Maria: You know, our company mission talks about diversity and really representing the modern-day child but, at the same time, having messages that are timeless. So, I want people to really connect to that when they’re submitting their books to us.
Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: What’s it like to work with a small indie press and publish a book? Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast.
I self-published my first book back in 2014. The self-publishing landscape has changed quite a bit since then. For example, Amazon rolled out ads and it was quite easy to sell your book using Amazon ads when they first rolled it out. These days, you’ve got to invest a lot more time and money and learning the basics of Amazon advertising. And that’s on top of learning how to commission a great book cover for your book and also to find an editor and a sub-editor and so on.
But what if you don’t want to do all of this? Well, then, perhaps you may want to work with a small indie press. Maria Dismondy is the founder of one such press. It’s Cardinal Rule Press. She’s also an author, she’s published over 10 children’s books, and she’s a podcaster who podcasts regularly on the topic.
In this week’s interview, she explains her writing journey, why she started writing children’s books, and how she set up her publishing company.
If you enjoy this week’s interview, please reach out to me on Twitter. I’m @bryanjcollins. And if you’d like a Grammarly discount, please visit becomeawritertoday.com/try-grammarly-today. You’ll get a 25 percent discount which you can use for life.
Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview with Maria Dismondy.
Bryan: I’m glad we got to talk. You have quite an interesting journey as both an author and a creative entrepreneur. Would you be able to tell me how you got started with writing and then we can talk a little bit about your indie press?
Maria: Absolutely. So, I actually graduated from college a long, long time ago as a teacher and I was in the classroom and always picking out books for something that we called Morning Meeting where the children and I sat and we would read a book about a certain topic and kind of dive deeper into that theme.
Well, I wanted to talk to the kids about courage and self-esteem and really just being yourself and I could not find books that had human characters on that topic. There was a ton of characters that were teddy bears and dinosaurs and I thought, “You know what, I’m going to try and write a book for my students,” and so that’s really where I got started.
Bryan: And what was the first book that you decided to write?
Maria: That book was Spaghetti in a Hotdog Bun and, actually, I wrote 10 books, I have 10 books, it’s still the best seller.
Bryan: This is a children’s book?
Maria: It is, correct.
Bryan: Did you know much about writing children’s books when you decided to write this one?
Maria: Well, I had a double major in elementary education and English so, I mean, I studied a ton of literature in college so, yes and no, I guess.
Bryan: What would you say the conventions of a good children’s book are?
Maria: You know, I think if you are going to try to rhyme, I think you really need to understand the semantics of it. This book was not a rhyming book. I also think that you have to really work on showing and not telling in your words so you wanna make sure that you leave room for the illustrations. And I think also you wanna make sure that the main character is doing the work. The main character is the one solving the problem. Especially with children’s books, you don’t wanna have the parents or the teachers solving the problem because that really takes the empowerment away from the children reading the book to say, “Oh, yeah, the adults in my life are gonna save me from everything.”
Bryan: I interviewed a children’s book author some time ago, he described how he worked with an illustrator as he was writing the book. Was that something that you also did or did you approach the visual design of your book in a different way?
Maria: Yeah, you know, unfortunately, with that book, I was working with a publishing company and so they had all of the creative control on the illustrations so I did not have a lot of input on that, which was a bummer, but that actually led me to becoming a publisher because now I have the creative control.
Bryan: At what point did you decide to become a publisher?
Maria: I started publishing for other people probably around the time I was writing my seventh or eighth book. I just really wanted to take the limelight off of myself and I wanted to give other writers the opportunity to get their messages into the world.
Bryan: Did it take long for you to set up your publishing company?
Maria: Uh, Bryan, that is a great question. I did not study business so everything I know about business is from podcasts, like your own, from listening to podcasts, reading books, and connecting with other colleagues. So, I started the business, the first thing that I did is I had a name and I had a logo, and then a website and slowly added team members, slowly created the processes and the operations so it took a lot of time. It really did.
