Weird Business Model: Quill Shift Literary Agency

So…if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I love the crazy stuff, the little nuggets of publishing weirdness that I run across from time to time. Like author reality shows. Or bidding for a literary agent. Or trying to auction your story idea on eBay for millions of dollars. Or the tale of the “literary agent” who faked her own death and turned out to be a wanted criminal.

So here’s another snippet of weirdness for y’all. Introducing Quill Shift Literary Agency (“Re-imagining the role of the literary agency by creating an environment that finds and promotes great writers, invites readers to participate, and intrigues publishing houses to purchase those writers’ works”).

Founded by Ayanna Coleman, who claims publishing experience but provides no specifics (though she appears at one point to have worked for Serendipity Literary Agency), the premise of Quill Shift is a bizarre mashup of crowdsourcing (represented mss. are posted on the agency’s website for “shifters” to read and judge), crowdfunding (“shifters” can “donate money to see it become a physical book”), and purported market testing (if a ms. achieves its financial goal “showing that the market will support it”, it’s then submitted to publishers).


Quill Shift is also raising money for itself, via an IndieGoGo campaign (“Where Harry Potter Magic Meets American Idol Power”). Funding will be used for…

Creation of online community for readers to connect and support Quill Shift Literary Agency author works

Updating and/or creating the chosen authors’ personal websites

Cover design for each chosen manuscript to be uploaded on the Quill Shift Literary Agency Website

Professional ePub formatting for each chosen manuscript

Social media marketing and outreach

All, need I say, completely irrelevant to the process of marketing books to publishers.

Where to even start with this? A bunch of random people reading manuscript excerpts online and maybe donating money a) isn’t an “online community,” and b) doesn’t demonstrate market support. I seriously doubt that publishers will be impressed. Nor is this a workable concept in the long term, unless you’re constantly refreshing your pool of readers. How many times will the same readers want to throw money at manuscript excerpts?

Also, crowdfunding your business is not a business plan. Assuming your campaign is successful, there’s not a lot of risk to you, since you’re going to be playing with Other People’s Money, but if things don’t work out it will be bad news for your guinea pigs–sorry, I mean your clients. And what if your campaign isn’t successful? What’s your Plan B?

There’s also a potential conflict of interest here. Quill Shift clients’ manuscripts are also crowdfunded, with readers viewing excerpts and donating to a month-long “pre-publication platform and buzz creation” campaign. According to Quill Shift’s FAQ, proceeds are split 50/50 between author and agency. Since this is money in hand–as opposed to the uncertainties of publisher submission–how tempting will it be for the agency to extend “buzz creation,” rather than promptly sending out the manuscript? Of course, that pre-supposes that readers will actually donate, which I think is by no means a foregone conclusion.

And what about the unfortunate authors whose “buzz creation” campaign doesn’t reach its goal? After all the excitement of getting “the offer,” do they get kicked to the curb?

I don’t doubt that Quill Shift’s founder is well-intentioned. But she’s clearly inhabiting that strange alternate reality that drives so many people on the fringes of publishing to try and re-invent the wheel. Sure, there are problems in the publishing biz, but a crowdsourced crowdfunded literary agency is not a solution. It’s a hamster wheel for writers.

Quill Shift’s IndieGoGo campaign goal is $15,000. Amazingly, people are donating–$2,356 so far, with 17 days to go. Since, unlike Kickstarter, IndieGoGo campaigns get their money whether the campaigns are successful or not, donors will be on the hook for this crazy scheme no matter what.

UPDATE 5/22/17: Occasionally I check back in on older posts to see if any updates are needed. As of this year, Publishers Marketplace shows just two sales for Quill Shift Literary, both to smaller independent houses. (PM only shows what’s reported to it, so not every sale an agency has made necessarily appears–but these are also the only two sales noted on Quill Shift’s website.)


  1. I can understand the negative reaction to Quill Shift. It certainly appears to resemble a scam. It is strange and different, and is a model that certainly might be abused.

    But I would like to suggest that instead of jumping to condemn, that people take a wait and see attitude. remain skeptical, sure, but leave the judgement for POST and not PRE.

    I suggest that people support the idea by visiting the site and reading what is there. If you like what you see, consider supporting the work, but if you remain skeptical than just observe.

