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The S&S Code: World-Changing Stories and 6 Pillar Principles

The S&S Code: World-Changing Stories and 6 Pillar Principles

Have you ever wondered what S&S stands for, beyond the Sterling and Stone?

We have a welcome page in our Garden (the internal app we use inside the studio) that reads:

Welcome to Sterling & Stone. Our Mission is to understand and change the world through stories and the creatives who tell them. (Plus do cool shit with awesome people).

This is not a fancy mission statement crafted to impress. It’s a rallying call uniting our studio full of passionate storytellers and setting the stage for the incredible work we do every day. 

But a mission without values is like a story without characters. We’ve distilled the essence of our studio into six core values that guide our every action and decision:

Authenticity: Everything we do and the stories we tell are in line with our values and beliefs. We don’t cave to external pressures to go against those beliefs.

Collaboration: We can be good alone, but to be great and do great things, we work together to achieve a common goal.

Creativity: Creating something new and valuable to the world is sacred. We protect creativity and honor the creative processes of our storytellers.

Quality: While we move at speed, we would rather delay a creative project than rush something out that doesn’t meet our high standards of quality.

Hope: No matter how dark the world gets, we always maintain a spirit of hope and optimism.    

Story: Sharing the diverse experiences, voices, and perspectives of the world through storytelling is the heart of what we do.    

To elaborate: 

The older I get, the more important this one becomes to both me and the studio. We got tested hard last year. After taking a massive blow in the spring, we needed to scramble for money. No surprise, there were a lot of offers for cash, or ways to generate relatively simple revenue that did not align with our values or beliefs, and were therefore off the table.

For every action we took to recover, we had to ask ourselves if the juice was worth the squeeze, not just in effort required to earn that revenue, but in the tax paid on who we want to be. For Sterling & Stone, the ends will never justify the means.

Life is too short to be anything less than authentic. From the content we create to how our studio selects and shows up for its partners, authenticity will always be one of our guiding principles. This one hits me at the most human level. If I can’t tolerate an inauthentic relationship with the man who brought me into this world, then I can’t tolerate an inauthentic relationship with anyone. Same goes for the studio. 

This is where it all started, and it’s the space S&S will always inhabit. Collaboration is our lifeblood, and it applies to all relationships, internal and external. When looking for partners outside the studio to develop our IP with, only collaborators need apply. Same for storytellers we invite into our studio family.

Potential ghostwriting clients can throw us all the cash they want, but if we so much as whiff a bit of trouble down the line, or see that they aren’t actually hearing what we’re saying, then it becomes clear we should walk. Once we have a partner for our IP, we are highly flexible with what that story can become. But we expect to take part in the conversation.

Collaboration is rare magic that can make creativity exponential (it beats the hell out of AI every day ending in Y) and we’ve been wielding this longer than any other skill.

Creativity is a sanctuary and a playground for our storytellers, where we welcome and revere ideas, professionally turning convention on its head to mine our possibilities. Creation is vulnerable, to offer a piece of oneself to the world. So this is a process we protect, encourage, and individually nurture as we get to know each of our storytellers, and as a studio when managing present output with future potential, we fit every raconteur into the larger picture as best we can.

Put forty storytellers in a room, and you will have at least thirty-nine unique ways of working. The collaborative malleability that’s part of our ethos around here encourages maximum creativity, but we must still understand without assuming. We created genre therapy after realizing that most of the storytellers we worked with had their genre all wrong. Figuring that out is a large part of our development process now. But it goes deeper. From the germination of an idea, to outline, to full draft, or from short stories to novels to scripts, every storyteller has their skill sets, preferences, and abilities. No two formulas are the same, but once we identify the variables, it becomes exponentially easier to target both individual and collective success.

We want to foster originality while nurturing the unique genius of each storyteller to create a collective song where every voice has its distinct and harmonious place.

We prioritize excellence over expediency, with an unwavering commitment to high standards met by a robust awareness of what the market wants and how to best satisfy that demand from within our sphere of abilities. The Kindle changed publishing. Authors wrote, published, and repeated.

Kindle Unlimited launched ten years ago in 2014 and changed publishing even more. Algorithms and ads. Pay to play. Sock puppets. A majority of indie authors were running their lists mostly the same. That’s when we floundered the most, desperate to keep writing the stories that spoke to us. But those stories never fit into KU. And we failed our first wave of new recruits because we weren’t even close to having that figured out.

We needed to nerd out hard on data and genre before S&S could seriously start carving a name for itself in the space. We needed to focus on quality, and that required us to truly understand our genres and readers, then pair the most appropriate writers to those opportunities. Quality first. Now we only green-light a KU line if we can maintain the quality and stand out as a sterling example of that genre.

When we finally started hacking at that tree, after sharpening the ax for over five years, we put our most experienced storytellers — usually assigned to premium projects — on our KU lines instead of passing development down to less experienced writers who (according to conventional wisdom) could handle the lower baseline of quality found on the buffet of Kindle Unlimited, when compared to the a la carte menu items of non-exclusive titles.

Quality is not just a standard we adhere to, it’s an S&S signature. Marrying deep market understanding with a commitment to excellence makes this studio a valuable partner for production companies, storytellers, and audiences.

Once upon a time, Dave and I were wrapping up the final book in a trilogy. He sent me the draft, and I was like, WHAT THE FUCK, DUDE? I don’t remember his pitched ending, exactly, only that everyone died. Spiritually, if not physically. Sure, the good guys technically won, but with no hope left for the world by our last paragraph.

It was grim, even for Dave, inspiring a rare occasion when I pushed back hard on him creatively. “I don’t want to put my name on a story where the world is in a worse place at the end than it was when we started. At the very least, we always need to have a daisy in the sidewalk.”

Station Eleven masterfully blends post-apocalyptic challenges with a deep undercurrent of optimism, demonstrating that even in the darkest of times, human resilience and the power of community can prevail. I love that limited series because of what it is, because I got to enjoy watching it with my daughter when she came home for break as new episodes were still coming out, and because it was the first time I ever heard the term hopepunk, which so accurately describes the aesthetic of that show.

We are a studio of relentless optimism, and our belief in the transformative power of storytelling drives us to leave the world a little brighter and more hopeful than we found it.

This is the core of Sterling & Stone and our most cherished principle. It is here, in the vast expanse of narratives, where we find our truest purpose. By sharing a diversity of experiences and voices, we bridge worlds and foster connections that transcend boundaries to unite us in our shared humanity. That right there is why storytelling is the best job in the world.

S&S outgrew its bloke-ish aesthetic many moons ago. Johnny and I are the same age, with Dave just a handful of years on us. Three dudes. Now we have men and women from all walks of life, with the youngest among us 22 years old and the wisest is 78.

A broad spectrum of ages and backgrounds uniquely positions Sterling & Stone to weave varied yet authentic narratives that draw upon a wellspring of life experiences and span generations.

How do you integrate values like creativity, collaboration, and authenticity into your professional or personal projects?