The writing and publishing industry has changed a lot in the last 30 years, just ask Jerry Apps. Jerry is an amazingly prolific author who has written over 25 books including fiction, children’s books, and nonfiction. One thing I really enjoyed about his perspective was what he said about marketing. It takes a lot to market yourself today, and when I hear authors whine about it I want to point out that the competition is such that they have to do it (and embrace it). Having a large number of published books doesn’t mean you can just sit back and let the royalties come in.
I know you’re going to learn a lot from Jerry Apps. Enjoy this interview.
Your writing has been influenced by your childhood, growing up on a Wisconsin farm. You’ve written over 25 books, ranging from fiction to historical to children’s books. Is there a genre you feel most comfortable in?
These days I am most comfortable with my adult fiction and nonfiction work. I dabble in poetry, most of it bad. What I do is include my mediocre poetry in my novels, and have my characters write it so I am not blamed for it.
Over the years, I’ve tried a little of everything. I began writing a weekly column called “Outdoor Notebook” in 1966. It was published in four central Wisconsin weekly newspapers, and, as I look back now, served as a wonderful apprenticeship to sharpen my writing skills. Besides, it taught me discipline. I had to have 750 words in the mail every Monday morning. I wrote the column for ten years, and can proudly say that I never missed a deadline.
I still write the occasional magazine article, but not nearly as many as I once did. For a few years I wrote a monthly column for a couple of national magazines, but today I mostly work on books.
A couple of years ago I began writing a weekly blog that is associated with my website. Readers can subscribe to my blog, and many have from far distant places. It has been great fun. I keep it short. I always include a piece of wisdom (I hope): “The Old Timer Says.” And I list where I am speaking, signing books, etc. for the next month or so. So the blog also becomes a marketing device for me. I have a “Check This Out,” where I mention a new book I have coming out, a launch party, that sort of thing.
You’ve been writing for over 30 years. What types of changes have you noticed about the publishing world in that time? How is being an author in the present day different than when you first started?
I have seen tremendous changes since I began writing professionally (meaning I got paid for it) in the late 1960s. During the Mid-1970s I worked part-time as an acquisitions editor for the Mc-Graw-Hill Book Company in New York. I did this for seven years. I lived in Madison (I was teaching at the University at the time) and traveled to Manhattan about once a month for a couple days. Those were the good years in the publishing world, no question about it.
Those were the days when a mid-list, regional author, where I place myself, could be published by a New York publisher. I have books published by McGraw-Hill and Simon and Schuster. Today, it is next to impossible for a mid-list author to have a New York publisher. They want blockbuster, “bottom line enhancement” books. Nor do they want to take a chance on a new author.
A bright spot is the emergence of regional publishers, both small and large. I have published with several of them, and continue to do so. Today my main publishers are Voyageur Press (Minneapolis), Fulcrum Press (Denver), University of Wisconsin Press (Madison), and Wisconsin Historical Society Press (Madison). The smaller, regional presses, not burdened by large advances, huge staffs, and management insisting on large profits are able to move in new directions and quite quickly. For instance, three of my books are now in Kindle format. Soon several will also be available on Barnes & Noble’s Nook. I’ve recently recorded one of my novels, which is available in MP3 format.
I suspect the coming of the internet plus the several social networks providing an opportunity for nearly everyone to become a “published” author is one major change. This has both its upside and down side. In my biased judgment, every author needs a good editor. Too much writing is “published” with no editing whatever. I have seen too many self-published books, easy to do these days and I’m not opposed to the idea, poorly edited, if edited at all.
I’ve taught creative writing for more than 40 years, I still do. In the early days, many of my students were able to have their writing published in newspapers. Alas, many of these newspapers have now disappeared, and more are disappearing everyday. So it has become increasingly more difficult for a new author to get his or her material published (at least in the more traditional ways).
Book reviewers in newspapers and magazines have disappeared in droves. There was a time when I worried what a reviewer would say about one of my books, now I’m lucky if a I get a review.
Independent bookstores are disappearing, a few more every year. Even the biggies such as Borders are struggling to survive in the face of the E-book revolution, and, unfortunately a decline in the number of people reading books.
Other changes I’ve experienced: today I often hire a freelance editor to work on a book before I even submit it for consideration by a publisher, especially my fiction. Publishers do not have the time, nor the staff to accept material that isn’t already in quite good shape.
I also spend a tremendous amount of time marketing my books. I do many radio and TV shows a year. In the past three or four years, I have given talks at more than 50 libraries, historical societies, bookstores and the like. I tell my writing students when they ask, that I spend about one-third of my time researching a book, one-third of my time writing and revising it, and one-third of my time marketing it. Of course I work closely with the marketing managers at my publishers to make sure we are all going in the same direction
With 25 books across various genres, you’ve already had the career most writers dream of. What are some misconceptions new writers have when they start out? Any lessons on getting published you care to share?
Important lessons I’ve learned over the years—there is a creative, romantic side to writing. There is equally, a hardnosed, marketing-business side. Good writing is essential—a bummer book cannot be marketed. But a stellar book without good marketing will go nowhere, no matter how good it is. It’s a tough reality, but the world is not patiently waiting for one of my books.
Another lesson that helps me get published is writing within a niche—I work as a rural historian, meaning I write fiction, nonfiction and children’s books that focus on farm life, small town life, issues facing rural America, nature and the environment.
Share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?
I try to publish about one book a year. Sometimes I do, sometimes not. I’m working on a fifth novel. I also have three nonfiction contracts for books going out to a 2012 publication date. After that, who knows?
What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?
That’s almost like asking who is my most favorite child. I have many. One thing I’ve done over the past decade or so is to return to some of the classics. I’ve re-read Thoreau, Emerson, Steinbeck, Hemingway and several others.
Where can we learn more about you?
Go to my website and sign up for my weekly blog; my website will tell you how to do it.
Anything else you’d like to add?