Tour a German publisher: Kiepenheuer and Witsch in Cologne

office with Cologne Cathedral visible through the window.
The Cologne Cathedral is so huge, it feels like you could reach your arm out the window and touch it. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

Last week, our local library visited the German publisher Kiepenheuer & Witsch in Cologne. Their offices look right out on the Cologne Cathedral. Their location next to the main Cologne rail station make it easy for their internationally renowned authors to drop by for coffee.

They have a fascinating history. I never thought about German publishers being shut down after World War II. Kiepenheuer & Witsch was one of the first to receive permission to resume publishing (because the Nazis had shut them down earlier.)

We had a tour “in publishing order” from the front desk:

bright red front desk with name of publisher in white and a row of books in a built in shelf
Welcome to Kiepenheuer & Witsch! © Laurel Decher, 2018.

to the mail room:

beautifully made old fashioned scale with dial to show weight
An heirloom scale to weigh packages of books. You can’t have more than 30 kilos of books on this scale at a time. Kiepenheuer & Witsch publishing house. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

This place values books. I enjoyed the author portraits and sideways bookcases in the hallways:

hallway with square portraits lined up in a grid 4 high by more than 10 across
Once you have your second book published with Kiepenheuer & Witsch, you can have your portrait on their walls. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

Book covers are designed here. We were allowed to take pictures of these final versions, but the concepts for the next catalog are top secret. They publish 100 new books a year with about a dozen editors. People work hard here!

paper printouts of final bookcover designs, put up with fat round magnets
Kiepenheuer & Witsch don’t all look the same. Each book’s design is based on what the author put in it. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

Finished books in the marketing department are ready to entice bookstore owners:

white bookcase with square cubbies to hold stacks and display standing up copies of new books, some shrink-wrapped
Posters and finished books, like a giant box of brand-new chocolates. The Kiepenheuer & Witsch sales department is ready to go out to bookstores. © Laurel Decher, 2018.
White t-shirt with Kiwi logo pinned to wall.
KiWi is a hip abbreviation for Kiepenheuer & Witsch and the name of a paperback imprint begun in 1982. Team shirts for bygone days when each publishing house had a soccer team to play in a tournament. Happy the house with athlete authors! © Laurel Decher, 2018.

World Championship-Level Book Formatting

This book, titled simply S, by Doug Dorst and J.J. Adams, is the designer’s ultimate formatting dream. *cough* There are guides about how to read this book with notes and accessories but there was no guide for putting it together.

This book might seem like the ultimate argument for a print book, but there are ebook versions. (My head hurts thinking about it!)

If the German translation is 10 to 35% longer than the English original, that must have made the hand-lettered notes challenging:

Printed book with marginal notes in two ink colors and formatted handwritten lists, postcards and other papers tucked in strategically.
Your mission should you accept it: Make the German translation, probably longer, fit into exactly the same space on every page. Include two colors of hand-written notes in the margins and all kinds of crazily formatted postcards, shopping lists, and dials. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

The book I want to read next: Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod.

The subtitle sums it up: First Aid for German Problems. This book calls to me. For years, my relatives and friends have been using German in ways I never learned in class. This book promises to make everything clear–in a light-hearted way.

My city library lists an edition with over 700 pages. Yikes! That’s a lotta German grammar. But I’d really love to understand why my German relatives say things the way they do.

The title means: the dative case is the death of the genitive case. A grammar murder mystery? I know–it sounds deadly–oops!

[If you’re wondering: English sort of has these “cases” but we’re not as serious about them. Dativ is somewhat like what we call indirect objects: I gave it to him. Genitiv is somewhat like using apostrophes. The author’s book.]

author and book cover photo with a bright green list of German grammar tips in entertaining language
This book is the one I want to read first after the tour. I saw it on the author photo wall–book covers are up in the hallways too. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

Kiepenheuer & Witsch’s decisions shaped the kind of publisher they have become. The tour made me think about the role of a publisher in society.

  • What books do you publish?
  • What is a “book?”
  • What will make readers want your books?
  • How will you show authors you value them?
  • What public conversations will you start or take part in?
  • Who’s going to try and shut you down?

Hope you enjoyed the tour as much as I did!


If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

Too much cuteness: foals in springtime

Two foals with white blazes on their foreheads, making friends in a green meadow
Who can get writing done when there are foals to visit in the neighborhood? ©Laurel Decher, 2018.

I haven’t been posting because I’m working madly (*cough* in between visits to these beauties) on a revision of my bonkers fairy tale for middle grade readers.

It’s been called “delightfully silly” and I’m trying to finish it soon so readers can see if they like it too.

I hope they like reading this as much as I’m enjoying writing it!!

Foal nibbles on the cheek of another foal
I rest my case. ©Laurel Decher, 2018.



