An Interview with Tom Corson-Knowles, Founder of TCK Publishing

Can you tell us how TCK Publishing evolved?

I started TCK Publishing because I had a big problem, and I couldn’t find anyone who would help me.

I wrote my first book in 2006. Back then, the internet was still young, and there were only a handful of sites with information about how to get a book published.

What I read online led me to believe that the only way to get a book published was to find a literary agent, so that’s what I tried to do. I found lists of agents online and started sending queries.

Of course, I didn’t really know what a query was, what the proper format was, or what an agent wanted to know in order to decide to work with me. I was ignorant, and yet I had no idea how ignorant I was (which is a dangerous combination). My queries were pretty terrible, and, in hindsight, I can see why I never got a positive response from a literary agent.

After a few years of trying to get my book published with absolutely nothing to show for all my effort and anxiety, I gave up on my dream of becoming a published author.

That all changed in 2011 when I had a conversation with someone who casually mentioned that I should publish my book as an eBook on Amazon Kindle. I researched everything I could find about self-publishing on Amazon, and within a few weeks I self-published my book as an eBook on the Kindle platform.

I was so embarrassed that I had to self-publish my book that I didn’t tell anyone what I had done. I had a blog and a small social media following, but I didn’t post anything about the book because I was afraid of what others would think of me.

A month later, I logged in to my Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) account and I saw that I had 11 sales. That was my lightbulb moment. I thought, “If I can sell 11 books on Amazon without telling anyone about it, imagine what I could do if I treated this like a real business!”

That inspired me to keep writing and publishing my books (I had 12 different manuscripts on my computer at various stages from almost finished to just a few hundred words). I kept writing and publishing books as fast as I could. Ten months later, I earned over $12,000 in a single month from Amazon Kindle royalties alone.

That was around the time I decided to start sharing what I was learning with other writers. I just knew there had to be millions of people out there like me—people with a message or story they wanted to share who just had no idea what to do or how to do it.

I started blogging about what I was learning and recorded some free training videos for writers on YouTube. I then created an online course to teach self-publishing on Amazon.

Sales for the course took off fast, and within a few weeks I had students asking me to publish their books for them. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to run a publishing company because I was having so much fun writing and publishing my own books, but I thought I might be able to help other writers. I took on just a handful of clients in the first few months to see how things would go.

I decided to offer 50% royalties to clients. I thought it seemed pretty fair given that my clients could simply take my training course and learn to do it all without me. In other words, I never really thought my clients needed me. I thought everyone would be just as excited about self-publishing as I was, but I soon realized that many writers just want to focus on writing instead of working online for several hours each day managing all the publishing work and marketing.

After I saw some promising sales results from early clients, I started to take the publishing business much more seriously. I hired an expensive publishing industry attorney from a top firm in LA. I started taking on lots of new clients in many different genres so I could see which markets were promising and which markets weren’t.

I also started making lots and lots of mistakes. A lot of people seem to think that mistakes are bad, but I’ve found that mistakes are a great way to learn. Well, I learned a whole lot about the business in the first few years from making mistakes.

I learned there are some markets like poetry and children’s picture books that are really tough for us to compete in, so we stopped accepting submissions for poetry and children’s picture books.

I discovered there are many people who sell editing services, but very few editors who have experience working on commercially published books and really understand the publishing business. I’ve worked with dozens of editors over the years, and there are only a small handful of them I would recommend without any reservations. Finding great editors who really understand their craft and the publishing business has been and continues to be a challenge. (We’re currently hiring for a full-time editing position).

Through all the mistakes and changes, I’ve come to realize that the most important thing for TCK Publishing is to stay focused on adding value to authors and readers. We really have two sets of customers: authors and readers. We have to sell books to readers to earn a profit, and we have to build a reputable company that attracts high-quality writers.

At almost every team meeting, we ask “How can we add more value?” It’s that commitment to adding value that has allowed us to grow from just a one-person business to a full-time team of 8 with dozens of freelancers (while being profitable and without raising any money from investors or debt).

Are there any projects you’re especially excited about?

There are several projects I’m very excited about, but I try not to get my hopes up for any one book or project. I’ve worked on publishing over 400 books, and I’ve been shocked several times when a book I thought was going to sell well tanked. I’ve also seen a few books that I never expected to sell many copies turn into steady profit streams.

I often tell new clients that there’s a lot of luck involved in book publishing. Sometimes an author’s first book breaks out, and sometimes it takes 10 books before an author starts to see significant sales. And, of course, some authors just never see big royalty checks for a variety of reasons.

There’s just so much that can’t be controlled. If publishers knew how to perfectly project book sales, there wouldn’t be more than 600 million unsold books returned each year. The truth is there’s just a lot of luck involved, and the only way you’ll ever know if a book is really going to sell is to put it on the market, work as hard as you can to get the word out, and see what happens.

With all the uncertainty around sales projections, I try to keep our team focused on what we absolutely can control: the quality of the authors we choose to work with, our editing process, our marketing systems, and the work we do on a day-to-day basis.

You’ve done exceptionally well publishing both your own titles and titles for your authors. It’s clear from your website that you consider the author-publisher relationship a true partnership. What advice do you have for authors seeking to improve sales and visibility for their books?

I believe every successful relationship in life is a partnership. You have to feel like you’re on the same team, working together, and striving to achieve the same goal. If not, that relationship probably won’t last very long. That may be fine in casual relationships, but in the publishing industry, long-term relationships are crucial for success.

As for marketing and selling books, I wish there was one specific tip or strategy I could give that would make all your financial dreams come true, but there is no one-click system for success.

I believe the most important thing is for authors to have a growth mindset. You should always be willing to learn and try new things. The minute you think you know it all or that you’ve “tried everything,” you’ve lost because that’s when you stop growing.

I highly recommend every author study marketing on a regular basis. You should always be learning new things about marketing because you never know when that next big idea will come to you.

In addition to studying marketing, you also have to practice. That means trying new things. Start writing some blog posts. Try posting some videos on YouTube. Test out social media. Start experimenting with email marketing. Keep learning and tinkering with new ideas until you find a way to market your books and build your audience that doesn’t feel like work to you.

If you love putting in the work of marketing and spreading your message, you’re much more likely to stay consistent long-term. And it’s that consistency and commitment to growth that will set you apart from everyone else in your genre or market.

We created a free online training course called How to Become a Full-Time Author that teaches authors what I consider to be some of the most important marketing principles and strategies for long-term success. I recommend every author take that course if you’re serious about earning income as an author.

We also interview bestselling authors and publishing industry experts each week on The Publishing Profits Podcast show, so that’s another great way to make sure you’re continually learning more about marketing and selling books.

About Tom Corson-Knowles

Tom Corson-Knowles is the international bestselling author of 27 books including The Kindle Publishing Bible, founder of TCK Publishing, an independent publishing company specializing in digital marketing, and host of The Publishing Profits Podcast show.

Tom has taught more than 80,000 authors how to write, publish and market their books like professionals through his online training courses, including Ebook Publishing School, a free training program that shows authors how to publish and launch their first book.