BELIEVING IN READERS AND ASKING PEOPLE TO BE THE CHANGE THEY WANT TO SEE
By Ayanna Coleman, Founder of Quill Shift Literary Agency
A post was recently brought to my attention concerning my company and the fundamental ideas behind it. The authors who critiqued Quill Shift Literary Agency don’t believe that readers should have direct input in selecting what they read but, they have admitted that there are problems with the publishing industry. It’s much easier to complain about the problems than trying to put your mind to a solution.
One problem that I see is the significant under-representation of diverse fiction within the children’s and young adult market. A prominent aspect of this problem is the lack of minority characters as protagonists in stories.
This isn’t a new problem.
Twenty years ago there wasn’t a lot of it either. Yes, there’s stories about the civil rights movement in America and those who participated. There’s folktales retold from different cultures. There’s urban lit. But where’s the plethora of stories about the shy, artsy black kid; or the swashbuckling, witty Latina in the year 2044, or the Asian rapper? There are stories out there for “every kid” but the majority of them only show one type of young protagonist—white kids. What does this say to young readers who want adventure and mystery and fun, but who can’t seem to find people who resemble them physically in the books they read?
I read a great deal as a child. I find it hard to imagine anyone who goes into publishing that didn’t. My parents went out of their way to provide me with stories featuring all kinds of kids, but not all parents will do that. That means that those responsible for creating literature that expands and molds young minds should provide literature, more literature, that showcases all the different lives and dreams of kids in this country.
I recently did a Q&A with my alma mater about what I do now and why I wanted to start my own literary agency. I’ve been a reader for multiple agencies since I was in library school and I’ve wanted to be an agent since high school because I knew agents were the people who truly were able to advocate for the authors and books that they believed in. After grad school and working in a children’s research library, I worked at Hachette Book Group in their digital department and then moved to the Children’s Book Council.
In this role I have the privilege of communicating with all the departments in a publishing house, listening to their wants and needs, and finding ways to help them succeed. The idea of Quill Shift Literary Agency came out of many conversations with publishing professionals where I listened to their concerns and then tried to identify ways to help them while, in the end, benefiting the author.
Going back to diversity–if people are complaining about the lack of diversity in children’s books, they really need to look at the people who work in the industry—the gatekeepers. This includes people in publishing houses, but also authors, agents, librarians, and booksellers. These jobs aren’t held by a very diverse group of people. How can more representative works be ushered through the publishing process if a good portion of the creators aren’t also representative, if the editors and marketing professionals, the librarians and booksellers (who are a huge part of evangelizing books) also don’t have a stake in pushing books that showcase different perspectives? Just because you’re not from a certain group doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate and support those stories, but it does mean that a huge portion of the people creating and promoting books don’t know what it’s like to not see themselves in stories and, therefore, it isn’t at the forefront of their minds to create those stories for others.
I truly believe that there needs to be more people in the publishing industry representing the different ethnicities, sexual orientations, geographic locations, religions, socio-economic status, physical and emotional abilities, (and there are so many more!) that can be found in our country. How else can we guarantee that these voices are heard within the stories our children read?
With Quill Shift Literary Agency I hope to add another gatekeeper who is focused on bringing more diversity to children’s and YA lit. Publishing houses are businesses. They are filled with numbers-focused people as much as they are filled with people who love the written word and they all want to make money. It’s become commonplace to hear the phrase diverse books don’t sell. Therefore, through Quill Shift Literary Agency, I’m going to poke holes in that argument by providing books I think will capture readers’ interests to the reader before the publisher has a chance to reject a book without it ever getting a chance in the market.
No, this is not what traditional literary agencies have done in the past, but times have changed and are continuing to change. There are digital books now that people can buy from their couch at 99 cents a pop and not even bat an eye at who the publisher is. There are writing communities where aspiring authors from all over the world are contributing their full novels in serialized form for readers in that community to share and talk about for free—and people have gotten publishing deals from those communities. There are websites that allow great ideas to see the light of day because a mom from Idaho or a guitar aficionado from Nevada connect with them and are able to donate to something that resonates with their life.
When creating Quill Shift, I looked at not only the changing atmosphere in publishing, but the changing ways consumers connect with their products and the companies that produced them.
Here’s what struck me:
- Authors are using platforms to create the work they want as fast as they want and are leaving the publishing houses out of the process.
- Readers have wider access to stories than ever before on multiple platforms, yet are starving for more quality content where and how they want to engage with it.
But, there’s still a need a large need for publishing houses.
- Even though authors embrace self-publishing, they still want to feel legitimized by being chosen by a publishing house and international sales are more likely to occur if a book is published in print by a publishing house.
- Readers still seem to trust published books over self-published books in most genres and in both print and eBook formats.
Combining these observations with the lack of diverse kid lit on the market compared to what is produced overall led me to ask the question why the end consumers, the readers, weren’t being involved more. If the articles about needing more diverse lit are any indication that people want change (like here, here, and oh, here), that they are demanding change, then asking them to put their money behind their convictions shouldn’t be a far reach.
Like any other literary agent, I will read and evaluate all the manuscripts that are submitted and choose the ones that I believe are worthy of publication. But, unlike other literary agencies, instead of sending the manuscript straight to publishing houses and letting them decide the fate of the manuscript, I want to give the authors the best chance of publication by involving the final readers in the process, those same readers demanding change. I believe this will show that there is a market for their work, taking some of the guesswork out of the equation for the publishing house.
I launched Quill Shift Literary Agency on December 1st, 2013 and have an Indiegogo Campaign running until January 3rd, 2014 to spread the word about this new idea and connect with other forward thinkers to increase involvement in my venture. No matter how much money I receive through the campaign, it’s already a success in my book. People are reading about the agency, people are submitting manuscripts and signing up to be readers. Engagement is happening and I’m so excited about that.