    Perhaps this is a model that will indeed work. Who knows? But one thing is clear, if it does work, then readers will have a new set of books with greater diversity to read. THAT at least would be a good thing.

  2. When are you going to expose the owner of Absolute Write, Melody Sherman, posting under a fake name on official court documents in NJ???I read about it on The Write Agenda

  3. Hi, Ayanna,

    Thanks so much for visiting here, and for your comments. I truly appreciate your open and courteous tone.

    I think that perhaps where our differences arise isn't so much on the issue of followers and platform–and you're correct when you say that platform can help sell a book, though if an author has a strong manuscript, the lack of a platform won't hurt–as on the issue of numbers.

    For editors, "platform" means thousands or tens of thousands of followers. If your concept could generate that kind of volume, it's possible that editors would pay attention. (On the other hand, with that level of interest, a writer might just want to go ahead and self-publish.)

    However, it is REALLY hard to attract a mass audience on the Internet, and underestimating that difficulty is one of the most common mistakes made by people who try to market on the web. Writer Beware has thousands of followers across our various social media platforms, but we've been building that audience since 2005. I'm just not confident that your concept will be able to generate anything like the number of followers or supporters that would be needed to demonstrate a book's appeal and marketability. A few score or a few hundred supporters really doesn't prove anything.

    Also, spending money on one thing doesn't necessarily translate into willingness to spend money on another. Would crowdfunding donations equal finished book purchases? No one knows. It's a false equivalency.

    I'm sorry to be so negative about all this. I don't have any doubt that you're passionate and committed and want the best for your current and future clients, and I think the point you make about diversity is an important one. But I have to be honest–I think that you might better serve your clients, as well as your goals for change, simply by representing excellent books to reputable publishers, rather than by diverting so much energy and hope into the cul-de-sac of Internet marketing.

  4. 3) Crowdfunding your business is not a business plan

    The crowdfunding campaign was launched to provide another way to tell the story of Quill Shift Literary Agency and give people more information in a digestible manner. You are very correct. I have never said that the Indiegogo campaign was my business plan. Obviously forming a business contains much more planning than just putting together a crowdfunding campaign. What I do expect is that those who have invested in the company through the campaign are much more likely to tell others to pay attention to the company and sign up as influencers in the company.

    4) Will try to extend “buzz” instead of sell to a publishing house

    More and more agencies are venturing outside of the “don’t pay for any services” model before you get a deal, meaning that agencies will have side services like editorial consultant businesses and social media consultant businesses attached as extras for clients if they wish to take advantage of those offers. I don’t see anything wrong with this. The publishing industry is changing and needs of authors and, therefore, roles of those who work with authors must change as well. Quill Shift Literary Agency isn’t making authors pay anything to give them more exposure and, since that extra exposure only lasts one month before it stops i.e. the money from that exposure has an end date, it wouldn’t be in the Agency’s best interest to not capitalize on that exposure by not sending the manuscript on to a publishing house as soon as possible.

    5) Quill Shift Literary Agency is trying to reinvent the wheel

    I completely agree with you that there are problems in publishing. People love to talk ad nauseam about their frustrations with the industry. What frustrates me is that very few people are taking action to develop new ways to address these problems. One problem that I see every day and, as a science fiction and fantasy lover, encountered throughout my childhood and young adult life is the lack of diversity in children’s books. If my company provides another means to promote more writers of color, more diverse stories and characters, and more great work to publishing houses, then I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do. I understand that not all ideas work, however, I believe in change, and I believe in the power of the reader to make that change.

    I appreciate the chance for this open dialogue as I try to make very clear on my website that I want to hear what the people want. This is just one more way to discern what writers are concerned about and how I can provide more value to them.

  5. Hi Victoria,

    Thanks so much for bringing attention to my Indiegogo campaign and the new venture it’s promoting! Yours is such a large, respected, and vibrant community of writers and publishing folk so I couldn’t ask for better exposure to those with loud voices and heartfelt opinions. You brought up a few points of concern in your post that I’m more than happy to talk more about but, first, let me say thank you to some for voicing concern in the comments about the importance of a balanced review. Perhaps most importantly that I, the creator of the company you are urging others to beware of, should be in on the conversation. I sincerely appreciate that you think I mean well (that is truly the case), but clearly there are more questions and I am more than happy to provide more answers.

