Episode 3: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer Democratizes Standardized Testing

Erica Meltzer has taken the of SAT and ACT tutoring sphere by storm. After scoring an improbable 800 on the verbal portion of the SATs, Meltzer realized that she had a unique perspective to share, which she now spreads on an international level. Her first book, The Critical Reader, which she originally self-published, has sold over 160,000 copies to date. How has her focus on the socioeconomic disparity of tutoring in the U.S. set her apart from the rest in her field? Find out on this episode of SheVentures.



Doria Lavagnino: Welcome to SheVentures. I’m Doria, co-founder of CentSai. Listen to women who take risks, build community, and get shit done. Recording from Madison Avenue in New York City.

I love what you’re doing. You are a tutor, were a tutor for many years in New York City.

Erica Meltzer: Correct, yes.

Lavagnino: And from that, you decided to start your own company, which is called The Critical Reader, and it publishes guides to the SAT grammar, writing, and ACT verbal parts.

Meltzer: Yes, and I also now, actually I’ve branched out into GMAT and GRE, as well. So I have also a book for GMAT grammar sentence corrections and GRE vocabulary, and I also have now a book for the AP English Language and Composition exam. So — 

Lavagnino: Fantastic, and that is a lot of writing.

Meltzer: It is a lot of writing, yes.


How Erica Meltzer Aced the SATs

Lavagnino: So one of the things that I want to say right off the bat, I was amazed that you got an 800 on the verbal part of your SAT, and while I have mixed feelings about the exam in general, which we can talk about later —

Meltzer: A lot of people do, yes.

Lavagnino: How did you pull that off?

Meltzer: Um, I mean honestly, I just read constantly as a kid. You know, it’s interesting because I wasn’t I wasn’t one of those super early readers. I wasn’t reading when I was like 3 or 4 years old. I didn’t really turn into like a fluent reader until I was really about 7.

But, you know, I just I always loved to read, and I mean I read everything: fiction, nonfiction, you know, horror, science fiction — like everything.

Lavagnino: Did you also enjoy writing?

Meltzer: I did, but not nearly as much as reading.

Lavagnino: Okay.

Meltzer: Actually, the writing part came later to me.

Lavagnino: Got it.


Educational Background

Meltzer: But I was also, I mean in terms of vocabulary, you know, I was I was lucky enough to go to a school that did really systematic vocabulary development starting in elementary school.

Lavagnino: By systematic do you mean memorizing?

Meltzer: Um, yeah, I mean, we had like weekly vocabulary tests. We used them for the Sadlier Series vocabulary workshop. I think starting when I was in about fifth grade and so yeah, we just had, you know, weekly vocabulary tests probably fifth through 11th or 12th grade.

Lavagnino: So it wasn’t a matter of you reading Toni Morrison at the age of 2, it was the education that you got. Did your parents play a role?

Meltzer: Um, not so much. I mean, you know, was encouraged, but there wasn’t a lot of pressure.

Lavagnino: Okay.

Meltzer: But for the vocabulary also, I mean, I studied both French and Latin in high school also, and so, and you know, we studied roots also. So it wasn’t just a question of sitting there memorizing things.

It was actually understanding the structure of the language and, you know, where words come from and how they relate to one another also.

Lavagnino: Makes sense. And my daughter takes Latin right now in middle school, and I know that it’s really important for understanding the root of a word.

Meltzer: Absolutely.

Lavagnino: Even if you don’t know what the whole word means, you at least know what that is.

Meltzer: That is, yeah, and being able to really put things together and so putting it and really just being able to approach it from a logic standpoint, instead of, okay, oh my god, I have to memorize this whole random list of things that have nothing to do with one another.


Early Tutoring Career

Lavagnino: So you were a tutor for about almost a decade?

Meltzer: Yeah, yeah. I started tutoring my senior year in college. It was actually was my work-study job.

Lavagnino: Okay.

Meltzer: Tutoring for the French department.

Lavagnino: And one of the things that I read about you was that you were looking for material and you really didn’t find much out there that you felt was properly suitable.

Meltzer: Yeah. I mean, that’s pretty much how it happened. Um, I was, so I had when I was tutoring, before I really started tutoring the SAT, I just found, you know, some random jobs on Craigslist. These test prep companies that were looking for people to write writing questions for the SAT.

Lavagnino: So they outsource them.

Meltzer: Yeah, they outsource them, yeah. This was I guess this was around 2007. And so the SAT had the previous change in 2005, where they had added what used to be the Writing SAT to the main SAT. So all the sudden they needed just a lot of questions for kids to practice with.

