One Writer’s Success Story

One Writer’s Success Story

How Barbara Brabec started a writing career with no money and only a modest degree of talent as a writer. By achieving one goal after another, she became a writer of note through nothing more than hard work, self-study, and a willingness to keep going even when the future looked bleak.

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I ONCE THOUGHT OF THIS as “a very long bio,” but it’s actually a story I wrote to summarize my career accomplishments as I saw them when I’d turned eighty and was reflecting on my lifetime as a self-employed writer, speaker, editor, and publisher.

It’s not my intent to brag here, though God knows I’ve always had an ego that needed to be controlled. Rather, I’m simply trying to illustrate how an ordinary person can come from total obscurity and succeed against all odds. With a high school education and ten years’ experience in the business world, I started my writing career with no money and only a modest degree of talent as a writer. Yet I achieved one goal after another to become a writer of note through nothing more than hard work, self-study, and a willingness to keep going even when the future looked bleak.

I hope my story will be an encouragement to anyone who is just starting out as a writer or a home-business owner and wondering if they have what it takes to succeed. Or maybe my story will encourage someone to keep going if they’ve just experienced a devastating business setback and are wondering if it’s worth the effort to try again. (Covid-19 comes to mind here . . . )

ABSOLUTELY! I’ve experienced many small failures in my business life, yet here I am, still going strong in my eighties with as much ambition and excitement about life as the Energizer Bunny®. Perhaps in the end the real secret to success is just to keep going. Switch tracks if necessary, but keep going.

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MOTHER ALWAYS TOLD ME I could do anything I wanted to do in life, and she was right. I am entirely self-taught in writing, editing, periodical and book publishing, teaching, speaking, print book and eBook design and publication, business and marketing, using computers and related technology, and designing and managing a website.

I’m proof positive that if you can read—and then apply what you’ve learned—you can achieve success in anything you may be trying to do. Of course, a need for money and a driving ambition to succeed will speed the process along.

picture of wood cutting

Wood Cut by Kearns

After high school I headed for Chicago, where I worked first as a secretary and then an office manager for ten years in the fifties and sixties. During that time my avocation was being a musical entertainer playing at weddings and in a swank supper club on the South Shore. (That experience would later make it easier for me to become a public speaker, with my mouth becoming my new instrument.) 

My involvement in music eventually put me in the path of Harry Brabec, who swept me off my feet by proposing three days after we met and marrying me less than three weeks later. Figuring one professional musician in the family was enough, I quit performing after awhile but kept my office job. Later, when Harry asked me to stay at home and just be a wife, I complained that I didn’t have enough to do.

“Get a hobby,” he said, and those three little words ultimately changed not only my life but his. I had done “arts and crafts stuff” for years, learning a lot about needlework from Mother. Using a how-to book, I taught myself how to whittle and carve, and before Harry could say I didn’t know what I was doing, I was out selling my woodcarvings, music boxes, and artwork and asking more questions about how to do this right than we could find answers for. So he suggested we start a magazine for people like me.

1973 issue of Artisan Crafts

Even though we knew absolutely nothing about how to do this, we launched Artisan Crafts with Harry on the phone getting subscriptions and me on the keys of an electronic typewriter with letterpress sheets at hand for making headlines in the magazine. Of course I had already begun to read books on how to design a magazine and succeed as a periodical publisher. (I never considered my lack of writing experience, which to that point included only letters to my mother and my Valedictorian speech.)

After five years—during which time the magazine consumed our lives and all my self-study failed to reveal the secrets of how to survive the recession we were in at the time—we declared this venture to be a “literary success but a financial flop.”

And that’s when I learned one of the most important lessons of my life: that failure is always a beneficial experience when it teaches you what NOT to do the next time around.

If not for that magazine experience and all that I learned about myself and my abilities in the process—plus all the people in the crafts industry that I met during that period who later helped me up the ladder of success—I could not have written my first book or be here on the web today.

