That’s why he borrowed $2,000 from a high school football buddy who worked at the Perryton, Texas, bank, and in 1982 started publishing his own books — the Hank the Cowdog series.
Erickson had been writing for 15 years, collecting hundreds — possibly thousands — of rejections. “I’d gone to writers’ conventions and chased those New York editors all around the hotel lobbies, but nobody was interested,” he says. “Maybe self-publishing was a crazy thing to do, but it was really a matter of life-and-death for me. I’d cowboyed on four ranches and neighbored on about 50. By then, I was too old to go back to cowboying. Besides, my goal was always to make my living as a writer, and I was damned sure I was gonna do it.”
Erickson, now 49, was already a cowpoke humorist and a familiar name in regional livestock publications. His first Hank the Cowdog story debuted in the pages of The Cattleman. So it didn’t seem like too much of a stretch to publish some of Hank’s stories in book form (each book is about 85 manuscript pages, plumped out to about 100 pages with illustrations), and cart them around in his black Chevy pickup to rodeos, county fairs and cattle auctions.
In the stories, Hank considers himself head of ranch security and tangles with everything from porcupines to wild coyotes in books with titles like Murder in the Middle Pasture. Erickson sold the books for $5.95 each from a card table. The only advertising he used was a small lapel button proclaiming him John Erickson, Author.
In 1987, his aptly named Maverick Books was purchased by Texas Monthly Press, which in 1990 was purchased by Gulf Publishing. Hank has become a book-on-tape (read by the author), a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and has been translated into Spanish as El Perro de Vacquero. With some 750,000 copies of the 20-volume series sold, Erickson now writes to support his wife and three kids, a house in his hometown of Perryton, and a 6,000-acre ranch called the M-Cross (named after his grandpappy’s brand), which is 38 miles to the southeast in the Texas panhandle.
Erickson reads his books out loud to any group that’ll invite him, from women’s sewing circles to farm grange meetings. He also reads at schools, although Hank wasn’t originally created for children. “I think teachers like it because it’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s not sleazy,” he says. “You don’t feel like you need a vaccination to read it.”
Most days, the rancher-writer rises at 5:30 a.m., writes until 9:30 or 10, and then heads for the ranch to clear cedar brush from the canyons, cut firewood, build fences, or mount up and run cattle.
“I’m a hard worker,” he says, pausing to consider his writing advice carefully. “I wouldn’t want to suggest it was easy. I’ve had a lot of doors shut in my face. But I think that now, more than ever, self-publishing is an option people should consider. The publishing business has become monolithic and distant. It’s harder and harder to break that catch-22 — you know, the one that says you have to have an agent to get published, and you have to be published to get an agent.”
But then, Erickson was pretty sure Hank would be a hit. The original Hank was based on an Australian shepherd; Hank’s sidekick, Drover, is modeled after “a plain old mutt.” Both are real-life ranch friends of Erickson’s. And today’s Hank has a feminine side, too. Several of the most recent Hank stories are based on the exploits of Erickson’s blue heeler border collie, Sophie.
“Hank is not the kind of book that goes out of style,” he says. “I mean, I don’t wanna encourage people to go jumpin’ off cliffs. You don’t want 1,500 books (his first print run) settin’ out in your garage. But I had good reason to believe I could sell. And I knew that a lot of the folks I was seeing didn’t go into bookstores, ever. I was creatin’ my audience from scratch. I just think it’s a good business decision to bet on yourself.”
Perhaps Erickson’s rejection-to-success odyssey can best be summed up by Hank, from The Case of the Midnight Rustler: “There I was, out in front, leaping rocks and fallen trees, climbing mountains and swimming swollen rivers. How can any dog made of mere flesh and blood and hair and bone accomplish so many incredible, impossible feats? All I can tell ya’ is, it couldn’t be done, doncha see. But I did it anyway.”