Lavagnino: Right.


Meltzer’s Methodology for Teaching the Test

Meltzer: And so, you know, I had my blue book, I had my official guide, and you know, I just — I sat down, and I labeled what all the questions were testing, and you know, I got a sense of how the exam worked basically, and then, you know, I’d go out and I’d find sentences that seemed to match. But at that point I didn’t really have, it didn’t occur to me that I could do it for myself, and I didn’t realize . . .

Lavagnino: I wanna just stop you there.

Meltzer: Sure.

Lavagnino: So you did a very systematic analysis of the test.

Meltzer: Oh yes, absolutely. I mean, I still I actually, I still have my falling-apart official guide from probably 2000 I don’t even know 2007 maybe, that has, you know, I think was, the original one was published in 2005, and it still has, you know, my notes for every single writing question.

So I actually, you know, it still has my notes where I have every single writing question labeled with what it’s testing, and sort of the subcategory and the way it’s the way it’s testing it.

Lavagnino: So it’s very formulaic.

Meltzer: Extremely. Yeah, I mean, it’s a really pretty fixed set of rules. There were about 20 concepts they were testing. But you know, sometimes they would do it this way, sometimes they would do it that way.

You know, sometimes they would do to a pronoun agreement with it, sometimes they would do it with they, you know subject-verb agreement, sometimes they’d stick, like you know, nonessential clause between the subject and the verb, sometimes they stick a prepositional phrase, sometimes they flip the subject and the verb, so you know, there were these large categories, and then within those categories there were basically a fixed number of structures that they would test. So yes, it was very formulaic.


The Stats on the Students

Lavagnino: And so you were able to map everything out and then also you were able to do what a lot of entrepreneurs do, which is field research, right?

Meltzer: Oh, yeah.

Lavagnino: You’re a tutor.

Meltzer: Oh, yeah.

Lavagnino: So over the course of eight years, how many people would you say you tutored?

Meltzer: Oh my goodness, I actually, I’m not — I have no idea. I mean, I didn’t have that many students at a time. I mean, it’s not like I was teaching 30 hours a week.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: You know, I probably tutored maybe 70, 75 kids. Something like that, maybe 75 to 100.

Lavagnino: Okay. Who is your typical student?

Meltzer: Um, well, it started out that I was tutoring mostly kids in Manhattan. Private school kids. Occasionally, you know, I’d have people from the exam schools — Stuyvesant or Bronx Science. I had a few of those.

But then it actually shifted once I started tutoring on Skype, and so I ended up having people from all over the country. I had a few international also.

Lavagnino: Very cool.

Meltzer: I mean, you know, I had public school students in Texas. I had homeschoolers in Florida.

Lavagnino: Were you able to change what you charge based on need?

Meltzer: Um, I did I did have a sliding scale, yeah, at one point.

Lavagnino: Because I know for example in New York City, private tutors are incredibly expensive.

Meltzer: But actually, I mean, when I started working on Skype, this was really, I think, after my book had come out.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: And I know that’s how people had heard of me.

Lavagnino: Yes.

Meltzer: And so I was by that point I was really just charging a fixed rate for everybody.

Lavagnino: Got it.

Meltzer: There was no difference between the Manhattan people and anybody else.


How the SAT Has Changed

Lavagnino: Understood. So I took the SAT in the eighties. What’s changed between now and then?

Meltzer: Well, I mean, the test has undergone two big changes since then.

Lavagnino: Okay.

Meltzer: The first major change since, well they’re three actually. One involving scoring and two involving content. So in 1995 — ’94 or ’95, ’95 I believe — um, scores were recentered because verbal scores were falling too much essentially.

And so scores were recentered to basically to shift them upwards. They said, you know, because the composition of the testing pool had changed and, you know, they were doing these demographic shifts. But basically it was becoming a problem that scores were falling.

Lavagnino: And it was across the board the SAT and ACT?

Meltzer: You know, I’m not sure.

Lavagnino: Okay.

Meltzer: The ACT underwent some changes of its own.

Lavagnino: But you were talking about the SAT.

Meltzer: Yeah, you see, what happened with the SAT is that they didn’t exactly parallel with one another, in terms of time. So that was the first change.

And then in 2005 was the bigger change, where basically, one, they eliminated the analogies.

Lavagnino: liked those.

Meltzer: I liked those analogies. Those analogies are fun, I thought. I admit I enjoyed them. They kept them on the GRE until a few years ago. But they took them off also.

Lavagnino: Okay.

Meltzer: But they, yeah, they got rid of the analogies, and they shifted the vocabulary just to sentence completions, and then they also took what was formerly the writing SAT 2, and they basically just tacked it on to the SAT.

