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April 9, 2014
Paul Gipe

On the Writing Life

I began writing as a way to explore the world, learn something new, and make a difference. It has been that--and more. I've been more or less freelancing since the mid 1970s when I published an exposé in an independent (counter-culture) newspaper on a McDonald's billboard. The article was a success and the offending billboard was eventually removed. I titled the piece, "PennDOT takes a bite out of Big Mac". Ah, the power of the pen. I was hooked.

Note: This article first appeared 22 April 2002.

I attribute the publication of my books to serendipity and good fortune. My first book was published in 1983 by Stackpole Books in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They had published a book on Solar Energy and while at a cocktail party I heard that they were thinking of doing one on Wind Energy, my field. So I wrote a proposal over the weekend based on material in workshops that I had held across the state. I called them on Monday and met with them that afternoon. I tried to sell them that I was just the person to write their windmill book. It must have worked because shortly afterword they offered me the contract with an advance. I spent six months writing the book and it took Stackpole another six months to get the book out the door. I remember addressing a sales meeting of their agents (publishers had agents in those days) with a big poster of Wind Energy: How to Use It behind me. We just missed the peak of the market. Stackpole sold only 5,000 copies over the life of the book. While they said they were satisfied with sales, I was not. The book did give me some visibility that I didn't have before. I still run across copies now and then.

My second book, Wind Power for Home & Business was published in 1993. Wind Power was a rewrite my first book. Real Goods was mailing catalogs loaded with solar panels and books on solar energy. I thought they might be interested in a book on wind energy so I sent them a detailed proposal. They declined.

But about the same time I received a flyer in the mail from Chelsea Green announcing the publication of Donella Meadows' reprieve of the controversial but very successful book "Limits to Growth". I seized on the opportunity and threw my proposal "over the transom" as they say. When I called them later they said they had actually heard about my proposal from Real Goods who had suggested that Chelsea Green consider it. At the time Chelsea Green was entering a co-publishing arrangement with Real Goods. Chelsea Green would publish books Real Goods wanted and Real Goods would aggressively market the books--and buy them at a steep discount from Chelsea Green. My proposal was used to test the concept.

The publisher wanted to meet me in person to talk about the proposal. So on a trip back from Great Britain I stopped in Boston and met him at his Club. He commented that my proposal was the best he had ever seen. (I sometimes think all publishers say this.) He wanted to do the book with Real Goods but was leery of a book on windmills. He asked if I could pre-sell 1,000 copies of an initial press run of 5,000. Real Goods would buy 1,000 copies and he would have nearly half of his first press run sold by the time the book was published.

Later the New York Times would write about this deal and how my book cemented a profitable relationship between Chelsea Green and Real Goods. The rewrite took nearly a year for which I received an advance (the same amount as offered ten years earlier).

The book was well received. A French magazine called it the "bible" of wind energy, which was an overstatement but useful in marketing. Because of that review I was called the Pope of wind energy in Quebec, and subsequently the term went back across the Atlantic and appeared in German magazines as der Windenergie Papst, the German equivalent. Chelsea Green has sold more than 20,000 copies.

My third book, Wind Energy Comes of Age, was also due to good fortune. An academic colleague of mine was publishing a book with John Wiley & Sons, a premier publisher of academic and professional books. His editor asked him if he knew of any other writers who might have a topic suitable for Wiley's series on sustainable design. He suggested me. The editor called. I wrote a lengthy proposal and subsequently had to defend the proposal after an academic savaged the idea. Wiley eventually offered me a contract.

I took a full year to write the book even though I had been researching the subject for most of a decade. They paid a modest advance and I wheedled an equal amount out of a private investor. This was when my luck ran out.

It took Wiley more time to publish the book than other publishers.  Though my editor was great to work with, he left, and dealing with Wiley became a nightmare. I won't belabor the gory details but suffice it to say that I never received any of my original and irreplaceable artwork back.

The book was published in 1995 and was extremely well received by academics. It won a prestigious award from an association of university libraries. Wiley now sells the book for $130 and it is selling used for more than $100. Of course when it's sold on the used market, I receive nothing. Wiley's sold about 5,000 copies or two press runs. Surprising, the book remains in print. The high price enables Wiley to print a very limited number of copies as needed. While I discourage writers from doing business with Wiley, I've gained a great deal of prestige from this book.

Note: I pulled the book from circulation in 2013 and have recovered the copyright. After nearly 20 years I couldn't in good faith let Wiley keep the book on the market. 

My fourth book, Wind Energy Basics, appeared in 1999. Real Goods was balking at the $35 price of my earlier rewrite and wanted a cheaper book on wind energy. I obliged by writing what I call my little book on little windmills. The proposal, negotiations, and contract phases with Chelsea Green passed quickly.

Unfortunately, it took me two years to deliver the book and as it was I was adding sections even in the final draft. While finishing the book I was on a fellowship in Denmark where I worked with a group from a number of Third World countries, including Cuba. About a year later, the research center called me to say that two Cubans at the center had translated my book into Spanish. While this was quite flattering, I couldn't pay them so I put them in touch with my publisher. Chelsea Green then suggested they find a publisher in the Spanish speaking world who could pay them. Eventually the book was published in Seville, Spain after it had been translated from Cuban to Castillian Spanish. Since then the book has also been translated into Italian (for which I was never paid).

In late 1999, I convinced Chelsea Green that my second book, Wind Power, needed revision. I intended to simply update the book, but that's not how it turned out. After three years I finally delivered the manuscript in electronic form. The book became a massive undertaking and incorporates results from actual field tests I conducted on small wind turbines in the Tehachapi Pass. The book was published in 2004.

I've written chapters for three books and again these have resulted from my contacts. For two of the books I was paid a fee. One of the books was published in French and I wrote my chapter in English and it was then translated into French. For the third I received an expense paid trip to the Rockefeller Foundation's Villa Serbolloni in Bellagio--the real Bellagio. The latter resulted in a book that appeared in 2001. The project was time-consuming, but intellectually stimulating. Because of this book, the three editors, including myself, have been asked to write a section on wind energy in another book by Academic Press.

My photographs are carried by a stock photo company in London and one of my photos appears on the cover of their catalog. I periodically receive royalties from them.

I am frequently asked to donate images to non-profits for free. I don't, unless it's a friend of long standing.

I was a contributing editor to an industry trade magazine, WindStats, for many years and I do occasional pieces for other trade magazines.

I also give lectures for hire in North America and abroad. These often result from my books or articles.

I am at my desk by 7:30 every morning, usually 6:30. I take frequent breaks during the day and knock off at 5:00.

When I am writing a book I have to stay focused. Articles are easier to pull together. They seem less stressful. But a book requires so many steps and they are so big that it's very easy to be overwhelmed. I use a detailed outline and work from the outline in each chapter. I sort all materials for that chapter together in a physical folder and in separate folders on my computer. If I get stuck, I write a side bar, or a paragraph of a side bar. Then I gradually work into the body text of the chapter. Sometimes writing a chapter can be fun. Often with the last book it became sheer drudgery: day in, day out.

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