A Mountain of hard work and success

UND alum, Mountaindale Press founder Dakota Krout featured on N.Y. Times bestselling audiobooks list

Founder of GemeLit indie publisher, Mountaindale Press, Dakota Krout recently learned he made the New York Times’ Top 10 list for audiobooks. Krout, who is a 2017 UND alum, is pictured here in Bully Brew Coffee Shop in East Grand Forks, where he works on Mountaindale Press matters two or three days a week. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

What began as a hobby for Dakota Krout grew into a business, which then ballooned to more than two dozen employees and national recognition in only a year.

Krout, who earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of North Dakota in 2017, is an author as well as the owner and president of Mountaindale Press, an independent publishing company he runs with his wife out of their East Grand Forks home.

A U.S. Army vet, Krout found some spare time in his last year at UND to write a novel. It was a bucket-list endeavor, a one-time activity that he did not envision as a career path. After graduating, Krout worked for the bioinformatics lab at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences and later for Acme Tools.

But his book “Dungeon Born,” which he self-published on Amazon, amassed a great readership. So, Krout wrote what became the second tome in a five-part series. The series is “The Divine Dungeon,” and Book 2 is “Dungeon Madness.”

At the time, Krout was among the first authors to shape a new genre, GameLit or LitRPG (short for Literary Role Playing Game), a fitting literary realm for a computer scientist and avid video gamer such as himself.

“It is epic fantasy with a sci-fi twist,” said Krout of the GameLit genre. “It is a fantasy story with the rules of a video game overlaid on top. So, everything about the character, everything about and everything in the world can be quantified.”

With his creations in a new, yet-to-be-fully-tapped genre gaining growing recognition, Krout seized the chance to establish his own imprint. He named it after a mountain as well as one of the main characters in his first series of books.

In late 2018, after a round of courses in business, marketing and publishing, Mountaindale Press became Krout and his wife Danielle’s full-time enterprise. Danielle, who holds a Ph.D. in pharmacology from UND, left her job to co-found Mountaindale Press.

Currently there are 10 authors on the roster of the press, which primarily focuses on digital books and audiobooks. There are also 30 employees: editors, marketers, sound engineers, narrators – and soon a management intern from UND through the InternGF program.

Along with co-managing the business, Krout also writes. A lot.

“I try to I try to finish a 100,000-word book at least once every two months,” he said.

So far, he has completed and released 12 books. Last month, one of them, titled “Raze” and part of “The Completionist Chronicles,” made its way to the 10th spot on a New York Timeslist of the Top 10 Audiobooks.

Earlier this week, UND Today caught up with Krout in Bully Brew Coffee in East Grand Forks, where he works on Mountaindale Press matters two or three days a week.

The below conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness. 

Congratulations on being named to a New York Times Top 10 Audiobooks list. How did you learn you made the list?

That was a pretty exciting day. I try to take a day every week to spend with my daughter, and on that particular day, she had a very bad cold. She had just gone down for a nap, and I went down for nap too, because I was exhausted.

I woke up about a half-hour later to my phone having six missed calls and 30 text messages. My wife had texted, “We need to celebrate. We need to celebrate.” I said, “What’s happening?” She responds, “You’re on the New York Times bestseller list!”

How has the recognition impacted you?

I’ve been able to talk to a lot of really interesting people. But, it hasn’t changed things very much for me beyond being able to say, “A cool thing happened.” You can’t stop working just because you get recognition or an award. What would be in my best interest is to produce more content so that I can be even higher on the list next time, so that I go from No. 10 to No. 9. Of course, my eventual goal is No. 1 across the board.

How did you get into writing books in the first place?

I put out my first book thinking I would put out a book and have fun doing it. I mean, anyone can do it, so why not me? While I was in my final year at UND, I wrote two books, and then I graduated. Then I put out another book, and have been trying to keep up the pace.

The genre you write in, GameLit or LitRPG, brings a video-game-like world to the written page with the ability to keep score of things such as characters’ health and skills. What attracted you to the genre?

I’ve always been an avid gamer. I have a degree in Computer Science, which was very helpful in writing a book that needs to be really well quantified.  The genre itself attracted me because of my background in programming and in video games. I was able to get in while it was still a brand-new genre, so there wasn’t a lot of work that had been written already. This helped me get established, and I work hard to keep my readers engaged.

In GameLit, do you try to explore existential, humanist topics and questions or is the objective the genre different? 

To me it’s more of an exploration of survival day to day, as well as planning for the future. How do you find a balance between these two? In general, it’s less existentialism and more pushing critical thinking.