Bryan: You mentioned previously that you’ve written 10 books. Were you also writing these books while you were setting up your small press?
Maria: Yes, I was, because the money that I have supporting my company came from the sales of my own books and the speaking engagements that I did.
Bryan: Makes sense. Makes sense. So your small press is called Cardinal Rule Press. Are there any particular types of clients that you like to work with?
Maria: Yes. So, I prefer to work with writers who wanna be active in their marketing so they wanna be attending book signings or, during a pandemic, they wanna be attending virtual book signings and authors who believe in the message of our company. So, you know, our company mission talks about diversity and really representing the modern-day child but, at the same time, having messages that are timeless. So I want people to really connect to that when they’re submitting their books to us.
Bryan: Did you deliberately set out to focus on children’s books and books that have a message that emphasizes diversity? Most small presses, I suppose I’ve learned about, tend to look at lots of different genres like mystery or thrillers or science fiction so I guess your small press would be unusual in that it’s focused on children’s books.
Maria: And realistic fiction. So we — like that’s a quandary that I had way back in 2006 when I realized there wasn’t a lot of realistic fiction. Not only where there weren’t a lot of children’s books that depicted children as the characters but children that really looked like children today. I taught in a very diverse community and it was a disappointment that my own students couldn’t open up a book and see kids like themselves within the pages so that’s always been the mission from the very start was to be able to look at the kids in our country, look at the kids in our world, and let them see themselves in our pages. So, yeah, I think we are very niche in the fact that we only do realistic fiction and that we focus on social-emotional learning topics.
Bryan: When you say diverse, are you describing children with different skin color and also with disabilities or are there other types of diversity that you like to bring across in your publications?
Maria: Yeah, we actually just created, about six months ago, we created an audit for our books. When we talk about diversity, it’s not just skin color, it’s not just gender, but it includes things, like you said, disability, economic disparities within different families.
I mean, we came up with like 10 different items on the list that really represent diversity and I’m kind of blanking off the top of my head but definitely those things like gender and economic disparities and race, yeah. So, there’s so many different things that I think represent diversity, not just skin color.
Bryan: Is it difficult to find authors who are able to write appropriately and also with some knowledge about these topics?
Maria: It is, and I’m gonna tell you why it’s difficult. Because I think the writers are out there but we need them to know about us. We need them to know about our small press. And I think that’s one of the most difficult things. I think there are people out there writing about these things but the question that we’re always asking is how can we reach those individuals with the visibility of our business.
And so we do things like, you know, we’ve been doing ads on Facebook for a video that talks about our publishing company, we put posts on social media, we have a robust email list that we’ve connected and built over time with our audience, and podcast interviews like this. It’s just really getting that visibility of the company.
Bryan: If I’m listening to this and I’m thinking, “I’d love to work with a small press but I don’t know how exactly that works or what I can expect or if I’m signing my rights away or how much I need to bring to the table,” what would you say to me? Could you walk me through the process?
Maria: Absolutely. Yeah. Well, you don’t need to bring any money to the table with our company because we operate as a traditional publishing company. You can expect a lot of handholding and education as an author. So, we do a mentorship program. Again, all of this is included in the contract so there are no fees, but we take you through a six-week program where we teach you to build an author brand or if you have an author brand, we educate you on how to build it and make it even stronger.
We also have a marketing campaign that starts six months before your book is out which includes one-on-one coaching with our publicist and includes a lot of black and white information. We don’t wanna leave this gray space for you, we want you to know exactly what we are doing to market and sell your book and what we expect from you to market and sell your book. So, we map that all out. And then we also have a community built within our company where you get to connect with our other creatives, our other authors and illustrators, and see what works for them so we host monthly office hours where team members and myself, get on Zoom and any of our authors are able to come into that Zoom call and say, “Hey, I have this problem, can you help me solve it?” and sometimes we bring in experts to come in and talk about things and teach our authors as well.
Bryan: So if I have a story, I don’t necessarily need to have a visual concept or design for my children’s book or for my work of realistic fiction?
