Ayanna Coleman has wanted to be a literary agent since high school. Now she's made her dream come true--in an innovative way--with Quill Shift Literary Agency. Her unorthodox approach asks readers to vote on a manuscript before it's published, and it evolved from her work as the associate manager of events and programs (as well as librarian) at the Children's Book Council.
One of Coleman's many responsibilities at the CBC--where she continues as a full-time staff member--includes serving as liaison with publishers on the Diversity Committee. "There's this pervasive myth in the industry that diverse books are great and needed, but they don't sell well," Coleman said. Last month, she opened her website for submissions, and started an Indiegogo campaign to gain support for Quill Shift, where a main mission will be to encourage diverse creators of books for young people.
Although she only reached about 20% of her $15,000 target on Indiegogo, Coleman said that she still met her main goal: she established that her mission is serious, and also the means by which readers will crowdfund their favorite manuscripts going forward. "It was a way to get the audience accustomed to the platform for crowdfunding, and to support authors and artists as they create their projects," Coleman explained.
"What is unique about my agency is that it includes the readers in the process long before the book is out on the bookshelves," said Coleman. "The readers--librarians, teachers, parents and finally kids--will actually get to read large parts of the manuscripts submitted and decide whether Quill Shift should send the book to a publishing house."
Coleman knows first-hand how difficult it is to break into publishing on the editorial/marketing/sales side, too. When she graduated with a marketing degree in 2009 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she couldn't find a job in publishing, so she stayed to get her Master's in Library and Information Science, and worked with Deborah Stevenson at the university's Center for Children's Books. After graduating in 2011, Coleman interned for the CBC, then was hired full-time. She met Regina Brooks, owner of Serendipity Literary Agency, through the CBC, and worked with Brooks for about five months (in her free time).
Having observed the shift toward self-publishing and digital, Coleman noted in particular a Digital Book World interview with author Sylvia Day: "Publishers never ask readers what they want to read and when you ask editors and publishers why, they say, 'It's because they don’t know until you give it to them.' " Given her marketing background, Coleman is always curious about how people connect with things. "The fact that publishers don't ask readers what they want did not compute with me," she said. Quill Shift's platform allows readers to join as "shifters": read 10% of a manuscript featured on the Quill Shift site, give feedback on it, and support the manuscripts they believe in by helping to fund the projects. "If people put money behind something, they're more likely to support it down the road and tell somebody else about it, too," Coleman explained. She'll be able to demonstrate to publishers that there's an audience for the book.
From her work with the CBC's Diversity Committee, Coleman believes that publishers understand they need to bring more diverse books to children, yet they also say diverse books don't sell. "I created Quill Shift so I could market books for authors, and provide what publishers need to say, 'These books do sell.' " Coleman said. "Hopefully I'll help publishers as much as I'm helping authors." --Jennifer M. Brown