Texas Folklore Society Publishing Adventures

by Frances B. Vick

In going through some files I ran across copies of old speeches I had made about my publishing adventures. One of them was a speech I made when The Dallas Morning News published a piece in the High Profile section about F. E. Abernethy. I was quoted as saying that everyone has an Ab story to tell and my Ab story is a rather long one. It is how I got into publishing and came to publish Texas Folklore Society books. Here is that story.

When our father died in 1978 my brother and I decided to put his estate, which consisted of a little acreage and a small herd of black angus cattle, into a partnership which we called E-Heart Land & Cattle Company. E-Heart is an old family cattle brand that had been used by the family since the 1850’s, but no one was currently using the name or the brand. It suited our fancy to resurrect the old brand as a company name. You need to know that my brother and I learned from our school teacher parents that work was fun and having fun was a high priority with us.

At the time my brother was dabbling in bronze and silver sand casting and he cast some Texas Hood’s Brigade belt buckles from that unit in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He became inspired and pretty soon we had a big stack of buckles so we ran an ad in Texas Monthly to try to get rid of some of them. We started receiving orders and sold the stack he had on hand and he made some more until it quit being fun and then we declared we were out of belt buckles. As it turned out, we broke even on that adventure, so we felt pretty good about it. We had had some fun and had not foolishly thrown away Dad’s hard-earned money.

When I went to the Texas Folklore Society meeting that year, Ab Abernethy announced that he was looking for a publisher for the Texas Folklore Society Publications and he had not had any luck finding one. He was getting pretty whiny about it so I told him I would do it if he would quit whining. He was desperate enough to let me try. I figured it would be easy to do this publishing business. After all, I had read a book or two and had even taught literature from several of them. No problem.

So I quit my day job, which they say you are never supposed to do if you are writing or publishing, and we established E-Heart Press, a division of the vast empire of E-Heart Land and Cattle Company. The title of our first publication from the Texas Folklore Society was Built in Texas. It was to be a coffee-table book with photographs to be printed in duo-tone. Ab had taken several journeys around the state photographing different types of folk building and he had essays from the Folklore Society members about dugouts, log houses, German rock building, adobe building, etc.—all of which he boxed up and sent to me. Only then did I stop to figure out how to put the manuscript and stack of photographs into book form. I found out the cost would be about $20,000 because of the duo-tones—which was more than I had—about $20,000 more, actually.

So I went to the bank and borrowed money. The banker, a friend, discouraged the undertaking. He did not see how I could possibly make the operation work, but he also knew I would be good for the loan because I could always go back to teaching. I found out later that he was salivating over giving me the loan. He could hardly wait for the examiners to come in to ask him about loans to women-owned businesses. At last he would have one to show them.

We printed 3,000 Built in Texas—no problem. 3,000 didn’t seem like anything to me. I could sell them to friends, and libraries, and Lord only knows how many people would be out there waiting to break down the door to get to those books. It didn’t quite happen like that, but I did manage to sell all of them after a while. And I did get enough money to pay off the loan at the bank, with just enough left over to publish the next Folklore Society book—Legendary Ladies of Texas.

Then we published Singin’ Texas, a manuscript Ab had written, complete with music to be reproduced. No problem, except that typesetting music proved to be a different kettle of fish but the problem was solved by a typesetter in Korea who did not speak English and I, of course, did not speak Korean—so that was an adventure but it worked out okay. Then we decided to produce an audio tape of Ab singing excerpts from the songs for those who did not know how the songs sounded and who could not read music—my brother being one of them and he wanted the tape! My son Ross put together a recording studio in a closet in his condo and he and Ab worked on that tape. I have always thought that we should all stretch and grow. Well, I was stretching and growing mightily by this time.

We decided to produce a couple of albums of the East Texas String Ensemble—made up of Ab, and other professors from Stephen F. Austin State University—2 English professors, a geography professor and a history professor. We taped that album at the Folklife Festival in San Antonio.

I hope you are getting a picture here of some very risky undertakings. And all the time we were still working from money from the black angus herd we sold and were managing to stay even. And, we were still having fun.

