She has twice served on the editorial board for Professional Speaker Magazine, and currently serves as contributing editor for RainToday.com, a prominent community of 120,000 service professionals.
Her articles have been published in other publications such as Presentations and USA Today magazines and the Handbook of Business Strategy.
Vickie also has been quoted in mainstream media such as Fortune.com, The New York Times and Investor’s Business Daily.
Her work and views have appeared in books such as Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, Secrets of Six-Figure Women, and Getting Started in Consulting.
Vickie Sullivan Interview
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Vickie Sullivan Transcript
Tim Knox: Hi everyone, welcome back in to Interviewing Authors. Vickie Sullivan is my guest today. Vickie is recognized around the world as one of the top market strategists for experts, thought leaders, speakers, authors and companies.
Now Vickie is the person you want to talk to if you have no idea how to market your book, how to define your message, how to build your brand because that’s what she does. We cover a lot in this interview.
Vickie talks about what it takes to be a successful author, whether you are a fiction or non-fiction author. Fundamentals are pretty much the same. She talks about book branding. She talks about trends and she talks mostly about market analysis and how you can market yourself not only as an author, a speaker or as a company but you can brand yourself as the expert, the go-to guy or the go-to gal in your field and that’s how you build a brand and that’s how you sell books.
So great interview. Get ready. If you have no idea what market strategy is, this is a must listen to for you, my friends. Here we go, Vickie Sullivan on this edition of Interviewing Authors.
Tim Knox: Vickie, welcome to the program.
Vickie Sullivan: Hey, Tim. I’m thrilled to be here. Thanks so much for inviting me.
Tim Knox: I am so glad to have you on the program. This is like old home week getting to talk to you.
Vickie Sullivan: Absolutely.
Tim Knox: You know we could probably spend an hour just telling the audience about our past and all the fun stuff we’ve done together but maybe we should stick to topic. What do you think?
Vickie Sullivan: Yeah let’s just keep that a secret.
Tim Knox: Well for those who are not familiar with your work, give us a thumbnail on who you are and what exactly do you do?
Vickie Sullivan: Well I’m Vickie Sullivan and I basically do market strategy for thought leaders. So people who have something to say, someone who really wants to serve the greater good out there with a message, a cause – I help position them in the right market so that cause can catch fire.
Tim Knox: You and I, that’s how we met. You were actually my market strategist and you helped me develop a message and a platform and eventually all kinds of books and stuff. You do a lot of work with speakers and with authors, right?
Vickie Sullivan: I work with speakers, authors. I work with executives in midsize businesses. A lot of folks are really getting… they’re wanting to do something meaningful. So we create a cause from their expertise that everybody can get behind and that really opens up a lot of opportunities.
Tim Knox: Well that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to have you on here because as an old author myself, a lot of authors never think about market strategy. Hell, most of us don’t even know what market strategy is. Give us a definition.
Vickie Sullivan: Sure, market strategy is the collection of decisions you make about the role in the conversation that you want to participate in. So think about it. Think of the marketplace as a big cocktail party, okay, and everybody’s talking and everyone wants to visit and all. What conversation do you want to have with some of those people at the party? There’s going to be some people you want to talk to. There’s going to be some people you don’t want to talk to. There’s going to be people that you really want to connect with. What market strategy is is about having an idea about your role in the overall conversation about something you’re interested in.
Tim Knox: And how does that apply to authors, for example?
Vickie Sullivan: Well the book is basically a spotlight on your point of view. Now I work with clients that are in the non-fiction arena but even in fiction, and we talked about this offline, you have to have an area, whether it’s romance, whether it’s fantasy, zombies or vampires or whatever. You’ll notice that each of these artists or… whether you’re a filmmaker, an artist, whatever. You usually have pretty much a central message or theme that runs through all your work.
You’ve got to be strategic about that theme. Too many authors create a theme by accident. They create it in a vacuum and what happens when you do that, because the marketplace is just flooded with books right now, I mean flooded, I mean hundreds of thousands of books. Every year the march continues. It’s getting harder and harder to stand out.
Tim Knox: One of the points you make, and I think this is really important to point out, is it really doesn’t matter what genre you’re in whether you are non-fiction, fiction in a subgenre like romance, suspense, whatever. You’ve got to have some kind of strategy to take your book or your message, if you will, out to the market.
