Posted on January 15, 2023
There are so many paths to take when you get into entrepreneurship. In this episode, host Steph Silver chats with Lou Earle on his journey from the military, starting a family business, and venturing into authorship. Lou is the co-owner of and CEO of Austin Fit Magazine, a US Navy veteran and author. He goes into detail about what it was like to work with his family, comparing his experience working with larger firms and how it helped. Lou also introduces the first installment of his spy trilogy, Apogee: A Mac Sisco Novel, sharing the inspiration for the book and the behind-the-scenes of what it’s like to publish his first novel. Gather valuable insights from Lou’s journey as a risk-taking entrepreneur by tuning in.
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From Family Business To Authorship: Taking Risks With Lou Earle
Our guest is Lou Earle, Co-Owner of and CEO of Austin Fit Magazine, US Navy veteran and author. Thank you so much for joining me, Lou Earle. I always put your name together. It’s just Lou.
It’s Lou. Two last names usually confuse people.
We’re in the South so I’m like, “That’s a cool name, Lou Earle.” I want to say it together all the time. Welcome. Thank you so much.
Thank you for having me.
I mentioned in the intro that you’re an author. You published your first novel and I’m very excited to talk about that with you. First, talk to us a little bit about who you were and how you got started before Austin Fit Magazine.
I was born in Philadelphia, a long way from here. I went to school in the suburbs of Philadelphia, first at a public school and then to an Episcopal private school through high school. I went to the University of Pennsylvania, which is also in Philadelphia. After I graduated from Penn, the Vietnam War was going on. Back then, there was a draft and then a lottery. I had a very low lottery number, which meant that I was likely to be drafted.
I enlisted in the United States Navy and then spent 4 years in the military in the United States Navy, ending up the last 2 years being assigned to the National Security Agency at Fort Mead, Maryland, NSA. We can talk about that more later. After I got out of the military, I started with NCR Corporation, which most people wouldn’t remember the original name, which was National Cash Register Company.
They made cash registers. It was before calculators, to be honest with you. I went with NCR and at that time, we were living in Washington DC. I was a salesperson for the company for several years in Washington. Eventually, I was promoted and moved to the corporate headquarters in Dayton, Ohio, where I had a whole slew of jobs running their education organization, eventually being a General Manager over a fairly large division for the company.
After 25 years of working for NCR, I was offered an opportunity, after a dozen interviews, to come down and work for Dell. I came to work for Dell Computers in their major accounts area and did several different jobs there. I left there four years later. I went with a small web development company for about a year. That company was sold. At that point, I would’ve been 30-some years. I finally decided that I wasn’t going to work for anybody else.
That’s when, in 2004, I purchased Austin Fit Magazine from the original founder and then have owned that company ever since. My dear darling wife Lynne is the publisher of the magazine because I’m working on some other things. In the interim, I did consulting work and some other things like that. That’s the stream of consciousness of running for a long time.
What made you decide to leave Dell and go to a smaller company?
A number of things. One of the executives that I had worked with, who was on the same level at Dell as I was had started another smaller company. It seemed to me that I’d been working for multibillion-dollar companies my whole career. NCR was about a $6 billion revenue company. When I joined Dell, it was probably $14 billion. It was significantly larger, although much younger.
NCR was the oldest computer and is the oldest computer company in the world. It was founded in 1894, selling cash registers. Later we made mainframe computers and a lot of computing systems. The opportunity to go with a smaller company seemed like something that I should try doing. I did that for a short period. Dell was growing dramatically and I had a great time at Dell. It was a wonderful place to work but I thought I’d try something a little different.
I’ve been there a few times as well. Did you see yourself as an entrepreneur when you were in those big organizations? You hopped and moved around and had a lot of different roles but there’s a big difference between working for the man or even working for a smaller company and then going off and doing it on your own.
You’re certainly right about that. I wouldn’t say I’d thought of myself as an entrepreneur while I was with these large companies. Having said that, I never regret working for both companies. They were very sophisticated. It was an MBA about five times over. When I first started with NCR back in the ‘70s and made my way from salesperson to district manager, for example, in Washington, I had about five salespeople working for me. I had what we used to say in the industry, P&L authority. Profit loss authority meant I managed most of the financials, not all of them. There were certain things that NCR didn’t let me control like training dollars because they didn’t want me to make a profit and use training money for profit, which is an interesting thing.
NCR was very sophisticated that way. They knew the psychology of management and if you’ve got somebody who’s got a profit objective. We were very motivated to make those numbers and then we would do it any way we could. If we were taking something we should be investing in and putting it over into the profit line, that wasn’t a good thing. Simple little lessons like that carry on. In NCR, I had so many different functional jobs and they were all new to me. The good news was you have a certain amount of resources and support. It’s a little different than entrepreneurism but we were given problems to solve.
When I ran the worldwide educational organization, I had to put together an annual plan and a strategic plan. I had to present it to a vice president or a senior vice president, ultimately, to even higher levels than that, like the chairman’s level for some things. That had to make sense. It was like running a business. The best job I had at NCR was being a general manager because that was the closest to being a complete entrepreneur. The only difference was I didn’t control things like building a product.
That product work was done by a different organization but all the sales work, the facilities, maintenance of equipment, all of that came under me. I had 2,000 people and a $400 million objective in revenue. Did I feel like I’m an entrepreneur? My offices were separate. I did have corporate people I had to report to but every entrepreneur at some point in time, if they grow at all, is going to have a board of directors. That was not all that unusual. Having said all that, it was an incredible education and I could never have managed Austin Fit well if I hadn’t had that experience, not only in the managing of the financials but all the HR work that we did and everything else.