So people, you know, were saying they’re adding the essay, they’re requiring, they’re making this huge change. It was really what was there all along.

Lavagnino: Okay.

Meltzer: But the only difference was that usually because you were taking the writing SAT 2, were really just, it was sort of, it was it was a more select group, because really only very selective colleges were requiring the SAT 2.

Lavagnino: Got it.


The Effectiveness of the SAT Writing Section

Meltzer: At that point. And so there was a big change in who was actually having to write the essay, and unfortunately there were all sorts of issues for the essay because basically, I mean, it was a strict writing assignment.

It was just, you know, really can you, do you know how to cobble together an argument, do you know how to make a thesis, do you know how to use supporting evidence? But they weren’t looking at factual content, and so it turned out that you could write all sorts of outrageous things and still get a very good score.

Lavagnino: Interesting.

Meltzer: There was a guy at, I think it’s Les Perelman at MIT, who did this statistical analysis of, you know, writing scores and showed things that were just terribly embarrassing for the College Board. So there were, the essay was always pretty controversial.

Lavagnino: Okay. So today is it back to just the math and the verbal?

Meltzer: Well, the essay is optional now.

Lavagnino: Okay.

Meltzer: But an increasing number of colleges are dropping it. And so then the SAT was, I’m gonna get to that right now, the SAT was changed again in 2016, and that was the really, really big change.

They got rid of the vocabulary essentially, obscure words, quote-unquote. It’s actually like relatively middle-of-the-road college levels, New York Times-level vocabulary.

Lavagnino: Like the word acumen or something like that?

Meltzer: Exactly or something like tenacity.

Lavagnino: And the reason for that is?


The SAT vs. the ACT

Meltzer: Well, the major reason is that they needed to compete with the ACT. The ACT, I believe in 2012, became the most popular, the more popular —

Lavagnino: Okay.

Meltzer: College admissions test. It had actually surpassed the SAT for the first time ever.

Lavagnino: Interesting.

Meltzer: And the ACT also had all these state testing contracts. You know, it was mandated for high school graduation —

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: In, I’m pretty sure, Illinois, Colorado, Michigan, a bunch of other states. And the SAT was basically redesigned so that it could displace the ACT in the state testing market.

And this is a big part of change that actually does not really get talked about because the College Board came in, you know, with this whole social justice narrative, and saying, oh, you know, we’re gonna make it a better test, we’re going to make it a fairer test, we’re going to, we’re only going to test relevant words. It was a bit Orwellian, actually.

Lavagnino: Yes, and it sounds very political.

Meltzer: It was extremely political.

Lavagnino: So changes have happened, and they sound mostly political, from how you’re describing them.

Meltzer: Yeah, extremely.


Entrepreneurship in the Field of Education

Lavagnino: And I was thinking about both of us as entrepreneurs, and I think that in many ways we’re both disruptors in our respective fields.

For me, it was about financial information, and while my background is not in finance, what was bothering me was that people were being fed a lot of financial jargon and were therefore unsure and afraid. And in your case, you couldn’t find good questions, and so you wrote your own.

Meltzer: Pretty much, yeah. It’s very interesting, actually, if you look at the test prep market just sort of from a business perspective, just as a case study.

I realized sort of after I’d done all this, just looking back on it, that it’s really a fascinating example of a market that looked like it was closed from the outside.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: Because, I mean, if somebody had told me, you know, before I decided to write my first book, if somebody told me, I don’t know in 2006, 2007, that I would write an SAT book, I would have looked at them like they were completely insane. Because you go into the bookstore and, you know, there are so many just . . .

Lavagnino:Just Kaplan.

Meltzer: And in Princeton Review, and Barron’s, and you know, just shelves and shelves of them, and it looks like the market is completely closed, and, you know, just dominated by these few, big established brands.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: But when I started writing my own stuff, and I started, you know, corresponding, I had my blog, and so I would get emails from, you know, kids you were studying for the test.


Starting a Blog

Lavagnino: Let’s just talk about that very briefly. You started a blog.

Meltzer: Yes.

Lavagnino: And that also had to do with something that was troubling you, which was the socioeconomics.

Meltzer: Yes.

Lavagnino: And the fact that people who can’t afford to have a tutor weren’t enjoying the benefits that —

Meltzer: Exactly, yeah, I mean, you know, I admit I did take a Kaplan class when I was in high school for the math, but you know, I mean, my family certainly couldn’t have afforded, you know, this kind of private tutoring.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: It was completely unheard of. It was not part of my background.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: And you know, I mean, I was I was really enjoying tutoring at that point and the kids were great, but I’m thinking, you know, like, to have somebody sitting there with you explaining, you know, every piece out like this, and I realized that not many people had analyzed the test to the point of which I had analyzed it, to have access to that.