Maria: Yes, that’s correct. Actually, we hire the illustrators because we’re trying to keep a consistent feel and vibe with our books so we actually don’t want you to come with artwork.
Bryan: Just to go back to something, you use the term “realistic fiction,” just when I was saying it there, I realized that maybe I’m a bit fuzzy on what that topic means. Is that referring to characters of different backgrounds or is there some other way that you consider realistic fiction?
Maria: Yep. So, when we talk about realistic fiction, we’re talking about things that can really happen that are realistic. So, you wouldn’t have a dinosaur that’s talking or you wouldn’t have animals wearing clothing so we’re trying to really portray a story that could happen in real life but that is fiction, made up.
Bryan: Okay. Do you mind if I ask what would you see as the issue with unrealistic fiction or talking dinosaurs?
Maria: Oh, I don’t have any issue at all. We have three children here at our house and for my youngest, he’s seven, those are some of his favorite books, like the silly ones where the squirrel is laughing and making noises. However, I do not think there are enough realistic fiction books on Amazon and in the world right now and in bookstores for our children and so, that’s why I’m really dedicated to getting those books into the world. But I don’t see anything wrong with them.
Bryan: Yeah, I have three kids as well so I guess when my oldest was smaller, he used to love Toy Story which has talking dinosaurs.
Maria: Yeah. That’s awesome.
Bryan: Could you give listeners some examples of maybe the best-selling realistic fiction books that you’re offering?
Maria: Yes. So, one of our newest books is called Kindness Is a Kite String and it’s about a little boy who wakes up in the morning and he does something kind for his mom and dad and then you start to see this ripple effect where mom and dad do something nice for one of the siblings and then one of the siblings goes to school and does something nice and so it just starts rippling, like every time there’s an act of kindness, it spreads and spreads and spreads.
And, yeah, so that book actually has really taken off. It was released in April of this year and I know now there are schools that are taking kindness as a whole monthly theme and there was a school that reached out to the author and said, “In November, we’re going to be reading your book and all of the children in our entire school are going to receive a kite and we’re gonna have a kite flying day,” because the book is written in similes and metaphors that, you know, kindness is like a kite string so that’s really cool and the sales for that book over the last few months have really skyrocketed because schools are taking on the concept of teaching kindness all month long.
Bryan: It sounds like you rely on traditional or in-person marketing to sell the books from your press as much as you do digital marketing techniques.
Maria: Yeah, you know, we’ve surveyed our customers in the past and the number one way that our customers have found out about our books is through word of mouth and so we really do try to get our books out there and get people talking about our books and the way that you do that is in a traditional sense, is you give away free copies. You give away review copies of your books. So, we definitely are relying on that as a form of marketing.
Bryan: How many books do you publish in a given year?
Maria: Two to four.
Maria: Only two to four. So that’s where I say we’re small but mighty. We are distributed through IPG and, you know, they represent over 500 different publishers but if you were to look at our sales compared to those 500 publishers, they have told us that we’re in the top 10 percent and so we’re a really small company having only two to four titles a year but that’s because we really put a lot of energy into our titles. We put a lot of time into the advertising, the marketing. So I like to say that we’re small but mighty.
Bryan: I like that. I like that. In terms of you, Maria, running a business and also writing, do you still find time to write books as well?
Maria: No. No. I wrote my last book, it came out in 2020, it was a parenting book, the first one I did like that. It’s a non-fiction parenting book and it’s 75,000 words so that was a humongous writing project for me. And I feel like I’ve pretty much hung up my hat on writing for right now. Now what I’m spending my time writing is I wake up in the morning and I do gratitude work for myself in the morning and that’s journaling.
That’s kind of where I’m at right now. And this is where I wanted to be. I really wanted to transition from writer to publisher and just really help others. Yeah, I’m kind of like the writer who doesn’t like to write anymore.
Bryan: I’m actually in the process of writing or publishing a parenting book. What worked for you for finding readers for your parenting book? Anything I could learn from?