The big difference is the resources. If I wanted to do something with HR, I could call up an HR director if it worked for me. When you start a small business or you’re in a small company, the generalization is much greater and the specialization is much less. That has benefits and disadvantages. In some ways, I never thought of that myself as an entrepreneur. I’ve known many. There’s a degree of risk-taking and being an entrepreneur that is not as apparent in a larger company.There's a degree of risk taking and being an entrepreneur that is not as apparent in a larger company. Click To Tweet
Thank you for sharing that. There are so many lessons in that. A lot of young people have big ideas and the word entrepreneur is so much more widely spread and used. Everyone thinks they want to go out and start their new Dell or whatever it might be, whether it’s making apps or whatever it is. Putting in the time and learning from someone who is already doing it well and learning all the different levels, you never know when those lessons are going to come back around for you, even if you don’t plan to work for a large organization forever. Even if you do, you don’t know where you’re going to land in the long run. What made you decide to purchase Austin Fit Magazine?
Everything’s a story. I had decided to leave the smaller web development company. They were sold. I said, “This is a great time to transition out and do something else.” At first, I discussed with my eldest son maybe putting together a company. He was doing a lot of writing. He was getting his PhD. He was located in New York. It’s ironic that it was writing but we talked about doing a brokerage for writers because he was doing some contract writing. I said, “You know a lot about writing. I know a lot about business so maybe we could figure out a way to do that.”
It’s oriented toward doing a family business. I wanted to do that. We dabbled with that discussion. I started to frame out a value proposition and think about how the revenue sources would be for that and how that would work. At the same time, Lynne and I started looking around for companies to buy as another alternative. We looked at all kinds of companies from roofing companies. It didn’t matter to me what company it was, to be honest with you, because I was going to be involved in the demand side in terms of understanding that. I spent a lot of time in sales, not marketing, which is a big difference.
Eventually, my son decided to move down here and he was the one who found Austin Fit for sale. I said, “Why don’t we do that?” It was a journalistic endeavor and he convinced me, “This is what we should do.” I succumbed and said okay. It wasn’t that I was against writing or journalism or anything else. I had been looking more at a physical product and service area than journalism. We decided to do it. After a lot of negotiations, we purchased the company in 2004. I brought him in and he was the editor-in-chief. My youngest son graduated from UT some years later. That’s how it all started.
Did you have a vision of what it would be as your business when you started it or did you want to continue and carry it on as it was?
No, we didn’t carry it on as it was. The founder was a woman. She was very capable. We have a very small staff. Everything was pretty much contracted out except for the sales part of it. It was very cosmetically oriented. We were much more interested in health and wellness. We immediately started to shift the focus of the magazine’s content to more health, fitness, wellness, exercise and nutrition.
The cosmetic market’s very lucrative so we certainly didn’t give up on that but we meant to grow the mix more on that other side, which is what we did. We were very successful at doing that over time because there’s a large need for those disciplines. The mission of the company was and is to make people healthier and fitter, not just pretty. Although there are cosmetic products that certainly can help you be healthier, we saw the mission more as wellness in that case.
You mentioned hiring your two sons and there have been changes in that as well. How has running a business as a family as opposed to a corporation changed your thoughts about the family business and running an organization in that way?
When you start a business with a family in mind, as you were saying about young people and how they say, “We’ll start a product and start a business,” I was very naive about that. There are complexities, to be frank, that you don’t imagine in terms of conflict and all kinds of things that come up in business that may not necessarily come up in a family situation normally. You have to be very careful when you start a family business.
I’ve talked to some very successful family businesses and founders of family businesses in this area on this very topic. Many of them have expressed some of the same concerns I have about it. None of my sons are in the business, to be honest. That’s because they’ve become interested in other things. There were conflicts in the company, in most cases between Lynne and me or something like that.
We’ve had a lot of time to figure those things out. Sometimes even my sons would get into conflicts. They had different roles. Those roles naturally can conflict and they do in business. In a big company, you have different ways to resolve those. In a small company with family relations and all that goes with that, you have to be a little bit more careful about that.
In my training all my years, I treat businesses as a business. I’m pretty hard on that. When I discussed with my sons what roles they should play, ultimately, I made those decisions. The way I define those responsibilities, I define those responsibilities. If those responsibilities are not always performed, then you have to decide how you’re going to handle that.
That cannot be any different for your family than any other employee. That’s a rule I won’t break. That’s not right. It may not even be legal but to me, it’s not an issue about legality. It’s an issue about equity and fairness to all employees. That’s a balance you have to find if you have a family in a business, whether it’s your children or your spouse or partner.
There are complexities to a family business that are often not considered by the people that get into them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it because they’re huge benefits as well. I think the legacy of a family business. I will tell you this. While my two sons are not in the business, if you were to have them in this room and you said to them, “What was your experience like? Was it important to where you are?” There would be no question that they would have a very difficult time having it. Not that they couldn’t have achieved it but the education that they learned being in that business more as entrepreneurs because that was a small company was invaluable to how they’ve done. They’ve both done very well in their own areas, which I’m very glad to see.
Having talked with a lot of small business owners, there’s usually a husband-and-wife dynamic. There are kids and generational changes. It does seem like the most long-term success comes from a clear delineation of roles and an understanding of one decision-maker at the end of the day. That can get emotional at times, I’m sure.