It just started to rub me the wrong way a little bit. It was just I didn’t want to be responsible for perpetuating this kind of inequality. It just it made me uncomfortable.

Lavagnino: So you started a blog.

Meltzer: And I figured I would just say and I thought, okay, everything I say to my students, you know, every tip, every strategy, every rule — I’m just gonna go and I’m gonna make it public and so that anybody can have access to it.

Lavagnino: Which is amazing. And so you say in hindsight your reason for doing it was a very altruistic and noble one. Another SAT word there.

Meltzer: Thank you.

Lavagnino: But it ended up being a marketing tool in an unintentionally.

Meltzer: Unintentionally. Absolutely, yeah. I mean writing a book was not on my radar when I started the blog originally.


Writing the Book on the SAT

Lavagnino: And then you started getting people.

Meltzer: Yeah, and I started getting just more and more content pretty much because, you know, I was going and I was tutoring and I was having to write out the same things over and over and over again.

And my hand was getting tired, I was really getting sick of writing the same thing over and over again, and I thought wouldn’t it be great if I could just like type this up in hand kids a packet and be, like, “Here learn this.”

So I did that, and at the same time I was, you know, just developing all these questions because I didn’t like what I was seeing in the bookstore.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: So I would just, you know, I’d be reading an article man and be like okay, that’s where that’s a great sentence. Here, let me see if I can just, like, take this and sort of rearrange it and, you know, make an SAT-style sentence out of it. So I just kept accumulating those, and I kept, I actually was doing them separately.

Lavagnino: So you really immersed yourself kind of 20, as all entrepreneurs do right, 24/7 you’re thinking about.

Meltzer: And after a certain point I’ve written so many questions. What I mean even though, you know, I’ll be reading something I’ll be, like, that’s a great question, that’s a great sentence.

Like, you just, you see this, I just I see it in terms of structure, I mean structure and content, where I’ll just be, like, okay, this is this is great. Let me just take this.

Lavagnino: And so you put it in a book.

Meltzer: Yep.

Lavagnino: You decided to self-publish.

Meltzer: Yep.


The Decision to Self-Publish

Lavagnino: And I wanted to talk to you a little bit about that. For anyone who’s listening who might decide to self-publish, what did you learn along the way?

Meltzer: Oh my goodness. I learned so many things. I’m not even sure where to start with that.

I mean the first thing, I guess, because I really, you know, I didn’t know anything about self-publishing when I started doing this. It wasn’t like I started out by saying, “Oh, I want to self-publish a book.” I actually considered shopping it around initially to publishers.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: And, you know, was I was gonna, you know, start you know, writing proposal letters and all that.

Lavagnino: And you had some reasons as to why you didn’t want to do that.

Meltzer: Yeah. I mean, part of it was just speed. I knew the book was working. You know, I knew the exercises were working because I was trying them out on my students.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: And I had kids who bought the beta version of the book. I was actually selling it online — very early version of it — and they really did very well after using it. And so I thought, okay, this thing works. I don’t want to wait, you know, six months, a year, however long, or even longer than that.

Lavagnino: And it can take a very long time.

Meltzer: Yeah, and there just — there didn’t seem to be a reason to wait.

Lavagnino: Plus, you lose control, I think, over the narrative.


The Target Audience

Meltzer: Yeah, that was another major concern for me, because I wasn’t trying to capture or to target the same audience as a Kaplan or Princeton Review.

I had some sort of students who were, you know, scoring, you know, sort of in the mid-range. But I had a much larger group or actually two much larger groups, one of kids who were scoring well. So maybe 650 to 700, but really wanted that 800 and really wanted to be, you know, spectacular and were aiming for the Ivies.

And then I also had students who — a lot of whom were not native English speakers or came from non-English speaking homes who were scoring much, much lower. You know, 500, even low 400s, who wanted to be in the 700s. 

Lavagnino: There are some English speakers who also score lower.

Meltzer: But no, no, no. I do know that, but I’m just saying in terms of my specific market.

Lavagnino: Understood.

Meltzer: Students who wanted to get their scores up 250, 300 points. So these were the kids who were coming to me.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: Pretty much. And these were students who were not being served by any material on the market and, you know, having worked with them and having corresponded with them, I had a pretty good understanding of their needs. And I had a pretty good understanding of how they needed to have things explained also, because I taught foreign languages.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: So I really understood how that how they needed to have things broken down for them.


