I’ve been a publisher for 20 years now, but I never would have become a publisher—or a published author—without the help of Betty Wright. When she died in October, the independent publishing community lost a luminary. For a long time to come, I and many others will continue to benefit from the shining example of publishers helping publishers that she provided, and I hope that her story will inspire each of you.
Over the past 30-some years, Betty published many writers’ books or helped them develop their manuscripts so that they could find publishers; she was well known in many publishing circles, especially in the Southwest.
The genesis of my 30-year friendship with her occurred quite by chance. I met Betty in the mid-’80s, when I was a journalist and working on my first nonfiction book. After dozens of rejections from publishers, I decided I needed help.
(Rod Colvin and Betty Wright at her book expo booth in 1987.)
At the time, I subscribed to a magazine for writers that had classified ads for “book doctors.” I thought perhaps a book doctor could shape my manuscript and help me sell it.
Shaping for Success
The book doctor I called turned out to be Betty Wright. From day one, she was brimming with enthusiasm and advice. We worked together for several months, mailing chapters back and forth. Within a few weeks of Betty’s shaping my manuscript, I had an offer from a publisher.
Not only was my book published, but thanks to Betty’s relationships with various people in publishing, I was invited to participate in an autographing session at ABA (the convention that became BookExpo America). At the session, I occupied the seat Shirley MacLaine had occupied an hour earlier. That was pretty heady stuff for a first-time author from the Midwest. But most important, I met Betty Wright in person, after having worked with her long distance over the previous months.
We developed an enduring friendship. A few years later, when I had finished my second nonfiction book, one based on a true crime, I was wiser as a writer, but I still turned to Betty for a critique. I had written the book as if it were a novel, showing the action rather than telling the story as a narrative. Betty, a published novelist, had a facility for creating atmosphere with just a few choice words. She taught me well. I remember her saying, “Provide details—it gives your writing credibility. And, give your characters emotion. Then, the reader will feel it.” She would explain, “For example, instead of saying, ‘Susan dialed the phone,’ say ‘Susan was frantic as she dialed the phone.’ “
Betty had a knack for shaping text the likes of which I had never seen. I recall an opening sentence I had written: “It was a bright, Nebraska summer morning.” Betty suggested as an alternative: “It was the pastel dawning of a seemingly peaceful Nebraska morning . . . ” Uh, which do you think is stronger? Based on Betty’s critique, I tweaked the manuscript and found an agent, who went on to sell my true crime book to Bantam Books.
Although Bantam sold my book nationally, I kept busy marketing it in the Midwest, where the crime had occurred, and not far from where I was living. By the time that project was wrapping up, I had learned a lot about writing, about getting published, and about selling books.
Turning to Publishing
It was Betty Wright who encouraged me to start a publishing business. But, unlike many independent publishers, I had never worked for a publisher. I had a lot to learn, and Betty generously guided me and taught me the ropes, especially on my first title, a consumer health book. I printed 2,000 copies and anxiously hoped I would sell them. Nineteen years later, that book is still selling—in its fourth edition, with more than 100,000 copies in print.
Many other people could tell similar stories about how Betty helped them during her 30-year career; and about her own professional accomplishments. A former journalist, Betty regularly wrote articles for a group of magazines known as “The Seven Sisters” and aimed mostly at married women with children. Six of them are still being published: Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Ladies’ Home Journal, Redbook, and Woman’s Day. At their peak in 1980, they had a combined circulation of 145 million, and I am sure readership was several times that amount.
Betty’s published novels included several for Kensington, back in the day when initial print runs easily topped 200,000 and were often followed with reprints for years to come.
In 1978, she herself became a publisher, founding Rainbow Books to do self-help and how-to nonfiction as well as mystery fiction, for which Betty had a special fondness. She worked alongside her daughter, Betsy Lampe, in Lakeland, FL, and she was still working as a publisher up until a week before she died at the age of 89 after a short illness.
Always active in publishing circles, Betty founded the Florida Publishers Group, now known as Florida Authors and Publishers Association. And she was a founding member of Publishers Association of the South.
As you might guess, Betty was personally a colorful character with a zest for life. Even telephone conversations with her were fun, and she wrote the most upbeat, fun emails I have ever read. Her facility for word choice never failed her. She often signed off with “Onward, Betty,” or “Blue Skies, Betty.”
I will be forever grateful for her friendship and guidance. She and I may have started out with her shaping my manuscript, but she did so much more—she shaped my career as a publisher, which, in turn, shaped my life.
Blue skies to you, Betty.
Rod Colvin is the publisher of Addicus Books, Inc., which he founded in 1994. He’s the author of four nonfiction books and is a former board member of IBPA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.