Vickie Sullivan: Absolutely and if you’re in fiction that key central character personifies something. They personify something that connects with the audience and they care now about that character. That’s what builds a series of books. So that happens in fiction just as much as it happens in non-fiction.
Tim Knox: Exactly and you know one thing we talked about offline was the importance of having that series or that backlist so if one of your books does catch fire and then the reader is like, “Wait, this is really good stuff. What else does this author have?” You better have another something in your bag of tricks to sell them, right?
Vickie Sullivan: Oh absolutely. I mean so many authors are ill prepared for the success that they are chasing.
Tim Knox: It’s like I’m a dog, I catch a car. What do I do with it?
Vickie Sullivan: Exactly. It’s such an opportunity lost because a book is really jet fuel, you know. You’re the rocket. The book will take you higher but if you don’t have something to sustain yourself up there, you’re going to come right back down.
Tim Knox: Such a great point. I know you deal usually with non-fiction. You deal with a lot of speakers. That was the association that you and I first had. You were the one that actually took this little chubby boy from Alabama and taught him how to be a speaker. I talk to a lot of speakers. I talk to a lot of authors. It seems that speakers want to be authors and authors want to be speakers.
Vickie Sullivan: Well yeah because everybody has something to say now. What you’ll notice – and this is one of the biggest trends in books right now – is who’s writing. Everyone and their brother is writing now. You’ve got politicians writing. You’ve got celebrities writing. Books have really become a vehicle for that spotlight and if you have a popular book then you get all sorts of opportunities that just come out of nowhere. It’s not about selling books. I mean of course it’s great when you do that but it’s the other opportunities.
I just heard about a very popular author that had a bestselling book about introverts. Do you know that she is in partnership now with an office furniture manufacturer to help produce furniture or cubicles in an office that helps with introverts?
Tim Knox: How does that work?
Vickie Sullivan: Well exactly. Here’s how it worked. She got so prominent and so popular and became to personify the introvert employee, the introvert leader, the introvert anybody. They came to her to partner with because they felt as the author of this popular book, she knew introverts better than anybody.
Tim Knox: And whether she did or not, she positioned herself as the expert in that area, right?
Vickie Sullivan: It didn’t matter. It was all about the popularity of the book.
Tim Knox: You do a lot of market strategy and you look across a lot of different things. What are you seeing in the book industry? You talked a little bit about there are a lot of books out there and a lot of authors but are you seeing anything specifically, any trends that authors need to be aware of?
Vickie Sullivan: Well I think that the biggest trend that authors need to be aware of is… how do I explain this? It’s kind of like what you don’t want to be. Too many authors are just putting their ideas out there willy-nilly. They need to be more aware of competition. A lot of authors are getting placed in the old wine in a new bottle category because their books really don’t say anything new. It’s just a different story, same message. That is the kiss of death for any author in this noisy market.
So what’s really happening from an author’s standpoint is you’ve got a lot of books out there and you’ve also got a lot of social media and places to promote that book. It’s not lack of access. It’s now lack of differentiation.
Tim Knox: Standing out among the crowd.
Vickie Sullivan: Exactly. So in the good old days if you got a media interview or if you went to Oprah or if you went to some of these talk shows, you would get a bump in book sales. That still happens to a certain extent. I mean Stephen Colbert talks about The Colbert Bump and there’s a grain of truth in that but that doesn’t happen as much anymore because there’s so many opportunities both online and off to promote your book that the noise level has become deafening.
So now the pendulum has swung toward strategy in that if you don’t stake your territory and if you don’t own your corner, no one’s going to pay attention to you. You’re going to look like one of many and if you look like one of many, you’re done.
Tim Knox: That doesn’t matter if you’re fiction or non-fiction or whatever.
Vickie Sullivan: Absolutely. If you look like a cheap imitation of a famous author, people are going to see that and they’re going to say well why not buy Stephen King’s book versus Stephen King-like?
Tim Knox: That’s one mistake that so many authors make. Okay, let’s see. What’s hot? Teenage vampires, zombies. I’m going to go write what’s hot and very rarely does that actually work out. I interviewed this guy, Armand Rosamilia, who’s been writing zombie books for forever. This guy is the king of the zombie books. If you ask Armand are you ever going to write romance? He’s going to go are you crazy? Why would I do that? This is my niche; this is what I know. If you’re an author jumping on every bandwagon that comes by, that’s really no guarantee that you’re going to sell a single book.