If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

Need some ideas about how to handle The Waiting Game?

tiny white flowers light up the forest floor like a white carpet
Just when you think it will never come, spring arrives. Image: ©Laurel Decher, 2018.

Today, I’m over at The Winged Pen for a post about what to do while you’re waiting. . .

. . .for query responses,

. . .for editors,

. . .or for anything else in the writing life that requires another person to react.

How do you handle The Waiting Game? What did I forget?

Feel free to weigh in–I’d love to know how you handle the inevitable patience practice of the writing life.

Check out the post here:

The Waiting Game and 15 Ways to Play It

It’s part of the Winged Pen’s Master Your Craft series.


If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.


8 Ways Books are Better Than Scrolls: eBooks of the Ancient World

book cover of Libraries in the Ancient WorldWhile trying to figure out how ancient books were repaired, I came across the delightful Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson. It’s a small, friendly sort of book, clearly written and even the black and white illustrations are fascinating.

If you asked for a book in an ancient library, a page would bring you a bucketful of rolled-up parchment or papyrus with tags on them. You’d sit down and rummage through to find the chapter you wanted to read.

Chapter 8: From Roll to Codex is all about how a change in reading technology affects readers. What did the change mean for book lovers of long ago?

  1. Good for travel–no fragile edges to crumble, no tags to fall off and get lost.
  2. Space-saving–Carry more information in a smaller space because the writers can use both sides of the paper. Twice the capacity. 🙂
  3. Read with one hand–a scroll takes two hands: one to unroll and one to re-roll.
  4. Bookmarks–mark any page or even any line.
  5. Find information quickly–just flip to the page, no more endless scrolling.
  6. “Public libraries had to adjust” to the new format. Instead of cubbies holding three layers of scrolls max, books could be stacked up on top of each other.
  7. “Standard” took a while–Casson gives the example of a book that had quires–the smaller bundles of pages sewn together to make a book–in all different sizes: 5-sheet, 4-sheet, 1-sheet, 5-sheet, 5-sheet, 8-sheet.
  8. Authors had to advertise or explain the new format. Some things never change. 🙂

This little slender book, at Tryphon’s store,

costs just four coppers, and not a penny more.

Is four too much? It puts you in the red?

Then pay him two; he’ll still come out ahead.

–Casson, Lionel. Libraries in the Ancient World, Yale University Press, 2001, pg. 104.

Sound familiar?

Casson studied Egyptian literature by era to see how many were scrolls and how many were codices (books as we know them). Christians were early adopters of the new books. Bibles were made only as codices from the 2nd or 3rd centuries on.

bar chart showing % books versus scrolls by century in Egyptian 'finds'.
By studying Egyptian ‘finds’, Lionel Casson figured out how long it took Egyptian readers to adopt the ‘codex’–the book form–over a roll of parchment or papyrus: about 400 years.

Just for fun, compare to these e-book adoption percentages for U.S. readers (17%, 23%, 28%) and the increase in tablet use for reading:


There’s a great photo of a 7th century wooden writing tablet with ten leaves (pg. 127). It looks like a stack of pioneer school child slates fastened together. Here’s an example from Pinterest to give you the idea.


If that’s what a notebook was like, no wonder everyone wanted parchment books instead.

Hope you enjoyed this field trip to the ancient world!

Happy reading and writing!


If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.


Four Ways Writing a Novel is Different than Reading One

outdoor steel staircase with blooming heather filling in the risers
One of my favorite collaborative efforts. Steel and heather. Alfter, Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2018.

Reading is a collaborative and creative activity. The reader is in partnership with the writer, and they create an experience together. Writers are told to read, read, read. . .to improve their writing. Good advice. 🙂

But I’ve recently noticed four ways writing feels very different from reading.

  1. The set-up. Ideally, the early chapters go by in a kind of blur, so that later, readers never realize writers used up a quarter of the book to get them into the story. As readers we’re busy working, getting acclimated to the story world, figuring out who’s who, and what’s what. When we read, we don’t notice how long it takes.

This is why it’s easy to write the story set-up too short. Or way too long. If we aren’t allowed to write this story’s exciting part, we’ll write the exciting part of the one that happened before. This is called backstory or information-dumping. (Attractive, no?)

Re-reading is a much better way to find out what set-up is and how long it takes. If a writer can entice the reader in–all over again–with the ordinary part, that’s craft. The best writers leave a little space and time for the readers’ imagination to get cooking, without letting them notice.