That became especially complicated as I began to withdraw from the company and they were essentially running it together. The execution becomes challenging. Even when you’re in charge, it is difficult sometimes. It’s very hard to treat your children exactly the way you might operate in a firm where you don’t have relationships with people.
We don’t have to have Christmas with them.
That’s right or Thanksgiving.
Just a regular dinner.
We got through it. The other thing is if you come into an entrepreneurial or family business like that and you’ve come from a formal education in a larger company, you don’t realize sometimes the difference. You tend to approach your family the same way. As soon as you do that, you start to see that they’re not experienced. They don’t see themselves that way. You have to look at it from both perspectives. This is my family’s company and they’ve never been in a more formal environment. They may not think of themselves quite the way you think they should think of themselves so they respond differently.
Having built an agency in Austin, we hired a lot of people right out of college. It’s wonderful and exciting. They all have their ideas and they all want to have ownership. Even in that dynamic that I experienced, since they didn’t have the experience of working in a larger corporate space, we had a family dynamic. There was a lot of room to put in their ideas and their opinions and to grow and help grow it. At the end of the day, there are a lot of things that they don’t know. If they don’t know that they don’t know yet, it’s easy for those emotions to get in and not be able to see. It’s like the parent saying, “Because I said so.” At the end of the day, that’s the way it is.
The other dynamic that you run into and this is more of my definition of wisdom is not age. It’s transactions. If you put somebody in a bubble and they’re 80 years old, they know nothing. If you put a street-smart person out there who has gone through a lot of transactions, they know a lot. Everybody has a different set of transactions.Wisdom is not age. It's transactions. Click To Tweet
I would install things in a very sophisticated company. I wrote all the HR systems and the way we did the accounting, I had reviews I put in a “management system,” which I learned a lot about back in my time with both Dell and NCR. Those processes all link horizontally and vertically in a company. Whether it’s big or small, they’re there. I would get feedback like, “This is bureaucratic. We don’t need all this stuff.”
The reason those companies are successful when they’re big is that they figured out how to do those things. You get a lot of pushback because people don’t appreciate the sophistication that can go into running smaller companies without bureaucracy. I was very sensitive to bureaucracy because I had lived through a lot of it. No matter how good a company is, it creeps into the frameworks of large companies.
Unfortunately, a lot of times the way that’s handled by companies is through reductions in force. In NCR, I love them but they reduced their force every year. A part of the way they kept control over headcount growing too fast, there were lots of other ways but they knew that they had to call the employee base because there were nonperforming. It was all done on baseline merit and performance or at least to the extent that that’s possible.
Those kinds of systems are difficult for younger people to understand and understand the value of until they start to grow and things start to fly apart because you don’t have them. I’m a big believer in taking history, learning from the experience of those transactions and then implementing them sensibly. You have to prioritize them so you have to determine where you have the biggest gaps that affect the performance of the business. That’s where you focus on putting in those more sophisticated systems. You do that over time but it’s about consulting. That’s where the consulting side comes in.
I’ve seen the same thing. No matter how small or large the business, the better the systems are, the easier growth and answering questions are. Also knowing what your vision and your mission are, you can make those decisions and those processes align with all of those things. What’s the hardest decision that you’ve had to make so far in all of this? You have this family business and the systems in place. You’ve gone in and out of the leadership of Austin Fit Magazine. What’s been the hardest decision you’ve had to make in that role?
The toughest thing that we faced was when the kids decided they wanted to move on. My oldest son did that first. He wanted to form his company, which he did. I’ll give him a plug, Bounce Marketing in Austin, Texas. It’s very successful. He started it with his wife, although she has another occupation. That was birthed while he was at Austin Fit. He was thinking about that idea.
He decided to leave and that left a pretty big gap. I had to fill that pretty quickly. My younger son did step in and we were doing a huge event in Austin called the Austin Fittest, which was a combine. It is very unusual for people to take fitness tests, essentially. It was extremely popular and very successful. They compete. We put out an issue called Austin Fittest and that’s how we figured out who they were. Instead of voting, we had done that but it was a vote. Who do you think is the fittest? Everybody wrote their friends. That was fine. Everybody was interested.
Austin Fittest is very hyper-local. People want to read about what’s going on in Austin like this. My younger son, Alex, stepped in and did a wonderful job but then eventually when we sold that event and he became very involved with the company that bought it. They offered him a very nice job. He decided that that would be a very interesting change for him. Lynne and I had to say, “It’s a family business.” I was doing a lot of consulting work at that point because I had backed away.
That’s when Lynne had to take over the publishing side and she was very creative. My biggest concern has always been revenue. I’m a business guy. Sales is if you don’t have revenue, you don’t have anything. It was a difficult decision on how to move forward with doing that thing. Whether we should even keep doing the business was a decision when the kids weren’t involved because my vision was always to withdraw from the company at some point. I’d already been working for 40 years. That was probably the toughest one for me.
Do you plan to continue holding on or have Lynne as the publisher and running a lot of the business or is it something that you think you’ll sell in the near future?
We brought in another partner. Ultimately, we know that we’re going to have to withdraw. Lynne’s trying to reduce her activities. Our partner is a key part of that strategy. We saw that coming years ago and started to work on that. At some point, you can’t keep doing it. I believe in the company and its mission or else I wouldn’t have gone in that direction anyway.
I also believe it’s a wonderful type of business model. I believe that content and information in particular is becoming the maybe most valuable commodity you can have. From running a business and having been in manufacturing organizations, we have inventory but it’s archival content. I can build a product in 10 minutes or 24 hours.