Vickie Sullivan: Absolutely. That’s why you’ve got to combine your strengths and your passion with what’s going on out there in the marketplace. That intersection is magic. That is pure gold.
Tim Knox: Really I think one of the things you’re saying is the author, him or herself, you’re not going to get successful on the merits of the book. You’ve got to brand yourself and get involved. You’ve got to be a product just as much as the book is, right?
Vickie Sullivan: Absolutely and that’s why you have to personify something bigger than yourself so that that book personifies a bigger message than a good story.
Tim Knox: How do I do that?
Vickie Sullivan: Well the first thing you do is you get clear on what you have to offer. You have to go deep. The market is no longer going to tolerate stuff at 30,000 feet. You have to really go deep and look at the message or the thing that you want to advocate. Tyler Perry is a great example. He does movies. He does all sorts of stuff. His whole platform is on family forgiveness.
Tim Knox: He has a running theme through all his movies.
Vickie Sullivan: Exactly and 100 million dollars on forgiveness and what that looks like and how you do that in the most dire situations and how do you lift yourself up from that. That’s the kind of thing you’ve got to really look at.
The introvert author, she celebrated introverts. She said introverts have so much to offer that people completely miss. She became what I call the spokesperson of a demographic. She represented a point of view or a characteristic that people resonated with.
Tim Knox: They connected.
Vickie Sullivan: Exactly. You’ve got to look at what do you connect with on the deepest level? Many authors stay at 30,000 feet. I’m going to be blunt here. They stay at 30,000 feet. They think my story of – and I had somebody call me one time; this is crazy. Someone said I want to write about my divorce and depression. I’m thinking to myself you better go a few layers below that, buddy. Everyone’s been divorced. Everyone’s been depressed. No one’s going to understand what you’re coming back from.
That’s a big trend that I see out there with books. I call it the battle of the stories. Storytelling has become so hot right now. We’re so focused on telling stories that we have forgotten about the point of those stories, the insight of those stories. You got to get to the insight too.
Tim Knox: You see that even a lot in the non-fiction genre. You see a lot of these authors now who are telling stories to try to get a point across, if you will, and some of them are really successful at it, others not so much. One thing you said that I want to go back to really quickly is as an author you’ve got to know yourself and your message before you write a word, don’t you?
Vickie Sullivan: Absolutely. Sometimes you can write… what’s great about writing is that you learn about yourself through your writing. Sometimes you can write just to get to know yourself, just to get to that depth. Then you can be ready to write a book.
Tim Knox: You talk a lot about branding in what you do. I’m an author. I’ve got a new book. I’m self-publishing. No one knows who I am. What are some of the things I can do to brand myself? Start off by defining branding for us.
Vickie Sullivan: Branding is the story other people tell themselves about you.
Tim Knox: What a great definition. I love that.
Vickie Sullivan: Bottom line. It’s simply a story that people tell themselves about you. We can influence that story with our interactions, what we give people, how we behave online. There’s a ton of different influences. It’s the story in our heads and our stories in our heads about other people really are around what I call unconscious comparisons. People make unconscious comparisons about us and each other every single moment. Every single moment they are comparing do I agree with this person? Do I believe this person? Is what they say true for me? Has this touched an emotion so I can connect with this person? That kind of thing. There’s all sorts of comparisons going on.
So what I tell a brand new author, the first thing I ask them is what is your real motivation for writing a book? What’s the real motivation? A lot of times it’s, well my business is slow. My consulting business is slow and so I thought I have all this time on my hands; I’ll just write a book.
Tim Knox: We need another book from a consultant, don’t we?
Vickie Sullivan: Exactly. That’s not going to work, okay. The authors that come to me and I’m thinking of a CEO of a midsize firm that I worked with – he had such a vision about how to build cities, right? All he needed was a frame around that vision so that people could engage him.
What I would say to authors is what message are you giving out there on your book that gives people the opportunity to join forces with you, to engage with you, to connect with you? What are you being a conduit for? What ideal are you advocating, are you promoting? Are you just putting out an idea because you got nothing else to do?
Tim Knox: Right. I’m bored so I’m going to write a book.