Maria: Well, it was a very tricky time because the book came out March of 2020 —
Bryan: In the middle of the pandemic.
Maria: Yes. So, really, what worked for me was the book was about character and teaching children things like kindness and generosity just in your normal daily routines of parenting. So what really worked is when the pandemic happened, I started teaching classes for free online for children. So the book is called Sunny Side Upbringing and I started a course called Sunny Side School where these kids could join me on Zoom for free and I was teaching those same concepts. So, when I say what really worked for me, it was providing services to those families during a time of need that were represented in my book.
Yeah, and I think that’s really — so think about what the topic of your book is and what could you offer families so that they’re like, “Ooh, I like what Bryan’s talking about, I want more information, I’m gonna buy his book.”
Bryan: You mentioned you start today doing gratitude and journaling work. What does a typical working day look like when you’re running a small press?
Maria: This is the best part. This is your best question, I love it. Because every day looks different. I start the day with a cup of coffee and I either read about stoicism or I write in my gratitude journal and then my kids get up and I spend the next two hours getting them ready for school, being with them, I get them off to school, I walk my dogs, I exercise, I get ready for the day and then I’m either doing podcast interviews or I’m checking in on my team, which we use a workflow system called Asana.
It just looks different every single day. I do spend Mondays and Fridays, I do not schedule any calls on Mondays and Fridays and those are my days to just get my creative work done, so whether I’m writing a blog post or, right now, I’m creating something for my team members for goal setting for the new year where I’m gonna be doing one-on-one reviews with all my team members.
So I take Mondays and Fridays so that I can have a large block of time that is uninterrupted with meetings or calls or team calls and things like that and trainings so that I can get that creative work done. So that’s the thing I love about this work is it just looks different every day.
Bryan: Did it take long to transition from being an indie and self-published author to somebody who’s running a creative business?
Maria: Not really, no, because I think what you bring to the table is powerful because you’ve kind of been there and done that so I was able to say, “Hmm, this is what I really liked about working with a self-publish company. Now, what can I do to make it even better for my authors?”
Bryan: One thing I was curious was you said you’re small but mighty and you publish about four books a year. Could you describe what your selection process looks like apart from looking for diverse books and realistic fiction?
Maria: Yes. So we have a certain submission period throughout the year. So, having three children, I’ve found that focus is really hard for me so I cannot be getting emails 12 months out of the year for people who wanna publish books so we have a window and the window is two months a year and so you can submit your books in those two months, it’s October and November, and then we’re actually opening up a second period which is gonna be January. So, really, it’s gonna be three months a year.
And then I have an editor, an acquisitions editor, and he manages all of the incoming manuscripts and he has an assistant so those two people are reading the manuscripts and they’re putting them either into a no pile or a maybe pile. And then what they do is they whittle it down to about 50. So, last year, we had like 1,400, 1,500, 1,600 submissions and they got it down to 50.
And then that’s when I come into the picture. And we start having meetings and we start taking that 50 down to 25 and then we take it down to 10. And once it’s down to 10, we have beta readers come in and we have readers who are teachers, parents, and kids and they read those books and they select their top three. So we use that information to help go from ten to three, or however we need, ten to two, ten to three, or ten to four.
Bryan: That’s quite an intense selection process —
Maria: It is.
Bryan: — and then you’re working with the author for the year or for several months out of the year?
Maria: Yeah, we’re working with the author all year round because of our training and our mentoring program.
Bryan: Okay, makes sense. So, Maria, I know we’re short on time today but where can people learn more about your books or your press?
Maria: Yeah, they can check out cardinalrulepress.com and we are active on Instagram so you can see the events that we’re hosting over on Instagram. We get a lot of free events that we put out for our community so definitely check that out.
Bryan: Great to talk to you today, Maria. Thank you.
Maria: Thank you so much, Bryan.
Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. And did you know, for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show? Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday or look for the Support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I’ll give you my writing books and discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.