    1) Concern about the funding being “irrelevant to the process of marketing books”

    There are many considerations that are taken into the acquisitions meetings in publishing houses. I know this because I’ve had numerous conversations with editors from various houses about the criteria and considerations discussed in acquisitions meetings. What I’ve been told is that editors have an easier time “selling” the project in-house if the author has an active website, followers on Twitter and Facebook, and general buy-in from others. Sometimes authors don’t have all that in place when they submit to an agent. I can’t see anything wrong with trying to promote the author ahead of time before I send their submissions on to a publishing house. If I believe in an author, I’m going to try to promote their work. The relationship might not work out in the end, but that doesn’t negate the fact that I believed in their idea and that I shouldn’t promote it when I have the chance. I’ve built into Quill Shift the chance to promote authors to readers. No other agency that I know of will do that before a guaranteed sale to a publishing house. I want to give an author a platform or enhance what they already have in place while helping them make money for their work-well-done and enhance their chances for the best deal for that author at no cost to them. If that doesn’t count as marketing the book to publishers as well as future buyers (teachers, librarians, kids) then I don’t know what does.

    2) Random people investing in a book doesn’t make an online community or show market support

    I respectfully beg to differ. Random people buy books. Random people talk about books together. Goodreads, Wattpad, and Amazon are great examples of companies that house groups of very random people reading books, commenting on them, and buying or donating to those books. Through my website, people will be able to comment on the manuscripts that they read and donate small amounts to read more of them—never the whole manuscript—showing their support of the author and their work to publishers. I’m sure that everyone knows publishing houses are companies and most companies pay very close attention to their bottom lines. It’s important to show companies that there are potential sales (shown through the fact that people have already spent money, not just “liked” the manuscript) to be had and money to be made. People spending money on manuscripts before they’re published is a valuable way to show publishing houses that there is more money to be made on a project.

  6. "Shifters" pay to read what is essentially slush?

    Even if Ms. Coleman is screening the manuscripts, I'm not confident that she'll select the best. And I certainly wouldn't pay for this, er, privilege when there's so much else to read out there.

  7. This is the craziest scheme I've ever heard of. And she is, supposedly, a "literary agent?" I doubt that she knows the real meaning of those two words. I hope no serious publisher will ever go along with her, and I definitely hope that no serious writer will be paranoid enough to go along with her. I can't imagine any author who has actually published being willing to have their work read by some strange person on the Internet, but I guess there are unpublished writers who are desperate enough to use any means possible. Even one as stupid as this.

  8. Anonymous–This isn't a scam (in the true sense of the word, as in a scheme deliberately designed to defraud). I think Ms. Coleman is entirely well-intentioned. It's just a very bad idea.

    Tony–I often contact the people/companies I write about to ask for comment. In this case, I didn't, because Quill Shift's business model and Ms. Coleman's reasons for coming up with it are very clearly stated on the agency's website, at its IndieGoGo campaign, and in the video Ms. Coleman posted. She's welcome to contact me via email, and I would also welcome her comments here. And if, a few months or a year from now, Quill Shift has become a raging success, I will gladly eat my words.

  9. Did you contact Ayanna Coleman to give her an opportunity to comment? In fairness to her, and in the interest of balance, I think it would have been good to give her the opportunity to defend herself, regardless of how indefensible her project may appear.

  10. Asked her about this company MO on her LinkedIn posting. I was/am especially disturbed by her idea of posting unpublished manuscripts for "readers" to vote on with their financial support. She replied the proceeds of the reader voting money will be shared with the writer…. not good!
    She has the idea that these manuscripts/writers can, with this business model, build a FOLLOWING which would impress a potential publisher. How many READERS, willing to pay for the viewing of a partial manuscript, does she think exists!!!! Crazy, but writers will fall for it, sadly.
    She also is not going to be taking EVERY writer who's work is available on line. Only the ones that readers vote the most for…. omg:(

  11. In my opinion, this sounds like a truly bizarre way for a new company to line their own pockets. Hope authors don't fall for this "weird" outfit.

  12. Definitely sounds bizarre. Is it a literary agency or not? Which publishers would deal with it? As for the crowd funding, I recently contributed to one campaign. The author and artist were respected professionals and their goal small and they STILL only got about two thirds of it. They published anyway and seem to be doing well with it, but I would never gamble my money on someone I'd never heard of in one of these campaigns. Why would a publisher find it of interest?

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