How to Self-Publish

Lavagnino: And so you decided to do this expeditiously.

Meltzer: Yeah.

Lavagnino: As in the self-publishing realm. How does one, I don’t know myself, how does one self-publish?

Meltzer: It’s actually really easy.

Lavagnino: Okay.

Meltzer: Um, I mean, I literally just, you know, did a Google search for self-publishing or self-publishing platforms, and I found out that there were there were a few major ones at that point.

CreateSpace — which is division of Amazon — Lulu, BookBaby, I’m sure there are some others. But I basically and, you know, they all offer sort of various advantages and disadvantages.

But I went with CreateSpace because it was just, you know, it offered the best royalty structure and it seemed like the most straightforward.

You just literally uploaded the book and, you know, waited 24 hours for the file to be checked, and hit publish, and it went on Amazon.

Lavagnino: Wow.

Meltzer: I mean it was unbelievably easy. It was really incredibly, incredibly straightforward process.


Mistakes in the Publication Process

Lavagnino: How do you, you know the expression, judge a book by its cover? How do you deal with that? Because people do evaluate material by the cover.

Meltzer: I, you know, I really am not sure what I was thinking when I put out the book originally, I just used the CreateSpace template, and I created something that was very striking looking but not terribly polished and, you know, I didn’t really, I wasn’t really thinking in terms of marketing or anything like that at that point.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: I just wanted people to notice it, so it had this horrible bright yellow cover.

Lavagnino: It must have stood out.

Meltzer: Well, exactly, I wanted it to stand out. But I found out later, this was really funny. One of my student’s mothers came to me and said, “Tell Erica what happened in your English class.” And it turned out that the kid’s teacher had stood up and held up my book and said, “Don’t judge this book by its cover.”

Lavagnino: So there you have it.

Meltzer: And so I thought, oh no, this is bad. I mean, it was actually selling pretty well, considering.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: You know, it got talked up a lot on College Confidential, which is the big website with, you know, the forums for the kids go on and talk make each other crazy and the parents about applying to college and test scores and the SAT. The test prep forums were really, really active at that point.

Lavagnino: Okay.

Meltzer: So people were willing to look past the cover. But at a certain point I said, you know, if I’m gonna do this for real, like, I need to hire somebody who knows what they’re doing.

Lavagnino: So you did a new cover.

Meltzer: I did a new cover, yeah.

Lavagnino: And you now . . .

Meltzer: I’ve been through several templates since then. So now I have —

Lavagnino: And you’re on your fourth edition, correct?

Meltzer: I’m on the fourth edition of the grammar book and third edition of the reading.


The Economics of Self-Publication

Lavagnino: And how do the economics work with self-publishing? So do you pay a certain amount up front?

Meltzer: Actually, there are no fees upfront for —

Lavagnino: So they’re taking on the cost of publishing.

Meltzer: Printing, yeah, so.

Lavagnino: Do they evaluate it? Will they publish anyone?

Meltzer: They will publish anyone. There is no filter.

Lavagnino: Okay.

Meltzer: You can purchase, I believe, formatting or editing services from them. They offer that as, you know, a package. I never did. I hired my own formatter for the first book.

Lavagnino: So in many ways it’s a huge democratization.

Meltzer: Extremely. It’s quite extraordinary. I mean, you know, obviously that has upsides and downsides.

Lavagnino: Sure.

Meltzer: The upside being that, you know, there’s no filter, you can just get it to market immediately, and the downside is that anyone can publish, there’s no filter. You can get it to market immediately.

Lavagnino: Yes, yes, it’s a double-edged sword.

Meltzer: But, you know, if you’re willing, you know, if you actually know a lot about a subject and you’re willing to, and you have an audience, like a ready-made audience, which I happened to have and, you know, I field tested everything with them, and you’re willing to invest in making sure that you have something that looks professional, then you know, it can work.

Lavagnino: So what percentage do they take of every book?

Meltzer: They take about 60 percent.

Lavagnino: Sixty percent, and then if you publish it on Amazon. Does Amazon also take a percentage?

Meltzer: CreateSpace, it is Amazon.

Lavagnino: Yeah, yeah.

Meltzer: So now they’re actually combining with Kindle Direct Publishing.

Lavagnino: Got it.

Meltzer: But, so CreateSpace is being phased out. But the royalty structure is staying the same as far as 60/40, yeah.


Offering Digital Copies

Lavagnino: And so are your books available digitally as well?