2. Pacing. By definition, the writer is the first one to boldly go down the story path. Joyce Carol Oates describes writing fiction as slashing your way through the jungles with a machete. E. L. Doctorow compared it to driving by your headlights. Keeping writerly despair at bay must add something to the reader’s experience, but I don’t know what it is. Tension, voice, scope, meaning, pacing? (A finished book? 🙂

3. Foreshadowing. (A.K.A. why it’s annoying to watch movies with writers.) It’s really hard–impossible–to foreshadow as you write. Once you know the cannon is going off at the end, it’s easy to add a box of confetti in a dimly lit corner of your brilliant opening scene. 20:20 hindsight. You just “put it in”.

4. Writing things inside-out and backwards. Judging by dreams and first drafts, I think the imagination doesn’t care much about what comes first. For me, as a writer, ‘story stuff’ gets sent up any old which way.

In a recent draft of my middle grade fairy-tale/fantasy, several chapters were clearly *cough* in the wrong order. Switching them around made my main characters stronger. Suddenly, their actions set the plot dominoes in motion. Yay!

Some writing friends compare story-telling to pulling yarn out of a skein. Their imaginations must be better trained. Personally, I have to slice the story up and tie it together, again and again. Judging from the overwhelming reaction to this blog post, a lot of other writers have the same problem.

But aside from all of these technical difficulties–oops, challenges–writing can sometimes feel the same as reading. Writing ‘in the zone’ or ‘in flow’ or in the grip of a story feels like being taken on a journey.

I think that’s what makes writing so addictive. Imagination is both a muscle to exercise and a dream to follow.

What’s your take? Does this all seem hopelessly obvious? Have you ever wondered about particular differences between reading and writing?


If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.


Things keep falling down. . .and then the harvest comes.

Broken and fallen pine trees in the forest after extreme winds
Pines downed by strong winds in Kottenforst forest. ©Jan Decher, 2018

In January, we had heavy winds for this area. They were impressive, but I think winds are much stronger in other, drier parts of the world. The trees here don’t seem to have deep roots, considering their size. It rains constantly. Trees don’t have to work for water, growing down deep to find it during a drought. So when the winds come, even the oaks topple.

There’s a lot of bad news floating around and winter is dark, so January needed a lot of persistence.

person walking across downed oak log like a natural bridge
Walking on a downed oak tree. © Jan Decher, 2018.
pine tree lying across road after windstorm
Sometimes there’s a road block. © Laurel Decher, 2018
Huge oak and other trees fallen after the storm and tangled together. The root ball from the oak is visible and taller than a man.
When the tree falls, it’s over. © Laurel Decher, 2018

This month, we went walking in the forest again. This harvest of logs made me see the forest damage in a different way.

What is ready to harvest in our lives that we haven’t noticed? What (who :)) has grown up in our lives that we are grateful for?

We don’t have to wait for a “storm” to point it out.

  • What do you want to do?
  • Who do you want to love?
  • What do you want to make?
  • What do you want to see or hear or touch or taste?

We can be grateful for it now. I think being ‘grateful’ is like visiting a garden, checking on the chickens, and fixing the family credenza so it lasts a little longer. Gratitude is a way of nurturing something while it’s still small, so it can grow up.

Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn had a recent interview called Balancing Craft and Commerce. Some of it was about programmer and author Nathan Barry’s ConvertKit e-mail marketing service, but the part that resonated with me was this:

We didn’t sign up to be writers or creators or entrepreneurs to get to a certain income level and then check out. You’ve got to keep pushing those limits and you have to keep learning but at the same time, you have to do it with gratitude. Ambition and gratitude together, I think, are really, really powerful and then you don’t get trapped in a frustrating cycle.

Five piles of freshly cut logs lining the side of the road to the vanishing point.
A storm turns into harvest. © Laurel Decher, 2018

How has your winter been so far? Does it feel like trees are falling everywhere? Or can you see signs of hope?


If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.


One Dollar Glasses

girl with a smile wearing one dollar glasses
A small invention that sheds a whole new light on things.

The other day, I got my first pair of reading glasses. All of a sudden, reading, computers, knitting–even the fine print at the store–is SO much clearer. I’ve had regular glasses since the third grade, so you’d think I wouldn’t be surprised, but it’s easy to forget how much difference a new pair of glasses can make.

When I went to pick them up, I saw a brochure for One Dollar Glasses with lots of happy people sporting new glasses. Here’s the link to the English version of the website that has fewer photos.

My optician told me he’d been to a workshop to learn to make a pair of glasses out of one piece of wire. It was challenging even for people trained to make glasses. You only get one shot.

But it doesn’t need electricity and it means people don’t have to wear glasses that almost work because they’re someone else’s old glasses.

The raw materials for each pair cost one dollar which means the sales tax from my recent glasses would pay for 30 pair.

It makes me happy to think that 30 people could finally see what they’re looking at! Hope they have good books to read! 🙂

If you’d also like to help someone see what they’re missing, here’s the donation information. (PayPal, credit cards, and direct bank transfer all work).

Thanks for reading!



If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.