Vickie Sullivan: You’d be surprised.
Tim Knox: No I wouldn’t.
Vickie Sullivan: There’s a lot of – and I’m going to get on this tirade and then I’m going to get off. There’s a lot of folks out there that help people write books and they’re not helping, okay. They’re helping themselves more than they’re helping the author. All of those people are saying write a book, write a book, write a book because it’s in their best interest that the entire free world write a book.
Sometimes it’s too early to write a book. You’ve got to look at your timing, okay. If you don’t know yourself well enough, if you haven’t had an idea fleshed out well enough then it’s not time for you to write a book. There’s other ways to promote your work. There’s other ways to get yourself out there. You really got to check your motivation.
The second thing I ask new authors is what do you want to put a spotlight on? The book is a spotlight. The book draws attention to you. That’s the purpose of a book. What are you drawing attention to? If they can’t give me a clear answer to that, that’s lack of strategy, positioning and branding. It’s too early for them to write that book.
Tim Knox: That’s one thing I was going to ask you is at what point do they write the book? What you’re saying is they write the book when they’re ready and they have all their other ducks in a row and they have their message figured out, right?
Vickie Sullivan: They have their message and they have their business model figured out. You and I were talking about this offline. You got to be part entrepreneur if you’re going to write books. There’s no one out there that’s going to say let me take this book and make it a bestseller. I’ll call you back when it happens.
Tim Knox: I’ll send you a check.
Vickie Sullivan: Exactly. It ain’t happening. No way is it happening. You’ve got to be entrepreneurial and entrepreneurs have a business model. What do you want in exchange for people enjoying this book? What’s your business model? Is it more books? Is it an entire catalogue like you and I talked about before? Is it consulting? Is it group coaching? Some midsize businesses that I work with, they’re writing books to get a bigger vision out to position their company so they’re wanting opportunities to work with fabulous people or other fabulous companies.
What is the business model? So what’s your motivation? What are you going to put a spotlight on and what’s your business model? Those three questions will determine if you really ready to write a book.
Tim Knox: I think that’s so important. Out of all these interviews that I’ve been doing, the one common theme that comes out from all of these successful authors, I don’t care if they are traditionally publishing with an agent or they’re self-publishing, the message time and time again is you’re an author but you’re an entrepreneur. You have to understand that the books that you write aren’t your babies; they’re the product of your business.
Vickie Sullivan: Exactly and they have a role in your business and you need to be clear on what that role is. A lot of politicians write books so that they can go on a book tour and hit all the media circuit. You’ve got businesses out there writing books and they call it an oversized business card. Now there’s some pros and cons to that strategy.
Everyone has a purpose or an agenda behind a book and a lot of new authors write a book in a vacuum. They’re like well I had nothing to do. My business is slow or the economy is slow or I just like to write so I’m going to write and throw it out there and see what happens. Now there are people who get discovered at the soda shop, so to speak, but that’s happening less than in the good old days.
Tim Knox: Right and you work a lot with the top guys and gals in the business, top speakers. You’ve got some that write a book to use as a marketing piece, right? It’s how they generate leads.
Vickie Sullivan: Absolutely. Speakers do it. Midsized companies do it. I’ve worked with a lot of executives from midsized companies that do it as a personal branding tool. Here’s what I stand for. Look at the CEO circuit, Jack Welsh. He wrote a book and said here’s what I stand for. I’m a success, therefore I’m going to tell you my secrets. That was just to draw the media to him and his new projects.
Tim Knox: It’s just a marketing piece. It’s all about what we talked about a minute ago and that’s branding for him.
Vickie Sullivan: Exactly. So then from an author’s standpoint, you’ve got to know that those competitors are out there. So how do you dominate your corner of the territory? What do you own as far as your role in that conversation? If you are a midsized company and you’re a PR firm and you want to talk about promotion – and I’m just making this up – then what part of that conversation are you going to dominate?
I worked with a CEO of a midsized firm and she was into user experience. We had her advocate a particular thing about the user experience domain. In the purpose of her work, her thought leadership was if you want to know about this then I’m your girl.
Tim Knox: Right. I’m the source.
Vickie Sullivan: Right, I’m the source. So that is part of market strategy and branding is deciding what corner are you going to own.
