Carol J. Amato has published twenty-nine books and around two hundred articles in national publications in the USA. She became a publisher to get more control over her writing and her recent titles include Maximize Your Competitive Edge: 17 Secrets to Make Your Small Business Look Like a Fortune 500 Company, The 5 Biggest Writing Mistakes Small Business Owners Make and How to Avoid Them, How to Start and Run a Writers’ Critique Group, and The World’s Easiest Guide to Using the APA, 6th Edition.
N: I want to start by asking about your journey. How did you become a publisher?
C: I actually started by becoming a writer first. When I was in the second or third grade I was an avid reader and by the time I got to the fourth grade, I realized I wanted to be a writer. During grade school, I wrote corny stories about stallions and Western stuff because the Old West was on TV a lot in those days.
I also raised horses and I was showing them in different events like pole bending and barrel racing…so I started writing about them, but I never got past chapter one of any book even in the seventh grade. I’m sure they were terrible.
I kind of diddled around like that in high school and college and then I was on an oil tanker for a year. There I decided to write a Western. I spent most of the time I was there working on that book and I made every mistake that any beginning author could make.
I just didn’t know how to properly plot. It was supposed to be a mystery but I had both viewpoints so the reader knew what was going on the whole time. That killed the mystery.
Anyway, when I got back to the U.S., I retyped the whole thing because I had a Norwegian typewriter on the oil tanker. There the period key was an O with a slash through it and every sentence ended with that. I typed the whole thing up on my old Smith Corona typewriter.
I thought I was really hot stuff! I bound the whole thing, put it in a box, and went to the post office. My sister took a picture of me out in front of the post office with this box in my arm and then I mailed it off. No surprise that I got it back unopened a week later.
I knew nothing about submitting properly, writing a query letter, sending sample chapters or any of the stuff that you’re supposed to do… so I had to learn the hard way. I ended up taking a class on Writing for Publication. The person who taught that class asked me to apply for membership in the Writers’ Club of Whittier, which was a professional writers’ group. I was the first person they took in who was unpublished and I learned everything through that critique group. I’m still a member and now this group is going to be 70 years old. It started in 1953. I attribute the fact that I’m a published author today to that group and all the things that I learned there. Through my coaching now, I’m trying to keep other people from making all the same mistakes I made.
N: Wow! That’s a great story of learning and perseverance. Let’s move on to the next stage… How did your book get published?
C: The first 10 books were published through a traditional publisher. Later, when I started teaching business writing part-time at a university, I saw the difficulties the students faced in understanding and applying the American Psychological Association style manual. It was written for PhD-level students. The style manual was so difficult to understand that one of my students threw it across the room.
I had been a technical writer for years and I thought there had to be a way to apply technical writing techniques to this manual. So I wrote a user-friendly version that just had the basics that a lower division student like a freshman or a sophomore would use, like page format, citations and references, and putting in figures and tables. When I started marketing it to the educational publishers, they wanted to pay me just USD500 with a pat on my head. I thought it ridiculous because this book would be for sale every semester since there are always new students. That’s when I thought that it was time to start a publishing company and publish my book myself… so that’s what I did. It was the World’s Easiest Guide To Using APA.
Then I wrote The World’s Easiest Guide To Using MLA for English majors and some of the humanities. APA is used by business, psychology, nursing, education and criminal justice majors and so there are a lot of fields that use it.
The only sad part about students using APA at the undergrad level is that when you get into business, you have to use the Chicago style. So that’s the next one I have to work on.
N: That’s wonderful! You tried to find a solution and it led you to publishing…
C: Yes, I never thought this would happen, but luckily, the technology was at a point where it was it was allowable. So you know we had computers, and the Internet was just coming out at that point. This was the mid-90s and it made a big difference!
N: Your book was used more by educational institutions, so you would have bulk buys.
C: Yes. It was sold to college bookstores and libraries and now it’s in the seventh edition…that’ll just be coming out shortly.
N: Now do you have a team to work with or do you still manage it single-handedly?