A New Career as a Writer and Publisher

IT WAS AT THIS POINT that I decided to be a full-time professional writer. After reading three books on how to write well, I found myself with my first book contract in hand. I then ordered five years’ worth of back issues of Writer’s Digest to learn how to write a good book readers would enjoy reading. The publisher loved it and, without changing a word of content and giving it only the usual copy edit, he sent it out for typesetting.

Recognizing my business and marketing abilities—and considering all the editors I knew in the crafts industry who would give my book publicity—he asked me to become his assistant so we could make my book a bestseller. But he died a couple of weeks later in that 1979 crash at O’Hare airport that took the lives of everyone aboard. (That crash, by the way, changed air travel forever. You might like to read “The Legacy of Flight 191.”)

I was devastated by my publisher’s death. When I realized that my book was never going to be published in this one-man book publishing division of a newspaper publishing company if I didn’t do something about it, I volunteered to take over my late publisher’s job until a new person could be hired. The newspaper publisher was thinking about closing the book publishing division, but I convinced him I could do the job, and that’s how I found myself with the title of publisher and general manager of the book division of Barrington Press, Inc.

Do you begin to see how each new step we take in a new direction automatically leads us to something else we could not have imagined before?

Now, with my first book still in the process of being designed and typeset, I suddenly found myself completely responsible for its publication and sales success. Back to the books again, this time to learn how to be a book publisher, sell to book clubs, and get publicity for a new book. When I talked my way into a mention in Family Circle, thousands of books were sold, and the overwhelming amount of fan mail I got from early readers convinced me I should quit this job, go home, and start my own writing and publishing business.

So in 1981, with my husband worrying about the income we were going to lose when I quit this job—and fearful that I might fail, and then what would we do?—I took courage in hand and launched a new writing and publishing business at the age of 42 with a thousand dollars borrowed from savings. It was the smartest life decision I ever made.

With Harry’s help, I went on to write, edit, and publish a profitable home-business/self-employment subscription newsletter for fifteen years. During those years, I read books in every spare moment to learn how to be a better writer and self-editor and how to refine my skills in design and publishing, copywriting, direct mail marketing, and PR strategies. Between 1981 and 2000, I wrote several new books and updated some older ones.

During this period when thousands of my books were selling so well in bookstores, I was being invited to speak all over the country. I got started by presenting day-long workshops at community colleges or SBA-sponsored events and then moved up to doing keynote speeches and break-out workshops at many of the major home-business conferences then common in both the U.S. and Canada.

Let me emphasize here that it was always hard for me to move outside my comfort zone to keep trying new things, but I found it fascinating to observe how every new step I was courageous enough to take automatically led to yet another advancement of my business and writing career.

Once I’d become known as a “home-business expert,” it was easy to build a reputation as “one of America’s best-known and most trusted home-business authors and speakers.” Because I regularly sent news releases to an ever-growing PR list, I was frequently quoted in the national press and interviewed on dozens of radio and TV news shows. I especially enjoyed my week-long appearance on ABC-TV’s Home show, where I appeared as guest expert on their “Homemade Money series” titled after my book (which sold thousands of copies that week).

Brabec Land illustrationDuring this period I was also a featured columnist for several crafts magazines. My “Selling What You Make” column (later renamed “Profits”) ran in Crafts magazine for twenty years, becoming at that point the longest-running column of its kind. Regrettably, I lost that column in 2000 because of a ridiculous electronic rights issue about copyrights; an issue that’s still problematic for designers and writers today. ((Illustration of “Brabec  Land” by Ken Clubb, from Barbara’s “Selling What You Make” column in Crafts Magazine (used by permission).

Overwhelmed by Technology and the Internet

BY THE END OF 1999 we had to close down our mail order publishing and book-selling business because Harry’s health was failing. I was still working full time, however, now with another book in progress and also as Series Editor for Prima Publishing’s line of For Fun & Profit™ books published in 1999-2000.