Tim Knox: How important is it for that message to be unique? I’m not going to write here’s my new book, Vickie. It’s called Who Moved My Cheese under My Colored Parachute. Who’s going to buy that?
Vickie Sullivan: Yeah, that’s the thing. Thank you to the internet, YouTube and all that – you’ve got a lot of good ideas out there free. Here’s what’s happening. When money exchanges hands, even if it is $0.99 on Kindle, okay, people have expectations. Your message has to be very unique because in comparison the non-unique is free on the internet. You’ve got to look at the comparisons. People are saying, wait a minute. Why should I pay you for this book if I can get the same information for free? That’s that unconscious comparison that we were talking about before that authors need to be aware of.
It’s very important that your book have a message that is unique enough that doesn’t put you in the one of many category or cheap imitation category because otherwise people aren’t going to buy it. Why should they? They get the same for free.
Tim Knox: It’s just like if you’re an author you have to think of yourself as an entrepreneur. You have to think of your readers as your customers.
Vickie Sullivan: Exactly.
Tim Knox: I don’t care if your book is $0.99. If they don’t feel they get their money’s worth, you’re going to hear about it.
Vickie Sullivan: Well yeah and in our transparent society with social media you better believe if anyone feels any degree of rip-offedness, they’re going to tell you about it.
Tim Knox: Is that a word?
Vickie Sullivan: Probably not.
Tim Knox: You just made that up. Let’s go over to the dark side here for a minute. We kind of touched on this but what are some of the more common mistakes that you see authors making that can taint the book altogether?
Vickie Sullivan: Well the first thing, and we talked a little about this, and I call this writing in a vacuum. Now writing for your own edification or writing to get to know yourself better, there’s always value in that. If you are interested in authorship as an entrepreneurial pursuit, you cannot write that book in a vacuum. You’ve got to look at the marketplace and again decide what corner you’re going to own.
So the biggest mistake I see is a lack of positioning. So many authors think I’ve got a great idea. If I just put that idea out there in a book it will catch fire. It’s not true, it’s not true, it’s not true. They’ve got to be aware of the comparisons. If you’re seen as one of many, if you’re seen as a cheap imitation, if you’re seen as old wine in a new bottle, you’re going to fall flat. I’m telling you what, the price of falling flat has gone up, Tim. I’ve seen businesses go under because of a book gone bad.
I have a colleague that I knew for years. She had a leadership institute and she wrote a book and she wrote that book in a vacuum. She thought all she had to do was write about her ideas and that was enough. The book tanked. She spent six figures on vendors proofreading the book, doing this, doing that, promoting the book. Because the book wasn’t well positioned, all the promotion in the world will not overcome bad strategy.
Tim Knox: Or a bad book.
Vickie Sullivan: Yeah, it will not overcome that. She threw six figures at this and it was enough to tank her. She went in to retirement.
Tim Knox: You can’t just throw money at something like this, can you?
Vickie Sullivan: No, you’ve got to use some brain cells. You’ve got to think. You’ve got to see the book as a business tool and you’ve got to invest strategically. I mean I see a lot of authors spend more money on proofreading than they will on strategy and that’s just a recipe for disaster. It really is.
Tim Knox: Let’s talk about in the few minutes we’ve got left – what’s your advice if I’m a new author? You specialize in non-fiction but I think some of the advice will go across the board. If I call you up and say I’m thinking of writing a book. What do I need to know about the market? Is this a good time? What’s your best advice?
Vickie Sullivan: My best advice is the market always has space to discover new things. So I would talk to that new author about what they want to put out there – what are they advocating, what are they supporting? What’s really the fire in the belly? Then I would say, okay, now that we know your fire in the belly let’s go out there and find a corner to own. What corner can you uniquely own that no one can take away from you? That is where you build the book around. You build the book around that corner. You don’t retrofit it.
Sometimes authors will come to me after they’ve written the book and they’re like, okay, I’m ready to talk to you, market strategist, because I have my book written. Now where’s your magic wand? I’m like, oh, horse’s out the barn. What are we going to do now?
Now there are some things you can do so let’s continue our trip on the dark side. Let’s say you wrote the book, you made all the mistakes we’ve been talking about. You’re seen as one of many. The book’s tanking. What can you do to kind of turn the ship around? Well you could take the media that you’re creating and you can stop talking about the book and talk about something bigger. Use the book as a toolkit or as a reminder. So what you would say is I wrote this book to remind everybody that we blah, blah, blah – there’s the message. So even though the book doesn’t outline the message, you can do it in media and promotion efforts so that people have a frame around the book.