C: Well, I do have some people that work with me, like a graphic artist and web designer and accountant, but mostly I’m doing things by myself.
N: That’s a lot of work…because if you’re going to be managing across educational institutions and you must have a digital version also now.
C: Well, yes, that might be on the verge of coming out. The problem is that it has graphics in it to demonstrate what the references look like and I’m not sure it’s going to work in a digital version unless the pages are static.
I’m right now getting them converted to digital versions and I think it might be possible at this point, but I know we just did a book and the person who was doing the graphics for that had to put them at the end of the chapters so that the Kindle wouldn’t screw up the pages. I’m not sure if it’s going to work or not because we can’t move those diagrams to the end. They have to stay on the page where the directions are and because of that, it will probably only be a print-on-demand book.
N: What are the learnings you had as a publisher?
C: There was a man named Dan Poynter who unfortunately has passed away, but he wrote the book on how to start your own small press.
I also attended his weekend retreat in Santa Barbara to learn the ropes and that’s how I was able to start the company. He had it all laid out— how to set up a business, all the typical stuff you have to do for a business, the license, the resale license, registering your URL—all the rest of it, you know, getting the website designed…everything that was in its new stages back in those days.
N: Things must have changed now.
C: Everything’s changed…
N: What are the changes that you have seen?
C: Well, first of all, the digital versions didn’t exist when I started out. When I first started out writing, you went through New York or nothing. There was no alternative. Now people can publish their own books.
This has a negative side to it, too, with people just putting up anything up there…material that’s unedited and the covers that aren’t properly designed, etc., so that’s the downside. But the fact that people can take their careers into their own hands these days is great.
You have to do your own marketing anyway unless you’re Stephen King or James Patterson or somebody really famous like that, so why not have the profit go to you as opposed to the majority going to an agent and a publisher and you getting just the crumbs?
N: This is something that many writers grouse about that the earlier writers did not do much marketing…
C: Publishers did it back in those days and before the mid-90s, the budgets were very different, and the economy was different. You had really excellent editors like Jackie Kennedy in those publishing companies. They knew a lot and publishers did all the marketing, but as things went on and the economy started changing, they cut the budgets down.
Now most of the editors are 22 years old, right out of college and working for almost minimum wage. They don’t have the same viewpoint on the books as they did before.
If you’re an unknown or a first-time author, you’re going to have a hard time marketing because they’re not going to market you… Additionally, if your book doesn’t sell very well, it’s gone after three months.
When you have it in your own control, you can keep it out there forever and if you have to do a revision, you can, so there are a lot of benefits to doing it yourself but you have to know what you’re doing.
N: I was speaking to an Indian publisher, and he was also a bookseller earlier, so he said that he does self-publishing, too, but he first reads the entire manuscript to decide on it, and if an author refuses to edit, then he doesn’t work with them…
C: He’s right because the book has to be as good as one that would come out of New York or a major publisher in India. It can’t be low quality or it’s going to go nowhere.
You can have a great cover and a terrible interior or you can have a great interior and a terrible cover. Both will not sell.
There are so many authors out there who don’t belong to critique groups, they get no feedback, their books are not professionally edited and they use a template as a cover…then it goes nowhere. They sell maybe 25 copies to their relatives and that’s it.
It’s really important to get into a critique group, to attend webinars online that are free so you learn the ropes of the whole writing business, and it’s changing so fast that even those of us who have been in it for years have to keep up!
N: How should a writer go about creating an author platform? Let’s start with that.
C: Okay, let’s start first of all with social media because the easiest is getting into groups that are based on your topic. There are all kinds of writers’ groups listed…make comments, and join the discussions so that people start recognizing your name.
Then you should have a website. There are several platforms that you can use for free to create your website…they’re drag and drop.
You can make a very simple site with only one page which is your main page and a contact me button or a separate page for contact. It’s just getting yourself known by people who are in the industry.
Let’s say you’re a mystery writer… Link up with the major mystery writers on Facebook or LinkedIn or any other platform and then start to make comments on their postings. Positive comments, of course. Let them get to know you so that by the time your book comes out, you have a whole bunch of people to market it to. You can let them all know that it’s coming out and then post messages on your own Facebook and LinkedIn or whichever pages you’re on. That’s how you start building an audience.
