more directly involved with the author and their ups and downs.  It’s all much more personal. 

What I enjoy most is seeing an author succeed!  My lovely author, Julie Houston, has recently had a huge success in ebook with her fifth novel, A VILLAGE AFFAIR, the first I’d managed to place with a publisher after lots of rejections. We soldiered on together, and she has been in the Kindle top 100 bestseller list now for almost five months and is currently at number 6.  She’s been in the top ten for a month.   Seeing an author, whom I knew would be hugely enjoyed by thousands of people, finally reaching her audience, and them getting so much pleasure from her writing, is immensely rewarding.

4) First and foremost, what do you look for in query letters?  

An author who is writing in an area in which I feel I might be able to place them, and them doing it a way that marks them out from the crowd – with an original idea, twist or type of character, for example.

5) On the other hand, what is your pet peeve about query letters?   

Ones that are clearly sent out to hundreds of agents worldwide and that tell you they are the best thing since sliced bread.

6) In your view, do you think there anything missing from the thriller market at the moment that you think ‘I could see that in a book’?    

I think the bases are pretty well covered, but I’d like to see more novels set in slightly different ethnic communities, either in the UK or beyond. Being from the North, I also have a soft spot for books set there.

7) Do you have a guilty pleasure genre or novel that you go back to reading?  

I never feel guilty about reading a book.  I don’t often re-read fiction – there are too many new writers to explore. 


8) What was the last book you read and did you enjoy it?  

I read THE BAY AT NOON by Shirley Hazzard, which I loved.  It sent me to read her book about Graham Greene, GREENE ON CAPRI, whose THE QUIET AMERICAN I’d actually re-read a few months before, on a trip to Vietnam, as well as to re-reading Norman Lewis’s wonderful NAPLES ’44.    I love it when one book leads you to another.



9) Once you leave your desk for the day, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening, what do you do to relax?

Go downstairs and start cooking dinner, though in the summer I often have a little wander around my garden first.  On a Friday, my husband and I very often go out for dinner at our local pub – they gave us a bottle of champagne a while ago since they’d worked out we were their best customers!


10) Apologies for the sidetrack – Do you like Rod Stewart, and if so, do you have a favourite song of his? 

I really don’t like Rod Stewart, apart from Maggie May, which I in fact think is a great song!   It also has the same title as a book by one of my longest-standing authors, Lyn Andrews.


Thank you Anne for taking the time out of your day to answer my questions.

Bio: Anne Williams worked for over fifteen years as a commissioning editor, first at Michael Joseph, then for thirteen years at Headline during which time she was Co-Publisher of the Review imprint and Publisher of the main Headline imprint. Anne commissioned and edited a number of Headline’s major commercial fiction authors, including the Sunday Times #1 bestsellers Sheila O’Flanagan and Lyn Andrews, and prize-winning crime writers Barbara Nadel, Manda Scott and Caroline Graham (on whose books the tv series Midsomer Murders was based). She joined the Kate Hordern Literary Agency in 2009 and is based in Central London.

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