Willmar author challenges the stigma of self-publishing
Willmar native and former newspaper man Forrest Peterson has published his third novel, "The Swineherd's Angel," set in central Iowa. Peterson chose to forgo the traditional publishing route in favor of self-publishing with the assistance of a grant from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council.
WILLMAR — Former newspaper man Forrest Peterson knew he wanted to spend his life writing. A few decades — give or take — and three novels later, he's still playing around with words, telling stories and entertaining readers.
Peterson was born and raised in Willmar, Minnesota, but headed to Minneapolis-St. Paul to obtain his college education. He went on to earn his master's degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Minnesota, and began his journalistic career with a group of weekly newspapers in north St. Paul.
"I lived down there for 14 years, and never expected to come back to Willmar," he said with a laugh.
But when Peterson's wife, who works in animal science, expressed an interest in leaving the Twin Cities, and a job opened up at the West Central Tribune, the couple decided to move to Willmar in the event Peterson got the job.
"I had connections here, being from here, but that wasn't necessarily why I got the job," he said. "But, we came back in 1981, and in 1982 I became managing editor, so I was managing editor (at the Tribune) until 1998."
But newspapers weren't the only industry where an enterprising editor was needed, and Peterson left the Tribune for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 1999 in a communications and public information role. "They had just opened an office here in Willmar, so that worked out very well," Peterson said.
Peterson retired from the MPCA in August 2021.
'Always had an interest'
His career dealt in facts, figures and information, "but as far as relating to the novels, a lot of people who go into journalism want to be writers," Peterson said. "I always had kind of an interest, an ambition, in fiction-writing, although that didn't apply to my newspaper-business work."
But around 2003, Peterson sat down and began working on what would turn into three novels and a work-in-progress nearly 20 years later.
"What I did is I would get up at 5 or 5:30 in the mornings, as much as I could, and start writing, working on my first novel," he said. "I had some general ideas and themes to develop a story around."
Peterson's first novel, "Good Ice," was published in 2007 through North Star Press , a small independent book publisher based out of St. Cloud , Minnesota. While that book was in the publication stages, Peterson was already forging ahead on his second novel, "Buffalo Ridge," which was published in 2012, again through North Star.
"My third one, I'm not sure when I started that," Peterson admitted, "probably around 2010, and that one took a long time to get out. A lot of time passed where I didn't spend a lot of time working on it, but I eventually got that out in 2019."
Willmar native Forrest Peterson has published three novels since 2007: "Good Ice," "Buffalo Ridge," published in 2012, and "The Swineherd's Angel," which was released in 2019. Kit Grode / West Central Tribune A step away from tradition
While Peterson was overall pleased with his experience through North Star Press, he decided to take a different route with his third novel, "The Swineherd's Angel."
"I really didn't know much about the (the publishing process) at the time," Peterson said of his first two novels. "Being in the newspaper business, you do probably know quite a bit more than the average person about the technical part of the publishing, but they said 'sure, we'll publish it,' and ... they just took care of it all."
The only thing Peterson as the author had to do at that point was agree to purchase a certain number of the published books, or a percentage of the initial print run, which then fell to Peterson to sell through author appearances and readings, and through his own website.
"But by the time this one (The Swineherd's Angel) came around ... I first reached out to agents, but that was a real challenge and most of them are in New York," Peterson said. "They have no idea of the nation's heartland."
Unsuccessful in obtaining an agent to pitch his novel to any of the larger publishing houses, and no longer wanting to have to fill his basement with a print-run inventory, Peterson looked to other methods of publication, settling on Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing after seeing the rise in self-published books.
"This whole concept, or stigma, of self-publishing, I decided to go that route simply because the technology and the process is so much different now than it used to be in the old days," Peterson said. "As we obviously see on social media and online, everybody has a blog, or this or that."
The self-publishing route allowed Peterson more control, and the royalties he saw "are actually quite a bit more than you would get through a regular publisher." Of course, that comes with the tradeoff of authors being the ones responsible for making arrangements for editing, cover design and marketing the final product.
It also allows him to choose whether he'd like to order an inventory of his own to sell at appearances, or sell online through Kindle Direct Publishing's print-on-demand single-copy distribution. "People can go onto Amazon, which people have, and buy them that way," Peterson said.
Opportunity to try a new approach
Peterson chose not to go the self-publishing route alone, however, and sought the assistance of the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council through a Community Collaborative grant.
"This was a grant for what they called 'established artists,' so you've been around a while and you need a little boost to keep moving forward," Peterson said. "It was an up-to-$7,000 grant opportunity ... you have to have quite a bit of detail on how you're going to use the funds."
The grant allowed him the monetary freedom to hire a professional editor, attend workshops and put together a professional website, and also allowed him to travel to do research for his novel, which "made a big difference," Peterson said. "I really did all of these steps which would have happened anyway had (I) gone through a publishing house. (But) the reality is, unless you're a big-name author, (when) you go to a publishing house, you have to pay for those services up front."
The grant enabled Peterson to afford those up-front costs, including working with The Loft in Minneapolis, which has "a roster of editors who you basically hire and work with, and that worked very well. So, it really made for a much better story."
Peterson stressed that the opportunity he most appreciated about receiving the grant was the ability to travel for his research. Peterson's background as a journalist shines through in his "realistic fiction" novels, where the events contained within are "something that really could have happened" in the setting where the story takes place.
With "The Swineherd's Angel," Peterson wanted to emphasize the value of "diversity and acceptance of people from different cultures and religions." The book is set in Ames, Iowa, and he was able to arrange interviews with people whose backgrounds were similar to that of his character's, a student from Iran.
"So I thought 'Well, I'd better find out more about this,' so I looked up some students from Iran who went to Iowa State University and actually went down and interviewed several of them," Peterson said. "That really was a turning point in helping improve the story, to really understand their culture and what they were going through and so forth."
Making some 'pretty extensive changes'
Working with The Loft's Ben Barnhart was a good experience, although it did involve some hard choices when it came to editing and revising his novel.
"One of the most difficult things for a writer is to cut, and that's what good editors do, and so I had to cut out a lot of stuff. Maybe not as much as he wanted," Peterson admitted, "but I did. It's good, though. It makes for a lean story that doesn't have things that get in the way of the reader's flow and so forth."
After sending in his initial 10 pages of manuscript, "I was very pleased to hear 'Forrest is a strong writer,'" Peterson said. "I'd never heard that said before. So that was kind of encouraging."
Peterson and Barnhart worked together to revise the novel through "some pretty extensive changes," some of which were more difficult than others to make. "The first chapter in this final copy was actually chapter five or six (in the original manuscript). You really move things around," Peterson said.
Once both editor and author were satisfied with the final product, Peterson was able to send in the receipts for his expenses to the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council for grant reimbursement, which "was a real turning point. I would have never gotten this far or done this without having that support."
The only thing the Arts Council asked of Peterson in return for its financial assistance is a credit on any promotional materials.
Now that he's retired, Peterson plans on spending more of his time on marketing and raising awareness of not only "The Swineherd's Angel" but for his other work as well. And, of course, he continues to work on novel No. 4, which as of yet has no timeline for publication. He hasn't checked into additional grants, but has the possibility stored away for the future, because "having a good editor, that's the key right there."
For more information, or to purchase copies of Peterson's novels, visit his website at www.forrestpeterson.com or his author page at Amazon.