N: Authors often say, “I’m so caught up in my book right now how do I do this also?” I usually tell them to do it once a week, do it twice a week, but set aside some time for social media in your life and then choose the right platform… I feel that is important because there are so many platforms, you can’t be on all of them…
C: Yes, you have to choose the one where your audience is. Otherwise, it’s overwhelming. If you’re a business writer, LinkedIn should be where you are and not necessarily Facebook. If you’re writing about parenting or some other topic that’s of general interest, then, yes, Facebook might be a good spot. So finding out where your audience hangs out is the first step.
N: That’s a very important step…where are your readers?
C: It’s not just readers in general. One of my authors wrote a book on change management, how to deal with change in a company. She needed to check where the CEOs hang out. Which platforms are they on? Because that’s who that book needs to go to… not the employees.
So you could get on other groups’ or associations’ social media platforms and converse with them.
N: Basically, authors should start conversing, start communicating their idea, talk about it…and I tell authors that if you talk a little bit about your chapters, it will connect. Nobody’s going to steal your chapter, but it might generate some interest going especially before the launch of your book.
C: Yes, you could post articles on your platform, or post some of the chapters that you’re going to have and then start a discussion on those.
Also getting back to finding the audience, setting aside the time is important. If you put it in your schedule that from 9:00- 10:00 a.m. on Mondays and Thursdays, I’m going to do social media. Just set aside a specific time, it could be 7:00-8:00 p.m. It doesn’t have to dominate your day and it shouldn’t. Making a schedule is really important, because if you’re working full-time and you’re writing on the side, you need to set aside time to write and you need to set aside time for social media, also.
Getting on podcasts, blogging, Vlogging, podcasting, joining communities, joining groups online… These days, you don’t have to leave your house. It’s so easy whereas before you had to go to places in person, and I think one thing that Covid taught a lot of authors and people who used to hold big events in hotels is that they don’t need to go to that expense anymore. They can use Zoom instead!
You don’t have to guarantee how many people are going to show up or you’re going to end up paying for all these meals that aren’t eaten. It’s cut down the overhead so much on getting out and networking.
N: Another thing that books need (especially business books) are testimonials.
C: The testimonials need to be sought after while you’re still writing. So you might have a couple of chapters and an outline which you can send to people asking for a testimonial. It is a positive comment about your book that you solicit from someone who is an expert in your area. You want to get big names (in your book niche) if you can. Maybe not A list…if you’re a mystery writer or a political intrigue writer and you’re going after James Patterson right off the bat, that might not be possible, but there are other mystery writers who are well known…they might not be at the top category, but you can go after them first and then based on getting testimonials from them, maybe then James Patterson may look at yours. If you can gather 10 to 20 testimonials from big names in your field…that’s good.
There are a couple of people that I’m going after for the book that I’m working on now which is about exhibiting at trade shows on a shoestring budget.
Terry Nathan is the Executive Director of IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association) and they always have a publishing University at the IBPA conference every year. This year, I’m going to get him hopefully to do a testimonial and then there’s another author who is called the trade show expert, I’m hoping to get her testimonial, too.
Then based on them, hopefully, I can get a few more after that.
For the change management book, we had some CEOs who actually used the (ideas of the) book. The author of that book has a bachelor’s degree only, but based on her book, she was hired to teach in the graduate program of a university. She did that for a semester.
That’s how a book opens all kinds of doors for you, especially when you can get the people who are in the lead to write a testimonial for your book, because those testimonials carry weight for the reader, who is then able to judge the book without having to actually read every word.
The professional reviews, on the other hand, are potluck, because when you send your book out for review, you may get a positive review, you may get a negative review, or no review at all!
As for reader reviews, you don’t go after those. Readers do that of their own accord, and they’re going to post whether they like the book or didn’t like the book, and personally, I have refrained from posting negative reviews. I would rather post no review than tear some author to shreds.