For instance, if you’re going against a monster and you are definitely going to lose, how do you mitigate this? How do you make it more likely that you will win, even if you’re just not strong enough; you’re just not smart enough; you don’t have the resources that you need?

Where do you draw inspiration from?

A lot of my books are very pun-based. So a lot of what I do is just looking at a situation and thinking how I could make it funny. Drawing inspiration is a tough question because I typically I just sit down and start writing. I do read a huge amount of books; I love reading. That is one way I draw inspiration: little things that I read might spark my own ideas on how I could do something similar, better, or just differently.

Being a prolific author, do you ever struggle with writer’s block?

It is my opinion that writer’s block is less about not knowing what to do, and more about just not doing it. The reason I have multiple series going at any one time is that if I come to a point where I just don’t want to write or I just stare at a screen, I can switch over to the other book.

For me, this is my full-time career. I don’t have the luxury of being able to say, “You know, I’ll get back to this. It can sit and wait while I go do other things and have a secure paycheck.” If I don’t have content, I don’t have a way to support myself and my family. I need to make sure that one way or another, I’m getting a book further along in the process.

Talking about business, why did you decide to establish your own imprint?

A huge part was that I saw a need for it. When I was first seeing success with my books, we were able to get there without having to do a lot of marketing and promotion. Right when we were starting, the genre was just taking off, it had just been noticed. Readership was coming in. So, my wife and I were able to put my books out and mainly interact with people on social media to make those books sell.

But we saw what had happened with almost every other genre that existed. What happens after a few years is that it becomes harder and harder to get noticed as that genre has more authors and more content. So, because we didn’t need the skills at the time, we learned marketing and business applications, how to network with other people within and outside of the genre who could help us, and we can help them.

Now a few years into the process, it is becoming much harder to become seen and recognized, harder to make any money writing in this genre. Because we took the time to found Mountaindale Press and prepare for what we needed to do, we have the connections, the know-how, and the systems in place to be able to take people on and help them achieve their goals of being full-time authors — getting their work published and paying their expenses.

It’s a way for us to help other people while growing our own business, which is, I think, the best of both worlds.

A selection of books published by Mountaindale Press. The image is a screenshot of the company’s webpage.

Mountaindale Press publishes a lot of digital books and audiobooks as opposed to hard copies. What does that mean for your business model and its viability in a small town?

The majority of book sales nowadays — in my market, at least — are done in ebook or audiobook form. This means we don’t need access to shipping, we don’t need access to storage or warehousing. So, we’re able to be very decentralized. I have authors from Holland, London, and all over Europe. I’m talking to a few in Australia, and then of course all across the United States. We’re able to do that, and work from anywhere. So why not work from here?

You know, where the weather is perfect for working indoors.

How do you strike a balance between being an author and a publisher?

There’s a huge dichotomy in leadership, because you need to absolutely love what someone else is doing, but be able to focus on your own work too. You also need to manage them and make sure that they’re getting the work done, but stay far enough away that they have the freedom to produce their own content. They need to do well enough that they can be full-time authors, and I need to do well enough that I can continue to publish the work and afford the expenses. Balance is something I’m constantly striving toward.

Too much focus on one person, and you can get a reputation either for micromanaging or favoritism. Too little focus on someone or something, and you become a callous person who doesn’t care. Balance is hard, and there’s no manual for it.

How do you split responsibilities with your wife? Is it hard to be both partners in life and in business?

I am the co-owner and president. She’s the co-owner and CEO of the company. We discuss details, and we can have conversations for hours at a time. That can be detrimental sometimes, if, let’s say, I’m so sick of work that I don’t want to talk about it. Because of this, we work hard to have a pretty solid separation in terms of business and personal lives.

We also do have very different styles of working, which means that we definitely do not work in the same room. We also both wear noise-cancelling headphones. We have complementary strengths: she’s very focused on many, many tasks that need to be done in a short amount of time, while I’m very focused on big-picture things.

So, if I’m working at my standing desk at home, my music is going, and I’m dancing and typing, and she looks over from her very focused, administrative work and she sees me dancing, she might not think I am doing anything, but that’s just a part of my process… (laughs).

What are your hopes for the future?

What we’re trying to do with the company right now is to focus on making a rock-solid foundation. My goal has always been to focus very narrowly on one thing, so that I can do that one thing really, really well and those people that are looking for that one thing will notice it. That works pretty well within our genre. If you start very focused and narrow, it can become a wide and far-reaching thing.

So, my goal now is to focus on our genre with our company for a few years, and have a great reputation for the books that we put out, being excellent to our authors and to all of our employees. From there, expand into different genres very slowly, because each new genre is a massive amount of work.