If I’m lacking an inventory, I can go put it together, either out on the street doing an interview like you’re doing. Many pieces of content have no time limit to them. We have training programs that are as good today archived. I could produce content for months without going out and doing an interview. There’s a lot of value in the content. You know that because every day, you’re going through these interviews. You’re archiving more content.
Some of that content will be valuable for a long time, whether it’s recipes in our case, exercise routines or any number of other things that will continue and have value. The business model itself lends itself to enormous growth opportunities, as you can see. Companies that we talk about every day, like Twitter, who would ever think that 70 words could turn into a multibillion-dollar company overnight?
Facebook was a little more complicated but still a pretty simple idea. The technology behind them is not all that complicated. Almost anybody can do it. That’s why software is a good business because somebody can have a unique idea, develop some code and put it out there. You think about the cost that goes into building it. It can be costly.
We went out of print during COVID because we couldn’t distribute. There were no stores open and no place to put them. We were a free publication. I had known that we would have to go digital at some point. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in print. I wrote a book. I wanted it printed but I knew that there was too much going on, whether it was cutting down trees or the cost of printing and distribution and being able to access the readership.
My magazine is available all over the world instantaneously. Think about the production schedule. I used to have to get done two weeks before the first issue came out. Now, I can be two days before. I always knew it would largely go digital. There is a disadvantage to that too. We’re not sitting on the stands out where people glance over and see Austin Fit. That’s the challenge, to make sure that your brand continues to be available and out there. That requires marketing. That’s a little different than putting something on. You can always benefit from marketing but it was a little easier when the magazine was sitting on 500 stands in locations around the city.That's the challenge - to make sure that your brand continues to be available and out there. That requires marketing. Click To Tweet
That’s how I came across you the first time, seeing the magazine in the stand, picking it up, taking it home and getting all those articles and tips. Are you mostly digital? Do you print at all?
We do not print. We can exercise print anytime we want. We constantly discuss whether we should come out with a quarterly or an annually. We have all those options because we know how to do it. We know the printers and distribution systems. Our files are set up to do that. The way our application works, we have the magazine. When you get it, it’s a page-turner so there’s still that. The content of the magazine is not the same as our website. We have a very effective website but I’ve always believed that the content should be different. I’d like it to be a lot different than it is.
I’d like the website to be specifically a daily newsy-oriented site where you refresh it constantly and then the magazine is your monthly look at what’s happened over 30 days. That’s the way it should be. We’re not there yet so we do leverage content from the magazine because we write some great stories. We spend a lot of money on that. I’m not saying we don’t on the website but those are where you put a lot of time into the editing and all of that and the layout of the magazine. With the website, it’s a lot simpler. We have the option to print. People have asked us about that. If you wanted a printed copy of our magazine, we can do that.
It’s not inexpensive. On certain, like for covers, we’ll have people we put on the cover frequently will request, “Can I get a copy of the magazine?” We say, “Yeah, we got it digitally.” They say, “I’d like a printed one.” We might print up twenty copies or something like that. We used to print tens of thousands of copies.
Let’s take this time to transition into your book. You’ve completed and published a novel. It’s a trilogy. Is this your first novel?
Yes, it is.
Here is the introduction. “Apogee is a Mac Sisco novel opening a trilogy about a worldwide conspiracy. It sets the stage for a social and political inspection by introducing the efforts of ex-Navy SEAL and NSA intelligence agent Mac Sisco, who finds himself in over his head when Team Apogee is called upon to thwart an evil government busting conspiracy.” That is not light and airy. What made you decide to write this novel?
If you want to see more about this, you can read our magazine. One of the benefits I have as the owner of the magazine is I said, “I want my book to be in my magazine.” In Austin Fit in The Best Of issue, which is one of our big issues, we evaluate all kinds of health and wellness organizations across Austin and people. All the readers vote on it. Thanks to Lynne. We finished that issue. It’s out and it’s great.
It’s the December 2022 issue. The Austinites love it because they get their certificate. They can print the certificates we send them. “You’re the number one yoga studio,” It’s a big deal. I said, “I would like to do an interview.” I did an interview for my magazine and it’s in this issue. Part of it is there. I can’t remember if we titled it Everybody Has a Story but it’s a little bit like that. The first question is, “How did I get into writing at all?” I was down doing a TV piece in San Antonio and I met my older brother for lunch who lives in San Antonio. When we were young, my parents didn’t want us to get up earlier than they did and leave the room.
They were worried about us destroying something. We had to stay in our room and we had twin beds. I might have been seven years old or something. Somehow, when we’d wake up earlier than they did, I would start narrating a story. In that day, it was The Hardy Boys, for example, and stuff like that. It was always about my brother and me. I would talk about it. More often than not, when we woke up, he’d say, “Lou, tell me a story.” I would do that. That was an interesting thing. I set that aside for a while. When I left the National Security Agency, I was in the Naval Security Group, which is every service has an intelligence group within it. The Air Force Security Services, the Army Security Agency and the Naval Security Group.
When I joined the military two years earlier, it never occurred to me that you get job ratings in the Navy. You have a choice. I tried to go after the academic choices. I’d graduated from college and I thought, “Maybe I could be a yeoman,” which is like writing things. None of those were available. Interestingly enough, there was a thing called a Communications Technician Interpreter, CTI. They’ve changed the rating or the occupational name. When I asked the chief petty officer what that was, he didn’t know. I said, “It’s communications. That sounds like something cerebral. I’ll do that.” Little did I know that a communications technician interpreter meant a linguist. I said, “What language am I signed up for?” They said, “Cambodian.”