Meltzer: Um, you know, I digitized one of the first edition of the SAT Grammar book, but the demand just didn’t seem quite as high, and I just I wasn’t also thrilled with the formatting.

So I’ve held off. I’m looking into digitizing the current editions. That’s one of the things that’s sort of there on my plate. I do prefer, and I mean I think there is a benefit to having it available, especially for the international kids.

Lavagnino: Yes.

Meltzer: Because, you know, I get emails from kids who are saying, you know, I’m in India, I’m in Bangladesh, I mean, you know, Tanzania. I can’t. I’m in Australia.

Lavagnino: You can’t buy it.

Meltzer: Yeah. Although they’re applying to colleges in the United States as international students where they’re not really available for financial aid it’s like, you know, yeah, I don’t really know what to say?

Lavagnino: Right.


Publishing Internationally

Meltzer: The reading would be a little bit more complicated because then I would have to get electronic permission, reprint permissions for everything, and right now I just have, yeah.

Lavagnino: Oh I see. And so I would imagine that the publishers handle all the legalities, which I’m not even sure what they would be, I guess reprinting in different, if you decided to reprint in India, China, wherever. Well, China, they’re not so much.

Meltzer: Well, I have, I mean, I have international reprint or I have international reprint rights for most of the passages I use, because that’s actually one of the things that distinguishes my books. I only, I mean, the real tests use stuff that’s been written in the last few decades.

Lavagnino: Your material is original?

Meltzer: Yeah, no, no, it’s not original. I use the same material that the real tests use.

Lavagnino: Got it.

Meltzer: But that means that I have to get permission to reprint everything.

Lavagnino: From the College Board?

Meltzer: No, not from the College Board. From the publishers of the individual books or articles.

Lavagnino: Got it. What about the questions themselves?

Meltzer: Oh, I mean, those I write. You know, those are all original.

Lavagnino: Understood. So the passages are the ones that you need to get permission?

Meltzer: I get permission for, yeah, you know, and I mean I have international, but I don’t have electronic, so if I were gonna do the reading book electronically, I would have to go and get individual permission for electronic rights for everything. So that’s just logistical hassle.


Book Sales

Lavagnino: How many books have you sold today?

Meltzer: Um, I’m guessing about 160,000 maybe between 160 and 170 at this point — somewhere around there.

Lavagnino: That’s fantastic. 

Meltzer: Thank you.

Lavagnino: Are you proud of that? 

Meltzer: I am proud of that, yeah. I cannot say that I ever expected to sell anywhere near this many. I mean, it really was fly by the seat of my pants when I started, just when I started doing it.

Lavagnino: I think as it is for all entrepreneurs, right?

Meltzer: Yeah. I had it was really, you know, it was a big learning curve. It was a huge — it was an education.

Lavagnino: So your primary distribution is Amazon, are you looking to widen that?

Meltzer: I am. I mean, I’m selling the books through my website also now.

Lavagnino: Okay, and what is that? For our listeners.


Lavagnino: Okay, great. Luckily Amazon is a huge distributor. 

Meltzer: It’s major. Yeah, but, you know, I do get emails from, but yeah it’s complicated. But I do get emails from kids, saying, you know, “I really want, I need your book right away. Is it in the bookstore?” And I say, “Probably not. Like, I can’t guarantee it.” 

Lavagnino: Are you able to get it onto college campuses?

Meltzer: I have some, yeah. I mean Columbia University is carrying my books now.

Lavagnino: Okay.

Meltzer: And I’ve been meaning to actually go to NYU and talk to them also about it.


Solopreneurship and Burnout

Lavagnino: Are you a one-woman show? 

Meltzer: I’m pretty much a one-woman show. Yeah, I mean I, you know, I have an assistant. I have, you know, another person helping me, and then, you know, I have my proofreader and my book design, my cover designer and everything. But I do pretty much everything myself.

Lavagnino: So what that makes me think of, because I’ve been at CentSai for three years, and there’s a lot that — and I think you’ve alluded to this — that you don’t know when you start a venture. And there’s a tremendous amount of burnout that happens. 

Meltzer: It can be really hard.

Lavagnino: And how do you how do you deal with that?

Meltzer: You know, that’s a process that I’m still going through, actually.

Lavagnino: Me, too.

Meltzer: Because I haven’t really — this is the . . . I mean the last few months is actually the first time that I’ve really been able to take a break in like pretty much seven years.

Lavagnino: That’s a long time.

Meltzer: Because I mean what happened was, you know, I finished writing the SAT books. Basically as soon as I finished writing them, the College Board announced that it was changing the test.

