A Wish Come True: Tracy Ertl
racy Ertl is a fighter, though you’d never guess it by looking at her. At 5 feet 2 inches, she’s petite, quick to flash a genuine smile and nearly as fast with a warm hug and a gracious compliment. But Ertl, who launched the Green Bay book publishing house TitleTown Publishing, has learned along her life’s path how to zero in on a goal and fight interminably to write her own story.
A former newspaper reporter on the police beat, Ertl was drawn to the work done by officers and eventually quit to become a 911 operator. She has held that position for 25 years and continues to work full time in that role. During that time, she and husband Terry raised three now-grown children.
“Nobody would give me a loan to start a publishing company. That year 25 percent of publishers went out of business. So, my husband started working six nights a week at the post office and more recently picked up a job as a bellman at the Lodge Kohler hotel,” Ertl said. “It was like piloting a plane and learning to fly while I was up in the air.”
That’s one example of how her background as a 911 operator comes into play.
“Although we were in trouble, what we were going through was nothing compared to the cries I heard on the phone,” she remembered. “As an operator, you’re fighting for your callers, you’re fighting for the responders. That’s where I learned to be a fighter. I wasn’t able to call for help as a child. They didn’t teach us to call for 911. Things that happened at home were to be kept private. So now I take great pride in taking those calls and helping people get the help they need.”
HER BOOK’S PROLOGUE
Ertl grew up in California in an abusive home. As a preteen, she ended up in Green Bay. Later, with a growing family and a forgiving heart, she extended a second chance to her father. He ultimately shattered her trust and shook her family’s foundation.
Feeling as though she had nothing left to lose, Ertl made three dreams for herself, thinking specifically of her troubled childhood, and the activities she chose to flee her reality. She recalled voraciously reading books to imagine life in a healthy family dynamic. She remembered her fixation on the Olympic games as a form of escape. And she recalled rapidly bouncing balls against the garage door, pretending to break world records. She turned these childhood memories into three wishes: Author a book, make it to the Olympics and set a Guinness World Record.
In 2005, Ertl co-authored “True Crime in TitleTown, USA” with Green Bay police officer Mike Knetzger. While researching for the book, she discovered that Green Bay’s Thomas Hawley was the longest-serving police chief (1897-1946), earning her a Guinness World Record certificate. (The honor has since been surpassed by a Florida chief.) Then, in 2006, she was dispatched to Torino, Italy as a volunteer communications specialist for the U.S. government. She watched the U.S. men’s curling team win bronze and experienced a personal epiphany as she snuck onto the ice during the celebration.
“I got down on my hands and knees and kissed the ice – I know that sounds so crazy,” she laughed. “I made a wish and said to myself, ‘I’m going to start this company.’”
DO WHAT YOU KNOW
She loved the experience of writing her first book, but thought she could improve on the process of getting the book into print.
“What I didn’t like was the publishing,” Ertl said. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this.’ I wanted to compete with the big publishers but still be warm and kind and Midwestern. I wanted to form a publishing company that also takes care of its people.”
Running parallel to Ertl’s work as a 911 operator, TitleTown Publishing’s first title “Bodyguard to the Packers” focused on the police officer who became director of security for the football team. Then came “Torture at the Back 40” and “Run at Destruction,” both regional true crime books.
“Suddenly, this is a real company, and everyone is thinking, ‘Who is TitleTown Publishing?’” As she got into a rhythm with her developing business, its niche came into focus. TitleTown would specialize in true crime and high-profile survival stories.
The latter really elevated in 2010 when “Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean” became TitleTown’s first Barnes & Noble bestseller. The next year, “When I Fell From the Sky” became an international bestseller. That book is being made into a feature film starring Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner as Juliane Koepcke, who survived a 10,000-foot fall from a burning airplane onto the canopy of the Amazon rainforest. The film is expected to be released late next year.
Later this year, TitleTown will be re-releasing Make-A-Wish founder Frank Shankwitz’s memoir, “Wishman,” alongside the feature film release starring Andrew Steel.
TRIUMPH THROUGH TENACITY
Ertl’s successes are easy to focus on. But she is quick to explain how hard she has fought for them. In the first few years in business, TitleTown weathered the shuttering of Borders Books and a lawsuit, both of which could have easily sunk the fledgling company.
“It was haphazard,” Ertl admitted. “I failed numerous times. And for every failure, there are just as many wins. Now I have a robust, thriving international company. But I fought so hard for it. At times it made more sense to get out. We were taking on water and financially I should have quit. But, I had children who were watching. And children learn from your failures and how you handle them.”
So despite outside pressure to wave the white flag, Ertl pushed on with her wish. She was doing it all: editing, accounting, orders, publicity – and continuing to work full time at the 911 call center.
“I pawned my jewelry. We went without television for two years,” Ertl said. “My family was OK with that because we give a voice to people without one.”
Ertl is insistent to share the tough times as readily as the triumphs. “It is important to be authentic and real in business and in life,” she said.
“If you pretend it is perfect, nobody will ever start. They’ll think they need to wait for perfection. You have to be honest about successes and failures and how you rose from them.”
EXPANDING THE WISH
From TitleTown’s meager beginnings, a strong niche publishing house that now employs 25 people across the nation has emerged. To celebrate a decade in business, Ertl awarded $10,000 in books to teachers. “I wanted to create a company where people are most comfortable. We tried to break the traditional business rules,” Ertl said. “The best creativity happens when people have that freedom of movement anywhere across the globe.”
Last year, TitleTown acquired Peregrino Press, which is the Catholic publishing imprint. Ertl brought Peregrino’s founder Travis Vanden Heuvel
aboard as TitleTown’s president and chief operations officer. Ertl also launched a second imprint, TitleTown Children, most notably publishing
“Kindness in a Scary World,” a children’s book that helps parents explain mass violence and terrorism. One of Ertl’s passion projects include the “Blue Lives Matter” series TitleTown is publishing. The series explores police officers’ line-of-duty
deaths – historic and current.
And despite having a staff to help keep TitleTown running, Ertl still enjoys dabbling in what started her down this path: writing. She’s currently
ghostwriting a book with Capt. Wren Thomas, who was captured and held for nearly three weeks by Nigerian pirates. It is set to publish next year.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Tracy and Terry Ertl’s three children are grown, but have varying roles in the company. Bradley is in his third year of law school in Houston, Texas. After graduation, he will be TitleTown’s legal counsel. Andrew is a former U.S. Marine sergeant who is attending an accelerated international business graduate program in China. His TitleTown role is acquisitions editor. And Sister Karolyn Rose of St. Joseph
in Los Angeles is in her third of eight years of discernment en route to becoming a Catholic nun. Before she moved to the convent,
Sister Karolyn Rose was an associate publisher at TitleTown. Ertl said she considers Title-Town Publishing her “baby” too. And just as she describes watching her children mature and set off on their own, she loves the same aspects of her business.
“The most rewarding part of my job is seeing our stories come to life,” Ertl said. “We’re fortunate to see this happen in two ways. First we see the joy and excitement in our authors when we’ve been able to make their dream of writing a book come true. Second, we’re able to see the impact this content has on our readers. That’s how I know we’ve succeeded in our mission.” w