That’s what I learned for a year in the Navy. Eventually, that caused me to be reassigned after being in a different location into the National Security Agency, where military linguists are frequently used to transcribe, enemy or not, communications from other organizations that are in different languages. That got me to the agency. Two years later, I separated. I remember leaving the agency saying, “This was interesting.” It was a fabulous experience. It was the military but it was very interesting. Where else could you have ever had that experience? While it has changed, I’m sure greatly, I thought about that a little later.
In 2004, I was reading a horoscope. I have it here but I won’t read it but it was November 27th, 2004. It says, “Gemini,” which is what I am, “Do you have certain talents for writing, dear Gemini?” It goes on. I forgot all about that. Later on that year, I decided I’ll write. This was on December 13th, 2004. I wrote a spreadsheet with four genres on it. One of them was suspense. It says, “A young man getting out of the NSA stumbles on a document.” It goes on to describe a storyline.
A couple of months later, I wrote 4 or 5 pages of a book that I was going to write called Code Word. I was dealing in codes and ciphers when I was in the agency but I never did anything about it. I wrote five pages and put them away. I had written poetry for my anniversaries. I had written my wife poetry. Whenever I couldn’t go out and buy a gift, I figured this will be a good way to satisfy this problem. I’ll write a poem.
I’ve written a lot of poetry. I’ve written one non-fiction novel, never published, called The Natural Way, which is a short observational novel about making decisions in life. I put it away. I’ve written one children’s book for my grandchildren, where I took pictures of all of the animals on our ranch. I did little funny poems about each animal, which they like. I own a magazine and wrote the publisher’s letter for a decade. That was 120 of those. Writing was not a problem but writing a novel is a whole different thing. It was in 2020 that I started writing Apogee. All of that got me to the point of it.
It went back to my days at NSA but only for the first page. In other words, we were in and are in a very disruptive time on Earth. We have uprisings, movements and discontent in many societies across the planet. That became the genesis for the basic plot of the book. My major, which I find also ironic, at the University of Pennsylvania, was Cultural Anthropology. It’s very useful.
In Corporate America, it is useful to look at primitive cultures but it occurred to me that it seemed very unique that all these different cultures at different stages in their development, some developing nations and some less developed nations, are going through very similar disruptions. A lot of that is technology and communications. It’s a coincidence that doesn’t seem possible. This is what NSA is faced with.
Through their signal intelligence, they’re seeing all of this disruption saying, “This may not be random. This may be something else.” Mac Sisco is one of their agents. That’s where they decide this is too dangerous to ignore. They have to figure out what’s going on on the planet. That’s what the reader has to decide too in the book. It’s still a fair question. Is all of this random? Is it something that happens or is something pulling the strings or somebody or some organization that we don’t know about? That’s what the premise of the book is based on.
Does your opinion match the answer that was determined in the book by Mac Sisco?
There are three books. I wrote the book. I started in August 2020. I finished it in four months, which is uncanny, especially when you’re not a novelist by trade or training. I’ll tell you the story of how that happened but it did occur to me that this was a reasonable thing. This was credible to bring this premise. Do I believe that it could happen? Yes. Do I believe it is happening? I do believe it is happening maybe in a different way than the book articulates. The third book is going to be much closer if I can backtrack a little bit on the books. The book was 450 pages long but I had to stop and end it.
I didn’t know how to end it because I don’t write that way. I don’t outline anything. As I did when I was a child and telling a story. I don’t know what the next line’s going to be until it is. In a way, I believe the book is writing itself. It’s presenting me with images and then I’m putting them down on paper. That’s the way I feel about it. You get stuck sometimes but that’s how I write.
I didn’t know when I started Apogee, where it went, how it would end or where it would go. I did have an idea of what was the problem that had to be solved but that was about it. The title of the book or the title of the protagonist, Mac Sisco, was a combination of my middle name, which is Mackenzie. There’s the Mac and a very good friend of mine in San Antonio whose last name is Sisco. I like the name.
Even the title Apogee, I like the word apogee. I thought that was cool. I looked it up to make sure I knew what it was. It’s the perigee and the apogee in an orbit but it’s also the pinnacle of things. It fit but I wasn’t overwhelmed by the relationship. It sounded like that would be an interesting title. While I was writing the book, I brought it when Lynne and I sat down for a drink in the evening. She said, “Read me some of what you’ve written.” I read about five pages and she said, “I like that.”
I said, “I’m glad to hear that but you are a little biased.” My daughter is living with us. She said, “I like that too.” I would sit down, write five more pages and then come in every evening and they’d say, “Did you write any more?” I’d say, “Yeah,” “Let’s read it.” I read the entire book as I wrote it over a period of four months. I can’t tell you how important that was because they were so supportive and they wanted me to write more. If I didn’t write, they’d say, “You need to get back in there and write so you can tell us where is Jasmine,” one of my characters and so forth. It’s a very motivating thing.
They had a mini-series in front of them every day. They were hanging on like old-school television where you have to wait and have commercials.
They had a commercial. Unfortunately, when I finally decided that I had to end it and I did, then I got excited. I have a printer and tried to make it in a format I thought would look. It was not even the right size. I printed the whole book and then bound it. I brought a little perfect bind machine, very inexpensive. I made a copy and gave the copy to a few of my friends. It was thick. A couple of them said very nice things to me. I thought, “Maybe I should publish this book.” I went to a few literary agents. The first question I had was, “How long is your book?”
