Wednesday, January 28, 2015


It is said that you never really understand a situation until you’ve been on both sides. For example, you’ll never fully grasp the complex dynamics between parent and child until you’ve been both a snotty teenager and a harried parental unit. In that spirit, here are some random thoughts about the relationship between authors and publishers. To a large extent, being a writer
is a tough, thankless job. If the point of writing is making money, then, for us mere mortals, our time would be better spent working in a fast food restaurant or pushing a purloined shopping cart while gathering hub caps beside the highway.

Stairway Press will sell book number 20,000 in the next couple of weeks and sales are growing nicely. Is that a lot or a little? No one with a Manhattan zip code will be impressed, but we’re learning and getting more in tune with the business each year.

Like any other commercial venture, it is the tough-minded that succeed. As publisher, it gives us no pleasure to reject a project and it’s even harder when the writing is excellent. However, we’d die if we printed everything that came in. We have to match our limited resources with the capacity of the production pipeline and the end markets we know we can reach.

It’s interesting how often we’re not in the business we thought we were. You might think the true job of a successful writer is sitting at a desk netting words floating in space, but the real job is marketing. Your skills in promotion, outreach and closing sales is more important than creativity, grammar, spelling and syntax. Ouch, that hurts, particularly since writing skills can be learned—whereas marketing is more a matter of nature. Are you glib, outgoing, fearless and charismatic? To some extent, you can fake these characteristics, but people are sensitive to the insincere. You can learn useful tactics and make the most of what you have, but generally, these facets of your personality are baked into your DNA and upbringing.

From our point of view, what optimizes your chances of getting our attention and landing an offer?

First of all, the writing should be clean. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but we will reject a project that requires a lot of editing work. The closer the book is to being print-ready, the better. In addition, it’s a cliché, but bad writing can be fixed while boring writing is hopeless.

Secondly, there has to be a market we can reach. We don’t know anything about erotica, romance, Westerns or children’s books. Beyond that, generally speaking, poetry, memoirs and thinly veiled autobiographies are hopeless. Do a little research and make sure the publisher works in your genre, otherwise, you’re wasting your time and theirs. We’re sensitized to things that molest our precious time.

Project an attitude of competence and good cheer. Do you enjoy working with grumpy, never-satisfied people who are eternally angry? We don’t either. In addition, one thing we watch for is people who have strong ideas about how other people should act. We want you to do your job as writer and let us do our jobs as editors, cover designers and publishers. Our customers are the readers and it’s them to whom we cater. Can you imagine having twenty or a hundred authors bombarding you with commands and requests? In service of our own mental health, we’ll simply not allow that to happen.

Make your pitch as personal as possible. Don’t pretend to know us if you don’t, but if you met us somewhere or came across some of our work somewhere, let us know. It’s easier to dispense with a query from someone we don’t know. It’s surprising how often a query comes in and the author or agent has zero idea about what we do. How long does it take to get a sense of us? Spend two minutes looking at our website. That would put you ahead of many queries. That said, we don’t like false familiarity. No phony sucking up, please.

This is sad to say, but marketing hooks are more important than the writing quality. We’re impressed when an author knows their audience and has intelligent thoughts about how to engage with a sales strategy we believe can work.

We get so many submissions that our main goal is to dispense with them as quickly as possible. We’re on high-alert for reasons to reject a query or manuscript because it’s efficient and makes us feel less guilt. Project yourself into the role of the publisher. We’re panning for gold and itching to get on with productive tasks like working on the projects in the pipeline or watching cat videos on YouTube.  Make sure your sales pitch has no red flags—things justifying a quick, guilt-free decision not to engage.
Writing is a service industry. Our customers are people who buy books to learn things and to pass time. Competition is brutal: not only do we have to compete with hundreds of thousands of new books each year, but we also have to compete with every other book ever published in history. This is not a business for the weak-of-heart.

Do you want to be a guaranteed success as an author? It’s simple enough; just scale your expectations to the things you can control. Take pleasure in the written word and your work and don’t take yourself too seriously. For everything beyond that? Take nothing for granted and savor every external marker of success, no matter how small. Don’t let your feeling of entitlement and hunger for success ruin your appetite for small victories. Suppose you work your whole life and only sell one book? What’s wrong with that? If you can’t be happy with what you got, you ain’t going to be happy with what you’re gonna get.

Ken Coffman is the publisher at Stairway Press. The Sandcastles of Irakkistan is his latest novel. The publishing portfolio can be studied at He can often be found pushing a shopping cart filled with scrap metal along the Monterrey Highway in San Jose, California.


Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

Now if Americans just read.

Our young can't write cursive any longer. They aren't teaching grammar.

Won't be long before reading isn't an option, but an impossibility.

So much for our 140 character attention span.

(gosh, I'm feeling cynical today)

~Sia McKye~ said...

Ken, welcome back to Over Coffee. Congratulations on 20,000 books being sold. I can remember when you sold your first, :-)

I agree that marketing is a very important skill set an author needs in today's market.

I appreciated the points you brought out on optimizing the chance to get a contract and what makes a writer more attractive to a publisher.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The line about working with grumpy people is hilarious! And so true. Thanks for the insight, Ken.

Christine Rains said...

Fantastic post. Thank you for the tips. Marketing is definitely the most difficult part for me, but I understand it's necessary, and I'm learning as I go along.

Optimistic Existentialist said...

Fascinating read and insights, Ken!

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Marketing is so difficult and time consuming but even writers with big publishers have to do it. I love the personal touch of a small press.

Peaches Ledwidge said...

"In addition, it’s a cliché, but bad writing can be fixed while boring writing is hopeless."

Love that line.


David P. King said...

I felt the same way when I started critiquing queries, feeling what it's like to be the receiving end of a query. Great post, Ken.

Sia, I'll totally take up your offer Over Coffee in March. :)

Kat Sheridan said...

Congratulations on upcoming number 20,000!! That's awesome! Like Sia, I remember your first. I'm the pits at marketing, but like most other authors, I'm learning. I'm in the "fake it until you make it" school. Lots of great tips here, and wishing you continued success!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Ken is having some tech difficulties getting here but I'm sure he'll get it all figured out soon.

Jo said...

Not being an author, I am so happy I don't have to deal with all these problems. I did once start to write a book but I am so glad I abandoned it I couldn't face what authors have to go through in the hope of getting their work published let alone even read. I'm so glad some still do though, I would hate to run out of things to read.

LD Masterson said...

Very interesting post. Thanks to Ken for sharing. And congratulations on reaching the 20,000 sale mark.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken. Great post and good luck with the next 20,000 sales.

Anonymous said...

Ken, interesting to hear your perspective on the publisher's role, since you've also lived the writer part. Thanks for a good post and many congrats on 20K books sold. Hope the next round goes twice as fast (or more). I remember calling marketing the dark side, but sooner or later, we all need to be persuaders.

Liza said...

Boring writing is hopeless. Now there's a critical point!

Elizabeth Seckman said...

So much good stuff there! My favorite though is the understanding that "writing is a service industry". Writing started as my own dream, but once a book is published it belongs to the readers and I work to please them. Doesn't matter if I love a story- they need to love it or I have failed.

Personally, I think 20,000 is impressive as heck. Here's to 20,000 more!

Anonymous said...

I assumed I'd take some heat, but you are all cool, thank you. Are any writers 100% happy with their publisher? If so, it's because the writer has scaled his or her expectations to publishing reality. The secret to any success is keeping at it--not stopping when the first (or hundredth) obstacle pops up.