I read one book that was poorly edited but the book itself was great, so I posted a review saying how great the plot and the characterization were and then went on to say that even though it needed an edit for grammar and punctuation, it didn’t deter my enjoyment from the book. So I got the word in without tearing the writer down.
N: Could you suggest some great books on marketing that you have read recently.
C: Let’s see…I liked Building a Story Brand: Clarify Your Message So Customers will Listen by Donald Miller. It’s all about branding with stories as opposed to just the facts, ma’am, nothing but the facts, and it really makes a difference in how your material comes across on your website. It’s not so much for the writing of the books, it’s for branding yourself as an author or a company president or whatever the case may be, but it’s very useful. I rewrote my entire bio based on that book and there was another one called Bye Bye Boring Bio by Nancy Juetten Bellingham. That book is very useful.
N: You have witnessed changes in publishing and in writing. We’ve spoken about publishing. Now, in writing, there’s a democratization of writing. People can write and publish easily… What challenges does that bring?
C: One of the big worries right now and this goes beyond the writing as we’ve always known it, are the artificial intelligence programs that are coming out like ChatGPT.
Yesterday, I attended a webinar where the guy said, “I’ve been writing business books for years and I decided I wanted to write a novel, but I didn’t know how so I got on to ChatGPT, put in the question and it wrote a chapter for me.” He said, “I thought, oh, man, this is great!”
I thought, “No!”
I wrote in the chat room that these programs plagiarized off the internet and gathered data from stuff that’s already written and copyrighted and you have to be very careful about using them.
They’re great for outlining and for knowing what points you should cover. If I’m talking about marketing to business people, it’ll list maybe five or ten things that I should do and then I can take that and create my own content.
But to actually expect it to write your book or your article for you is a big mistake. There are going to be copyright laws that catch up eventually, and you’re going to be in big trouble because they plagiarize from so many writers that you don’t know who you plagiarized from!
N: And it lacks a certain depth because you will put some stories that feel superficial.
C: Yes, the characters aren’t developed, the dialogue probably doesn’t sound right, and you have to still know what you’re doing to make it into a real book. I’ve heard that Amazon has already had books listed that were written by AI, and so somewhere along the way, they’re going to have to catch those and eliminate them from being sold because it’s not right. It’s plagiarizing material from other writers.
N: For non-fiction books, what do you think the writer should work on?
C: Outlining for starters. You have to have a chapter outline. Your material has to flow in a logical order regardless of the type of book you’re writing. So you want to make sure that things aren’t out of order.
One of my authors had a biography of his grandfather who invented Freon and Ethyl gasoline and his book was all out of chronological order. He was just writing a chapter here and a chapter there and he put them together but they weren’t in chronological order. A biography has to be in chronological order. There are certain structures that you can’t get away from. In a non-fiction book, like the change management one, you have to base it on your own knowledge and experience.
Let me take my APA guide as an example. Instead of having it hodgepodge the way the publication manual that’s published by the Association is, I started with what the student is going to do first… The answer was, they were going to format the title page. So I started with the title page. Then I went to the page layout, after that I wrote the chapter on adding figures and tables, and then a chapter on documenting your sources in the text, and the chapter on referencing came at the end. I structured it in the order in which the student would create the paper, you know, not in the order in which the publication manual had it set out… which was totally illogical.
N: So the main thing you’re saying is that you should know your audience and what your audience is looking for.
C: Yeah…know your audience, know what your audience is looking for, know how you would do that task step-by-step and make the steps as detailed as you can. That’s where my knowledge of technical writing came in…knowing how to go down to the absolute first-time user level.
Now for students who are freshmen and sophomores, it’s going to be different from when you’re talking to a CEO. The CEO already knows a lot of the lower-level information, so you’re speaking at a much higher level to that person, but still, you need to include all the details and not skim over them.
That’s where getting educated on that topic really helps.
N: Thank you so much, Carol. I think you have been a fount of knowledge. I have not met many people who have so such a vast range of experience from writing to publishing.
C: Thank you and do stay in touch.
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