I said, “It’s 450 pages,” very proudly. They said, “That won’t work.” I said, “What? What do you mean it won’t work? It’s not like a ten-page book. This is a real book.” They said, “No, it’s way too long.” I said, “What do I do about that?” They said, “You edit or cut it.” I said, “It’s very difficult to edit your work because you like it or you wouldn’t have written it that way.”
I couldn’t get it published at 450 pages. It was too big for a newbie. Patterson could get it published. Clancy, sure but not Lou. I had to cut it in half and changed the ending of the first book into a cliffhanger, which I tell you in advance. I changed the beginning of the second book. The 1st book is about 280 pages and the 2nd book is similar and the 2nd book is already written.
That was the good news. I had 2 books instead of 1. I had to make those changes and I did that. In the second book, The Typhon Affair, Typhon is a God with multiple heads and is already completed. It’s in editing. It’ll be out in March of ‘23. It could have been out in 2022 but the publisher suggested that we split them up, which is going to produce another one of these. It’s very short. The last book, The Maslow Conspiracy, is underway. It’s about halfway through already.
It’s a similar problem but it’s not the same problem exactly. It’s frighteningly realistic. I can say that. That’s how I got started on it and where it’s going to go. Yes, there are two more books and they’re coming very fast. You’ll get all 3 of them within 12 months, which typically would get 1 book out. I’m very interested in getting them all out pretty quickly. We’ll see where Mac goes from there. I don’t know but I like him.
When you sat down in writing the first book and came back every day, what was your particular process? You didn’t go into it as a trained author who knows what they’re doing and has their process. Some will light a candle and make sure that the atmosphere is right and invite their muses. Did you have a process that you went back to or became comfortable with?
To be very candid, I don’t. The process I have is I sit down if I haven’t sat down with it for a while like I’ve been working a lot on trying to get this book out. I haven’t been writing much on the third book. I’ll have to go back and go through it. I’m becoming better at understanding the difference between where action should happen and where the dialogue should happen and so forth. All these great novelists and especially in the thriller and spy novel genre and you know, a lot of these characters, the Vince Flynns, like the Jack Reachers. Ultimately, I’d love to see my books become a movie because that would be historical. I review it and I was very fortunate.
I want to give a shout-out to John Casey. There was a John Casey who was a very famous novelist but this is a San Antonio guy who released the third novel in his trilogy on spies. He started his publishing company called PHiR Publishing. He’s publishing for maybe 4 or 5 authors. I got to know him through a friend of mine in San Antonio. I didn’t get on my knees but I said, “Would you be willing to consider publishing my book?” I avoided the query letter. There’s a whole process you have to go through to get somebody interested in your book. It’s like becoming famous in Hollywood, only 1,000 times harder. There are millions of books published every year. There’s a lot for these people to go through and decide upon.
As John has told me, “There are three ways a book that you need to have a successful book. The first is you need a great story. You can’t get away from it if you don’t have that. The second is you need great marketing. The third is luck.” I’m hopeful I have the first two and then we’ll see if I get lucky. What you’re doing for me here is one of the most important aspects of getting your novel out there.
He usually asks his writers to get a professional editor to edit his books but he was kind enough to edit my book but that’s a process. I did try to go through and edit my book but one of the first things he came back to me with was, “Why are you using the past perfect all the time?” I said, “What?” John went, “Why do you need to say had gone?” I said, “I don’t know. That’s the way I talk and think.” I went through my book and said, “I got to see this for myself.”
I could not believe the number of times I used those phrases that were unnecessary. You begin to learn these little lessons, how the dialogue should be paragraphed, all these things I was ignorant of. He cut out things that were, in his view, irrelevant. In some cases, we had discussions about that because you become very attached to certain scenery. The other thing that I have to learn and continue to learn, in my opinion, I’m not perfect at this but if you read Clancy, it can take pages to get one scene covered. Other artists will do that in a paragraph.
The level of detail that you put into a book is important. Certain authors have like detail. I like detail because it creates a better visual for the reader. An image. At the end of the day, I want the reader to suddenly not even see themselves reading the book. I want them to be there, to be witnessing it or part of it even. I do have a tendency to put significant detail into certain kinds of scenery. Mansion, when I’m discussing a house, I might get into the wood in the walls or the ceiling and go into some description. That can turn some readers off because it slows things down a little bit. I have to be careful when I’m going through the book.The level of detail that you put into a book is really important. Click To Tweet
When do you pull action in it? When you do character development, for example. My books have a lot of characters and the team Apogee is five people. You get to know every one of them. Some of them you get to know very well. That’s by design. We want you to like them or not like them. I spent as much time on the villains as I do on the heroes because you want the villains to be a certain way. All I did was think about what would a villain be. The same thing with Mac Sisco. What kind of person would he be?
I don’t have a process but I’m becoming more sensitive to those kinds of rather large issues that you have to start to design into the book a little bit. You have to say, “I haven’t had anything fast or happen in about ten pages. Maybe I better figure out something or I’m going to lose these people.” Other people love the imagery. It’s hard to know. It’s such a broad audience.
I’m the type of reader who gets into it and lost. At the end of any novel, I feel like I’ve lost my best friend. I’m like, “What is my life? I don’t even remember anymore.” I’m so into it. Did you do additional research along the way as you started to write it and go, “I need a little bit more detail here?”
