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!


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Are you feeling it? Emotional Connection in Fiction Part 1

photo of piano with hidden compartments
A piano with built-in toolboxes for sewing and putting on make-up. Andreas Landschütz, 1820. MAKK museum in Cologne. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

An accomplished novelist friend recently got feedback on a manuscript that was heartbreakingly familiar to me.

“I like it but I’m not loving it.”

Ouch. I know just how that feels.

For years, I worked on a manuscript that repeatedly got the critique that readers couldn’t connect with my main character’s emotions. The feedback was inexplicable and painful because I didn’t have any tools to address it with.

Over time, it started to feel like a personal attack. They were all after me. There was something wrong with me as a writer. I had the wrong feelings. Or I didn’t have feelings. Or I didn’t show them properly. Or something. You know the voices.

A brief non sequitor: getting obsessed with adverbs or gerunds or passive voice or what have you may lead to such controlled language that the emotion is beaten out of it. *cough*

A comment like “I like it but I don’t love it” can hurt so much. But they don’t have to. It might be time to let your story out to dance or skate or sing. Here are three mini-stories that helped me see emotional reactions in a whole new light.

 1. A musical interlude: One day in high school, I was practicing a piece of music in the empty band room and the band director walked through and tossed off a comment about playing with more feeling: “It’s okay. You must have just gotten that piece.”

I played a line or two again for him, putting my feelings into the music. He shook his head.


My feelings were evidently wrong. But how can a person fix their feelings?

Now I realize he wasn’t asking me to feel the music. He wanted me to use technical skill to let the listener feel the music.

2. A skating interlude: Years ago, I read an autobiography of a couple whose skating pair routines moved audiences to tears. In My Sergei, Yekaterina Gordeyeva writes about the demands of creating an emotional experience for the audience. While performing, they were working far too hard to be feeling all mushy.

Look at all the technique to communicate emotion in this pairs skating routine. Or this one with a stronger female lead and lots of passion. Or this one based on Rodin’s The Kiss and skated by Gordeyeva and Grinkov.

(Thanks to Susan Gilbert-Collins for reminding me of the skaters’ names!)

3. Vanessa Van Edwards researched which TED talks go viral. She noticed that two excellent talks, released at the same time of year, found completely different success. One found a small audience and the other exploded.

Talks that went viral had LOTS more gestures than the ones that didn’t. The number of gestures are a measure of the speaker’s commitment to his or her topic and to the desire to communicate it to the audience.

They are also a measure of the speaker’s skill.

Gestures, body language, and words that match communicate much more.

Communicating emotion in a story is a skill. The novelist’s craft includes so many ways to move the reader: foreshadowing, characterization, story structure, dialogue, body language. So if you get this feedback, reach for your tools.

In next week’s post, I’ll recommend some brilliant toolboxes you’ll love.

What about you: Have you gotten feedback that stumped you for a while? How did you handle it? Or have you got favorite tools to add feelings to your WIP? Go ahead and share in the comments.


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Four Paintings for Writers in Cologne’s Wallraf Museum

“The Art of Poetry” by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot. Wallraf Museum. Cologne.
painting of reading man in a big green chair
“Don Quichote” by Adolf Schrödter. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.
painting of letters sealed with red wax
“Quodlibet” by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.

Painting of Snowwhite asleep in a glass case in the forest. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.
“Schneewittchen” [Snow White] by Marianne Stokes. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.
The magical inscription on this painting reads: “We cannot lay her in the dark earth,” said the dwarfs and so they had a transparent glass coffin made so that she could be seen from every side laid her in it and wrote on it her name and that she was a kings daughter. Then they carried the coffin into the wood and some of them always watched her and the birds also came and bewailed Snowdrop. First an owl. Then a raven and lastli a dove. So Snowdrop lay a long long time in her coffin looking as though she were asleep. –GRIMM”

The “lastli” pleases me greatli.