E-Heart Press was also distributing books for some of my friends because it became clear to us that it was easier to sell our books as a group rather than one at a time. It makes for a more substantial offering to the bookstores.

One of the touchstones in the business as well as in my life is Ellen Temple, who owned Ellen Temple Publishing in Lufkin, Texas. Ellen called me one night and said “I have a manuscript here that is a first novel, set in Texas. I love this manuscript, but we know how hard it is to sell fiction. I don’t know what to do.” I told her, “You know you are going to have to publish it. That’s what publishers do when they love a manuscript, even when we may take a bath.” I asked her what the name was—particularly since I would be selling the book as Ellen’s distributor. “The Train to Estelline,” she replied, “by Jane Roberts Wood.”

That began a great adventure for all of us. Ellen published the novel, I distributed it, and Jane spoke wherever “two or more gathered together.” My daughter Karen raced around the Metroplex when Jane was running low on books at a signing, and by such shenanigans, we sold a lot of books. It was a big enough hit in the Metroplex to get the attention of Bantam/Doubleday/Dell, who signed Jane for paperback rights to the book and gave her a very good advance to write two more novels in a trilogy—A Place Called Sweet Shrub and Dance a Little Longer. It was all ironic, for Jane’s agent had shopped that book in New York with no success, but she ended up with a New York publishing house because she started with a press in Texas. The University of North Texas Press has since produced the trilogy in paperback for the first time as a trilogy, so everything comes full circle, it seems, one way or another.

I was merrily going along with E-Heart Press when Jim Lee, Chairman of the English Department at the University of North Texas and A. C. Greene who was working with Jim, called me and said they were thinking about starting a press. Did I want to come run it? Are you kidding? I jumped in my car and headed north to Denton before he could change his mind. That was in 1987. Our first books came off the press in the spring of 1989.

The Texas Folklore Society publications also transferred to UNT Press at the same time. Many of our first UNT Press books were also by Folklore Society members because Jim and I knew them and they were friends. For example, Joyce Gibson Roach had written a book, The Cowgirls, back in the 1970’s, published by a Houston publisher. He had mainly marketed it in his horse magazine, but I knew it had a lot of life left and Joyce agreed to a reprint so we reprinted it in a paperback format and it is still in print.

Then we decided to publish a beautiful book by one of UNT’s Distinguished Alums, Jean Andrews‑American Wildflower Florilegium. It would be a terribly expensive book but I figured I could come up with the money somehow. My husband had business in New York and generously allowed me to go along on his nickel. I went to see the editor of the Dividend Division of the Book of the Month Club with some of Jean’s drawings and writing. When I walked in her office I knew I had a sale. Her walls were filled with prints of flowers not nearly as beautiful as Jean’s. She took one look at our preliminary design and at samples of Jean’s work and said, “Sold.” So our monetary problems for the production of the book were solved.

And to bring you full circle—my brother and I had thought when we established E-Heart Press we would publish our father’s World War I memoirs that I had discovered in his old Marine trunk. We never did get around to that, but like everything else, that book’s time came too. Texas A&M University Press, who, by the way, is also the distributor of UNT Press books and thus the Texas Folklore Society Books, published the book, Over There: A Marine in WWI, which would have pleased our father mightily since he went to school at A&M in 1916, only to have his education interrupted by World War I.

We needed to follow our father’s footstep through the five battles he participated in because my brother would be writing an Afterword to the memoir, called “Before the Footsteps Fade.” My husband Ross, my brother Pat and I had a fine time on that trip and we finally had C. A. Brannen’s memoir in print and we finally put the rest of that black angus cattle money to good use by establishing the C. A. Brannen Series out of Texas A&M University Press. It is a wonderful way to remember someone. It gives us great pleasure to see our father’s name on those books in that series as they are published.

So that is the end of the adventures of F. E. Abernethy and Fran Vick and the Texas Folklore Society books, which will now be coming out of Tarleton State University at Stephenville, with the move of the Society there. I hope you will remember the Texas Folklore Society and UNT Press and all the adventures. There are more adventures to come!