That is another fascinating part of writing. I thought a lot about this and talked to John about this too. The first thing that you do, at least I did, was to write about things I knew. That reduces your research to some extent. Even when you’ve lived in places and I’ve lived and or been to many of the places, two parts of the book take place here in Wimberley.
If you are from Wimberley, you’ll get a kick out of that. Some of the places here in Wimberley are mentioned in the book. I live in Wimberley and I have a ranch so the ranch plays a major part at the beginning of the book and later at the end of the book. I know a lot about my ranch. The ranch that I described is not exactly like my ranch. It’s much larger in this case.
The book goes all over the world. A lot of it is in the United States. I lived in Washington, DC so I know restaurants in Washington, DC where I brought characters together, like the old Ebbitt Grill or some other restaurants in the book. I’d been there and I’d eaten there but I had to go back in and say, “Is it still there? Is it still what I think I remember it being?” I remember going in it. Did they still operate the same way down to menus? There’s a lot of research that you end up doing. I took the book overseas. I spent a lot of time in my business career traveling a lot.
Some of the places that I have in the book, I didn’t go. For example, New Zealand. I’ve never been to New Zealand but I’ve been to Paris and Britain so I could talk a little bit about those. When you get into the detail of painting a scene with two people eating together at dinner, you want to know the restaurant and what they’re eating. At least I do.
This gets into the issue of how much detail you put in the book. It’s fascinating to say that they ate scallops and shrimp, especially if that’s one of the things on the menu. The research can be deep, yet I don’t want to do so much because I want things to be genuine but I haven’t gotten into places where I was trying to do scientific theory.
That’s not entirely true. In Apogee and Maslow, several scientific theorems are a key part of the problem that is being solved. You’ll see those in Apogee and Maslow that become very important to how can things be carried out and how are they executed on both sides, which is fascinating. The research is big. Google has been my friend.
You didn’t have to fly back to Washington.
No, and I didn’t have to go to a lot of those locations, thankfully. I would’ve loved to.
The other question that I have because there are a lot of aspiring authors like you were before, people who have written a book and set it aside is, what is your marketing strategy other than talking to me and the guy in San Antonio?
I’m more of a sales guy than a marketing guy. I understand individual stuff. There’s an awful lot to marketing. My publisher, our arrangement doesn’t include marketing. He knows how hard that is. With that said, he’s been extremely helpful because he’s marketing his novels. I’m building my website but I’m using his website because he’s got my books, my background and my picture on it. I used my magazine but I’ve got a lot of friends in Austin. The first thing I did was to send the notification that my published book was out to all my family and friends who are all over the world. Philadelphia, a lot of my relatives are up there. Also, New York and so forth.
I send out this email blast and I got a lot of responses back. My first cousin, who is a dear man, said, “I’m reading Patterson but I’m going to put it down and get your book right away.” Lynne and I got a call from an old friend that was with NCR when I was there and whom I haven’t seen in a long time saying, “I just finished your book. I loved it but I want to know what’s going to happen.” I said, “I guess I could send you the digital version of what’s in the edit.” He said, “No, I’ll wait.” That was the first place to start. Send it to people, let them know it’s happening and then they can buy the Kindle version or the book or not.
Before I did that, when I first wrote the book, before I ever had the book in print published and I had copies of it, I would send PDFs to certain people. That was more to say, “Is this any good?” A lot of people will say, “Send it to me and I’ll read it,” but they don’t get around to it, which is the nature of the beast. A lot of them did read it. Without that encouragement, not that I wouldn’t have continued to try to publish it but it certainly helped me motivate myself to do that. I’m still exploring, going on television and promoting your books. Book signings are hard to get. Especially book companies that have a lot of people who want to be signed.
I’m talking to some of my friends in Austin about how to do an event. You need to be fortunate and hit the right person who is in that business. Maybe something gets viral. My publisher published maybe half a dozen books, poetry books and everything else so he said, “Lou, it’s a long, difficult task unless you happen to get lucky too, no matter how good your book is.”
I remember years ago going to an off-Broadway show in New York and I’d gone to some Broadway shows. When I finished, I said, “I can’t see any difference between these people and the Broadway people. What’s the difference?” It’s luck. These people were so talented, they could do any show. People can be very good. I’m sure there are wonderful authors out there writing their first book that may be better than some that are out there selling millions of books. That’s the way it is.
Going to meet the right people at the right time. Get in front of the right people and stay persistent.
I’ve got three books. I’m going to get them out there. I’m going to improve my odds the best I can.
Where can people find your book?
You can find it on Amazon. Go on an Amazon search and do Lou Earle Apogee and it’ll come up. It’s on Google Play. You can order books at Barnes and Noble. I have not yet done an Audible version. I’m a big fan of Audible. I have hundreds of Audible books. My daughter is blind and she loves to listen to books. It’s one of the benefits of reading to her as I go along. I would love to do that. That’s a little bit more money. You got to get ready and get a good narrator. I’d love to put it out on Audible too. Also, anywhere else. These are the major places. I’ve been interviewed by Voyage Dallas. I was on TV in San Antonio Living.
I’m here and I’ll probably do another word-of-mouth campaign because I don’t realize how many people I haven’t sent the thing to. You get your email list and then you send it out with the links to it and so forth. There are an awful lot of people to whom I haven’t sent it out yet, which I’ll do. I’m considering maybe trying to do some event in Austin.
