Many years ago, on GEnie, I got some pretty sage “writing advice” from author Tom Clancy. Lots of writers were eager to ask Clancy questions like, “Should I get an agent or just send my work straight to the publisher?” Or “How do I find an agent?” Or “What’s the fastest way to get published?” His answer was short and pointed: “Just write the damned book.” If you haven’t got a product to sell, you need to work on that before you work on selling it.
Fast forward a few years, to when I met Vivian Zabel on Writing.com. Neither of us had yet published a novel or an anthology. In 2005, Vivian and I published an anthology of short stories, called Hidden Lies. We each chose the stories we wanted to include; Vivian edited; I did layout; her granddaughter and I created the cover. It was a labor of love and a leap of faith. It was also a taste of just how much hard work goes into producing, publishing, and marketing a book. I knew, when Vivian decided to edit an anthology of poems, that she’d been bitten by the bug. I tip my hat to her – I honestly don’t have the patience, and being a publisher is not on my list of life goals. But what really leaves me awestruck is the fact that she started this business later in life – after retiring from a long, rewarding career as a teacher!
Now, to give you a tiny bit of background, 4RV Publishing has, in less than six full years, published about 65 books, including my first children’s picture book, Trockle, and my second easy-reader chapter book, A Puppy, Not a Guppy. It is a traditional, royalty-paying publishing house; small and scrappy, but run by an honorable and determined woman who surrounds herself with good people who share her vision – her goals. Read on, because it only gets more interesting from here…
I asked Vivian, “At what point did you decide to start a book publishing business – what inspired you and drove you to do it?”
“I decided some type of publishing company was needed to help bridge the gap between the ‘big’ houses, which are almost impossible to get in to, and the self-publishing and/or vanity presses. I knew from experience that the need existed, and I had the bright idea that I could actually do the job. October 2007, 4RV Publishing LLC became a registered business in Oklahoma. Good writing and excellent illustrations inspired me and have kept me going.”
“You didn’t start this just to make it easier to self publish your own work, now, did you?” I know the answer, but I couldn’t resist teasing her.
“Even my work has to go through the acquisitions process–anonymously like everyone else’s–and I have been rejected. That’s one of the things that keeps all of us in the company honest.”
I wondered about Zabel’s goal-setting process, if she has one. “Do you formulate ‘SMART goals’? If so, how would you describe yours? If not, what do you do to keep your focus and stay on track to meet your goals?”
“SMART? Really? If I were really smart I would have minded my own business and not taken the hugest risk of my life by starting a publishing company.” Vivian grinned. I know she’s braver than I am. “I keep my focus by insisting we put out quality books. My goal is to have books with my company’s name that my grandchildren or great-grandchildren could pick up without me grabbing it away from them in embarrassment. My great staff helps keep me on track, and my desire to keep good books available for readers of all ages. I don’t know how to explain myself well in this regard. I just know what needs to be done and then do my best to do it.”
Corporate America might be appalled by that answer, but it seems to be working. Zabel has an unwavering vision, and commitment to it. “One of the books you published, Confessions of a Former Rock Queen, won the 2010 Oklahoma Book Award in fiction. That’s a pretty big deal, isn’t it? Was that an explicit goal? If not, what OTHER goals led to the achievement?”
“My goal is always to have quality books, but I can’t say having a book win the Oklahoma Book Award in fiction was an explicit goal. The award was icing on the cake, to use a cliché. Confessions of a Former Rock Queen was a well-written book from a unique and knowledgeable author. It was supposed to be the first of a trilogy. Kirk Bjornsgaard was a part of the rock scene and knew it well. From his experiences and research he wrote believable characters and plot. The main goal with this novel, toward the end, was to get it ready and released before the author, a victim of cancer, died. Less than a month after he held his book in hand, he passed away. BUT we met that important goal.”
“I remember that. It was such a bittersweet moment. He got to see his book, and hold it—with your help, he knew that he’d met his goal before he died – but he didn’t know about the award, did he? As I recall, his wife and daughter accepted on his behalf, right? So what do you have planned this year – any new entries?” I asked.
“This year, we have entered four books in the Oklahoma Book Award for 2012 (for books published in 2011). Each book should be a strong contender, but not because we decided before publishing it that it would be. We published each one because it was a book that the world should have the privilege of reading. We have two children’s books: Why Am I Me? by Wayne Harris-Wyrick and Strangers in the Stable by Jim Laughter; a science fiction novel in the fiction division, Time Pullers, by Horton Deakins; and an excellent nonfiction entry with Conscience: Breaching Social Amnesia, by vehoae.”
“Excellent! Good luck – I’ll be eagerly watching for the results. Vivian, what advice would you give to aspiring writers who say that their goal is to get published?”
Zabel thought for a moment. “I would suggest they make their goal to write the best story or novel or whatever to be the best possible work. Of course, nowadays anyone can be ‘published’ with self-publishing and companies who charge writers to have manuscripts printed; however, to be truly published takes several steps: First, know your craft. In other words, know how to write. Second, read, read, read in order to recognize good and bad writing. Third, write, edit, revise, revise, revise revise, using editors who are willing to be truthful and tough. And finally, be honest enough to accept criticism and use it to improve.”
I’m surprised she didn’t mention her pet peeve, to add: “Follow directions. Read – and follow – the publisher’s guidelines.” In other words, don’t submit cat care articles to a dog magazine; don’t type your manuscript in an Old Gothic typeface; don’t print it out on pink, scented paper and mail it in a box with magic brownies – in short, do it right.
“What advice would you give others,” I ask her, “who say their goal is to start a publishing business?”
Vivian shakes her head. “I would advise them to get their heads examined. If they still want to start a publishing business, they should be sure they have enough financing to keep the business going at least five to ten years without a profit from the business itself.
Then if they still want to start the business, they need to learn everything about it from editing to illustrating to formatting to distribution to printing to publicity. Even if the individual doesn’t do all the jobs, he or she must know how the jobs should be done. Of course, even so, ‘things’ will happen, and the person will discover on-the-job training obstacles. But, oh, the thrill of holding a finished book…”
Yep, bitten by the bug, I tell you. And very, very brave. I had one final question for Vivian Zabel: “What is your ‘life goal’?”
“My life goal is to leave this world and people who come in contact with me directly or indirectly better than before I existed. I want to be someone that others believe to be honest, ethical, and a person of strong faith.”
You’d better have another up your sleeve, Vivian. You’ve achieved that.
Please visit these 4RV Publishing sites to explore all the great books and authors and staff of 4RV Publishing:
4RV Bookstore: http://4rvpublishingcatalog.yolasite.com
4RV Web site: http://4rvpublishingllc.com
4RV Newsletter: http://4rvreading-writingnewsletter.blogspot.com
To get to know Vivian a bit better, please drop by her personal blogs:
Vivian Zabel web site: http://VivianZabel.com
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap: http://vivianzabel.blogspot.com
And if you have any questions, I imagine she’s lurking… feel free to leave them in the comments here, and I’ll make sure you get answers.