Tim Knox: Very good. Vickie, tell us where we can learn more about what you do.
Vickie Sullivan: Well you can go to VickieSullivan.com and you will see three options there for you. You’ll see professional speakers. You’ll see thought leaders, which a lot of authors kind of fall into the thought leader category because they want to stand out and distinguish themselves and you will even see the midsized businesses there.
Click on one of those and you and I will kind of start an online conversation about what’s going on out there, what you need to be aware of, what you need to be thinking about and then if there’s something that I can do, I’ve got all sorts of learning systems that will help people distinguish themselves, will help them do kind of a test run on some of their ideas or their business models so they can go to the store.
They can sign up for my blog if they just want to see me, tips, trends and tirades, if they want more on the frontlines of market strategy, what’s going on out there to brand yourself and be unique.
Tim Knox: One thing you are very good at, and this is my personal testimonial, is you’re very good at grabbing someone by the ankles, turning them upside down, shaking them ruthlessly until all those jumbled thoughts in their heads start to gel. That’s what you did with me a while ago. It’s been a few years now.
Vickie Sullivan: Absolutely and, you know, it always amazes me what people have inside them. I will say this one last thing. People know far more than they’re telling. I have seen that time and time again. Authors are especially guilty of this. They’ll cruise at 30,000 feet thinking they’re doing right but I’m telling you, they know far more than they’re telling. The people that work with me, we get into what you really know.
Tim Knox: One of the things that I really liked about working with you is you’re a great sounding board. I think that’s one thing that authors need because being an author, especially a fiction author, is kind of a lonely business. You are there by yourself most of the time working, writing. It’s always great to have someone that you can throw ideas at and will throw them back. You were very helpful with me in that respect so thank you.
Vickie Sullivan: Oh absolutely. I tell people all the time – the sharpest knife cannot carve its own handle.
Tim Knox: I love these sayings you have.
Vickie Sullivan: I’m telling you. I bring people into my business. Even though I do it for other people, I bring people into my business because I know I can’t carve my own handle. Same thing with us all. We all just need to help and support one another and that’s the rising tide that lifts all boats.
Tim Knox: Unfortunately not everybody sees it that way. In publishing and speaking too, there’s a very me, me, me mentality and a lot of that has to do with the state of the industry I guess.
Vickie Sullivan: Well I think there’s a lot of desperate people out there and you know authors, particularly new authors, need to be very, very careful because there’s desperate people whose business models have collapsed and they’re now looking for any kind of money that they can get. I truly believe that people don’t wake up and say, “Hey today’s Thursday. I think I’m going to go rip off a bunch of people today. Woohoo!”
I don’t think there’s any of that kind of thinking on the whole. I think folks just get so desperate and they’re so scared because they don’t know their next move that they just start saying that they can do stuff when they can’t but they don’t know they can’t. So new authors who don’t know any different can really fall prey to that kind of dynamic.
Tim Knox: You’re right. You have to be very careful because the internet especially is full of people that will help you get your book published and will edit your book and help you build a platform and buyer beware on most of this.
Vickie Sullivan: Yeah because what happens is they’ll charge so little that the author will say, well this is low risk and so what have I got to lose? Well that’s how authors die, by a thousand paper cuts. One of the biggest pieces of advice to go back and answer your question that I would help new authors with, is determine who’s real, who’s not, who’s just going to give you information that you could get for free versus who’s going to really help.
I think that’s what I do differently than a lot of other folks is we really dig deep. I mean the depth of the work is not 30,000 feet at all because the money, the profits, the value is in the nooks and crannies of the market. It’s in that corner you choose to own. That’s a very strategic choice that people just don’t make, don’t see until it’s too late.
Tim Knox: I know when I worked with you, you kept telling me to be a thought leader and I kept telling you that would require thoughts. Vickie Sullivan, you are a market strategist, branding expert. Again, give us your website address.
Vickie Sullivan: VickieSullivan.com.
Tim Knox: Very good. It’s been a pleasure my dear. Talk to you soon.
Vickie Sullivan: See you later.