The big thing about having a signing is I’d love to do it or go on a tour and do the things we’re doing right here. It’s just that’s complicated to do and to manage and everything else. The main thing is you don’t want to do a book signing and have four people show up. That’s a little bit nasty but I’ll take the chance if I have to. I’m sure there are many other ways. One of my friends that did read the book who’s quite knowledgeable in this said it would be a great screenplay. It would be a good movie. That’s when you hit the jackpot.
Come on, Netflix. Pick it up.
It’s wonderful to think of. I would have such fun at my age going out and chatting about it like I’m doing with you. It’s a lot of fun for me. That would be a nice chapter in one’s life to do. If it doesn’t happen, it’s okay. The writing itself and the satisfaction I’ve gotten from getting through it and doing it. One of the things that I learned over the years in journalism was at one time I was the chairman of a nonprofit called Badger Dog, which we put out a short digest called American Short Fiction. We also taught disenfranchised kids how to write prose and poetry.
One of the things I learned was there’s a huge crisis in vocabulary in this country and it worries me. Years ago, the vocabulary is probably 20% better than it is in 2022. If you can’t articulate with precision, it’s a very dangerous thing. We’re going to be grunting if we’d not careful. While I love abbreviations, we can’t give up on our vocabulary. The other thing that I learned during that time was if you ask somebody what they’d like to do, a lot of them say, “I’d like to write a book.”
Before my mom passed away, I asked her, “If you had gotten to do something that you had dreamed of doing that you felt was going to fulfill you, what would it be?” That’s what she said. She was an avid reader, always had a book in her hand and it didn’t matter what it was. She had her favorites. If she wasn’t reading, she’d pick up anything. That’s what she said. She would’ve been a writer.
With that being said, you’ve followed a couple of directions in your life and worked for these, first of all, the military, big corporations and then small businesses. You started your own small business. You’re a published author. Congratulations. What would advice would you have for someone out there who is thinking about or on the verge of taking that leap toward their passion or dream?
I got a note from my college, the University of Pennsylvania. They’re doing this piece where they’re going out to get all the alumni. I hate to say this but I was in the class of 1968. They said, “We want you to write a page.” It was cool because they did a book at the 50th alumni thing, which I went back for. They did this big book and say, “We want to update this digitally.” They asked that question. They said, “What advice would you give?” I’m trying to remember exactly what I said but the first thing I would say is to be careful but take risks.
One of the things I sometimes think I didn’t do enough of was taking a risk. Even though I was in a big company, people think that big companies aren’t taking risks. I learned they’re very risky. Take risks. Without that, you’re going to lose. Losing and failing are learning and they’re the most important learning lessons. They’re the transactions that help you advance quickly. Doing things right doesn’t always teach you anywhere near what doing things wrong is. It’s not painful enough. That’s one of the things I would say.
Secondly, stay true to your values. Whatever they are, you’re going to have to come up with them. Stick to a set of principles and always follow those principles if you believe in them. That takes a long time, things like integrity and keeping commitments. I worry about that a lot in our culture because I see these things going away. Look at history and transactions. Look at the way the mistakes other people have made. We don’t do enough of that.
We hear a lot about participation in awards. I believe in winner’s awards and loser’s awards because we should lose. We all lose. We don’t always win. Those lessons are so important in life. The values that you establish are the pillars by which you live. I don’t know how you bring up a family without doing that. I told Lynne, “I don’t know all the details. I just know the framework.” You have to fill in the details and you can miss it. That’s what learning is about. Nobody can teach people everything. There was another but I can’t think what that was.
You have to go and find the book.
Those are the important ones. The risk takes you into entrepreneurship. Having your own company is a wonderful thing but it’s not an easy journey. I do believe this. If you’re out to make a lot of money, small companies are wonderful because if you own a business and it’s a good business, you can make an enormous amount of money if that’s your goal.
In larger organizations, you can make a lot of money but you have to get to the very top of those organizations to achieve that or get lucky in one that’s a startup or becomes big and then there are a lot of stock options or whatever the issue may be. In a smaller company, companies that pull in a couple of million dollars in revenue can pay an awful lot of money to the owners. It’s a good risk to take if you’ve got a good idea but be ready to work very hard and long hours, which a lot of people don’t want to do.
I won’t say that’s not true at big companies because I used to spend 80-hour weeks and that was about going up the ladder. I came to conclude early on in my big company career that I wasn’t the smartest guy. I can assure you that you almost never are. There are so many smart people. My equalizer was hard work. I said, “I’m going to work longer hours, put in more time and prepare better.”
I prepared for this. I won’t go into a meeting without a lot of preparation and I do it in my car. I used to do sales pitches driving to and from work. In the early days, we had to memorize them. As you can imagine, that’s bad if you forget where you are in the speech. Those are some of the things that would be important to somebody.
Thank you so much. Thank you for sharing your time and story. I’m excited about the pace of your book because nobody wants to be left on a cliffhanger for too long, especially when all of our apps preload or reload without hitting a button. We’re ready to be preloaded for your third.
I so much appreciate you giving me this opportunity. I want to make one other comment about the book. One thing authors should think about is the enormous investment that readers like you put in. It isn’t the $15 or $20 that they pay. That’s an investment. It’s the time that the reader takes in selecting your work and then the enormous time they put in reading through it and consuming it. I don’t think enough people realize what a commitment that is until you try to write a book and have people read it. My thanks to your readers and anybody that takes a chance on Apogee.
Go out and pick it up. Let us know what you think. Thank you all so much for reading. This has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you, Lou.
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