So in the meantime, I went and wrote the ACT books because nobody knew what was gonna happen to the SAT. By that point, by the time I was done with that, they changed tests and so I had to go and rewrite the SAT books. 1,500 pages of material really ultimately that I had to.

Lavagnino: And I would imagine no one actually really knew how they were going to change it.

Meltzer: No one knew how they were gonna change it. I had basically a blueprint to work from, and so the original, the new editions, I basically had. It was a lot of guesswork. I got it — I actually got it almost right.

But it was it was pretty hair-raising, so I couldn’t stop actually, because, you know, even if I just want to say, you know, “This is too much for me, I can’t do it,” and just walk away. Even if I personally felt like that, I mean, I had kids all over the world who were counting on me for this stuff.

Lavagnino: Yeah.

Meltzer: And, you know, they’re completely on edge because they don’t know what’s gonna be on this test either. And so it was just — it was an enormous amount of pressure, and I felt an enormous amount of responsibility to them. And so, I mean, I couldn’t stop.

Lavagnino: I really identify with that because I feel that often too where there are some days you wake up and you’re just, like, shit, what is gonna happen?

Meltzer: What is gonna happen, yeah.

Lavagnino: And you have to pivot almost every day, minute, second, you don’t know.

Meltzer: You don’t know, yeah, and the reading book, especially, I mean, the grammar is, you know, it’s challenging to write. But it’s straightforward at least. Like, there are rules. It’s, you know, there’s a clear form; there’s a clear outline.

The reading, though, the reading is a level of difficulty beyond just, there there’s nothing compares to the difficulty of writing a book for reading because there are so many aspects involved. 

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: And when I wrote the original reading, when I wrote the original Critical Reader, for example, it took me about a year and a half.

But it was every single day I had to wake up and plan out, okay, today I’m gonna do X, Y, and Z. Tomorrow I’m going to do, you know, J, K, L.

Every single day I had to do that just incrementally, and I could not let myself stop for even a day, because if I had stopped, I don’t know if I would have been able to make myself go back to it. It was so hard.

Lavagnino: How did you do it? 

Meltzer: I’m not, and honestly, I’m still not even sure. I just . . . I’d never, you know, it’s funny because when I was in high school, a little when I was in college, a little still less so, but still I was a terrible procrastinator, and I can still be a terrible procrastinator for certain things.

And this was the first time in my life where I actually could not afford to do that. And so I just had to force myself basically to say, “Okay, I’m gonna do this today, and I’m going to do this tomorrow, and I’m gonna do this.”


Personal Sacrifices for Entrepreneurship

Lavagnino: How did you manage — or did you manage? Because this is something I struggle with a lot myself. Yes, I’m a hundred percent involved with my business, and I also have two daughters.

Meltzer: Yeah. 

Lavagnino: But I know that other parts of my life have been drastically affected.

Meltzer: It’s very hard. 

Lavagnino: Friendships.

Meltzer: Yes.

Lavagnino: I have virtually no social life, and it’s by choice because I’m working 18-hour days.

Meltzer: Yeah.

Lavagnino: But I also, for example, five years ago I ran the marathon, which is coming up this weekend. I can’t even imagine running a mile today. So what were the sacrifices personally that you feel that you’ve made to get where you are?

Meltzer: I mean, definitely the social life takes a hit.

Lavagnino: Yeah.

Meltzer: Absolutely, it’s very hard to go out and be social when you’ve been staring at a computer for the last, you know, 13, 14 hours straight. I mean, I was working 70-hour weeks.

Lavagnino: Right. 

Meltzer: And also just working for yourself and being able to compartmentalize and, you know, like I have friends who can just walk away from work and, you know, they leave what’s at work at work. And they can be fully off, and I can’t do that. I mean, I’ve brought my computer on probably my last five vacations.

Lavagnino: Yeah, me too.

Meltzer: Yeah. I cannot be away from it. I mean I, you know, I try but I’m always gonna have to put up something on my blog. I might, you know — somebody I might have a question that only I can answer. I might have to have a Skype meeting about my logo.


Reducing the Workload

Lavagnino: So do you envision a time where you might be able to bring someone else on so that you can at least have a vacation?

Meltzer: Yeah, I mean I’m slowly getting there.

Lavagnino: Okay.

Meltzer: I am, actually. I mean, I just started working with somebody who can take some of this off my plate.

Lavagnino: Good.

Meltzer: You know my assistant, who has been wonderful, who’s been handling the logistical stuff for me. You know just, which is —

Lavagnino: Huge!