The internet was exploding then, and I was still using an old DOS computer and doing email and exploring the internet via Web-TV because I didn’t want to have to learn how to use a new computer with a Windows operating system. I was feeling totally overwhelmed by computer technology and beginning to think that, at 62, I was just too old to learn all this new stuff. Besides, I was convinced that the internet was the greatest time-waster that ever came down the pike (which is still true if you don’t learn how to control yourself). And I was absolutely, positively sure that I would never want (or have need for) a website of my own. A little space on someone else’s site would surely be sufficient for my needs (famous last words).

Just when I thought I was at the end of my long and successful career as a writer, publisher, and speaker, I was stunned to receive a big-bucks offer to be a featured content provider and “personality” on the e-commerce site, IdeaForest/Joann.com. Although that site didn’t long survive the big dot-com bust of 2000, this work dramatically changed my life by literally forcing me into a website of my own at the age of 63. When the website designer I’d hired to create my first website suddenly vanished, I was forced to quickly learn how to manage and redesign it myself with FrontPage software with the help of Chris Maher—who changed my life by giving me lessons on the phone that empowered me to continue to develop and maintain the site myself.

And that’s what pushed me into whole new learning experience about the web/internet, computers, and technology. My focus then was on acquiring new skills and knowledge that would enable me to work on the web as long as I wished.

In 2009, after decades of positioning myself as a “home business expert,” I retired from active involvement in the home business industry to become a memoirist. In 2010 I published my first memoir with a companion eBook (doing everything myself except for the cover). A second memoir followed in 2017.

Never Stop Trying to Move Forward

IN 2019 WHEN I discovered that much of the HTML code on my website was deprecated, I needed to learn how to write simple HTML code. Suffice it to say that I pushed FrontPage to its limits before accepting the fact that I needed to build a WordPress site with a blog as soon as possible. Then came the pandemic in 2020 and one technological problem after another with WordPress theme and plugin problems that destroyed my best-laid plans to finish building this website to the point where I could open it and further develop it from that point. Believe me when I say things were so bad for awhile in early 2021 that I was about ready to throw in the towel. But how could I keep writing and self-publishing without a good website to work from? I asked myself. There was no other option but to keep going.

For the record, making this move in my “older years” was one of the most difficult technical challenges I’ve ever had to deal with, and it took more than two years’ time and countless hours of research, study, and planning to learn how to structure and set up a complex website offering books, services, an archive of articles in many life-related categories, plus a blog. Friends asked me why I didn’t hire someone to move content from my old site to the new one. Why? Because everything I deemed worthy of republication had to be updated and edited again, and I was the only one who could do this to my satisfaction. And no one could have formatted the content on the site to please me—or figure out the complex linking/navigational system I wanted—so I simply had to learn how to do everything myself, as I’ve done throughout my life.

In addition, I’ve never had money to spare, and what money I had to invest in the new site was designated for my website designer, Carrie at Monarch Cottages, who greatly extended herself to become a teacher and consultant who was with me every step of the way. I couldn’t have done this job without her help and I recommend her highly, not only as a website designer but a book cover designer too.

But my friends kept asking, why do this at all when most people my age have long been retired? The simple answer is that I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I couldn’t write and publish books until I die, and an author needs a good website to do that. As a professional, it didn’t matter how long it took me to achieve this goal—only that the finished web site reflected my professionalism and values and met the expectation of others looking for the kind of quality information and help I’ve long been offering on Barbara Brabec’s World since 2000.

Trust me when I say you will NEVER be too old to learn something new, and I’m eager to share all the new life lessons I continue to learn as I press forward with my writing and client work on the web.

Related Articles: 

A Perfect Formula for Getting Anything Done. This idea from a leading business consultant gave Barbara the motivational push she needed when she knew she had to change directions as a writer to retain her enthusiasm for her work.  

Will You Be Still Working In Your Seventies? A story about retirement planning with the simple financial exercise that changed Barbara’s life and the way she was looking at her future and work itself. It might change your retirement outlook too.

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