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Catching Up: John R. Erickson

Panhandle author has sold more than 7 million books about a cowdog named Hank

John R. Erickson is arguably one of Texas’ most successful writers and storytellers. So how come you probably have never heard of him?

It may be because he doesn’t do the talk-show circuit, his books are not found on the best-seller lists, and he doesn’t hang out with other writers.

And yet, Erickson has now sold more than 7.5 million books—mostly stories about an unlikely protagonist and mistake-prone cowdog named Hank who prowls a Texas ranch as the self-appointed “head of ranch security.” 

This summer, Erickson came out with No. 56 in the Hank the Cowdog series (The Case of the Coyote Invasion), published by Viking-Penguin. Hank reportedly is the longest-running audio book series in the United States, with the author playing banjo, voicing most of the characters, and assisted by his wife, Kris, on the mandolin.

Speaking recently from his ranch about 40 miles south of Perryton in the Panhandle (where he is a member of North Plains Electric Cooperative), Erickson recounted his accidental career as a children’s author. A native of Perryton, Erickson considered becoming a minister (he left Harvard Divinity School three hours short of earning a master’s) and then a serious novelist. While collecting rejection letters from publishers, he worked as a cowboy, a handyman and a bartender before he started his own publishing company. In 1983, he wrote his first Hank book and found his biggest audience: children.

Showing no signs of slowing down, Erickson, 66, continues writing two books and appearing 50 or more times at schools each year. He also hosts college students on his ranch for a one-week course about writing and ranch life.

Last year, he returned to self-publishing with a book called Story Craft: Reflections on Faith, Culture & Writing from the Author of Hank the Cowdog (Maverick Books, 168 pages). He writes about how his worldview shapes his books, why most Christian books and films fail (they’re boring and lack humor), and why he turned down a film contract with Disney. Comparing his writing discipline to a mule pulling a plow, he reveals 20 keys to good writing and strategies for success. His final bit of advice: Never write anything that would embarrass your mother.

Have a suggestion for a future Co-op People? E-mail Charles Boisseau at [email protected].