Meltzer: Huge! I mean I could not I could not function without her, who handles, you know, all the bookkeeping and things like that. I just I could not, and also just the daily emails. I don’t understand what this question means, and you know, like, they haven’t read the question right. Can you send PDFs of my book to India?

Lavagnino: How often do you get that?

Meltzer: Maybe once every couple of weeks. Now I actually have a page on my website entitled “Why I Cannot Send you PDFs of My Books.”


Underappreciated Work

Lavagnino: Right, well it’s also amazing how, you know, we’re both content creators and oftentimes I think people overlook the time and effort that’s put into creating content.

Meltzer: They can’t imagine. I think they just have no idea, or, you know, or occasionally somebody will find a typo. I mean my manuscripts are really complicated, and I, you know, I employ multiple proofreaders. 

Lavagnino: Sure. 

Meltzer: I’m doing everything I can. But I’m, you know, we’re human beings.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: And it’s like, you know, I’ve had people just go on Amazon and write me screaming one-star reviews. I found a typo. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about, yeah, nobody should buy this book, blah blah blah. And it’s like, you know what, do you know how many hundreds — if not thousands — of hours I put into this? Let me know, and I’ll fix it.

Lavagnino: Exactly.

Meltzer: Let me know this, I’ll fix it.


Dealing With Reviews

Lavagnino: And the thing about reviews, and I’ve learned this recently on Glassdoor, is that people tend to — Amazon might be an exception, where people write positive reviews, as well — but people tend to only write when they’re angry.

Meltzer: Angry, yep.

Lavagnino: So you only hear the angry reviews.

Meltzer: I mean, I’ve gotten plenty of positive ones.

Lavagnino: Yeah. I’m sure there are some positive ones.

Meltzer: You know, especially with grammar, oh man. Grammar makes people go insane.

Lavagnino: Your book is very highly rated. 

Meltzer: People, grammar makes people go crazy, though.


The Pros and Cons of Standardized Tests

Lavagnino: So I wanted to just go back to the test itself for a minute.

Meltzer: Absolutely.

Lavagnino: So I have my own personal reservations about standardized testing. One of them is that I’ve seen very bright, motivated people do horribly on these tests.

Meltzer: Absolutely, yes. 

Lavagnino: Conversely, I’ve seen very lazy people — there’s one in high school in particular, this guy, I’m not gonna mention his name. But he was so, he was a procrastinator and just really he was naturally very bright.

He just didn’t want to work, and he got an 800 on the math and I think like a 760 on the verbal. And he ended up I think doing two years of college and then just dropped out because he couldn’t deal with it, and so, what are your thoughts around that? 

Meltzer: I mean, you know, my thoughts changed a little bit since the SAT was redesigned. It used to be a much better test. I actually have serious problems with it now. I mean, you know, I absolutely understand the reservations about standardized testing. You know, something a lot of people have problems with it.

From my perspective, I think it can be a useful tool if it is, if they’re considered very much in the context of, you know, you have to get the full picture of an applicant. It’s only useful just basically to either, you know, to confirm the rest of an application.

Or to maybe suggest that somebody has been underperforming in school. I mean for me, conversely, it was actually the opposite of what you’re saying, because I, my grades in English were not fabulous in high school.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: And I mean they were okay, they were fine. But, you know, I got a B-minus in English freshman year. I had a really, really, really, really hard teacher, um, but I was sort of like an A-minus maybe B-plus-ish student, and my grades did not reflect what I was capable of.

Lavagnino: Why do you think that is?

Meltzer: I mean part of it was just that my, the grading was extremely, extremely difficult. But also I don’t know, I never really got high school English class. I could never really figure out what my teachers wanted.

I didn’t really learn to write a paper until I became a French major, and, you know, things were done in a very structured way. I actually learned about rhetoric, and I had — I was given the tools and I was given a system for actually analyzing things and learned to put them together, and once I had that, I thought, Oh, this is so much easier. I wish somebody had told me this years ago!


Test-Taking Strategies

Lavagnino: And that kind of relates back to your books, because if I were to ask you what are the some of the tips and tricks that one can employ for the verbal part of the SAT.

Meltzer: I mean, if we’re just talking strictly about strategies.

Lavagnino: Yeah.

Meltzer: I mean, you know, there are little things that I’ve seen make a big difference in kids, like, for example, take a break between the passages. Like even if you think you’re a little pressed for time, stop 15, 20, 30 seconds and just let yourself reset mentally because you’re getting tired, even if you don’t know it.

And I used to see this with the ACT especially all the time, because the English section is 45 minutes and it’s 75 questions. And kids would do, when I look at the score report, the kids would be doing really, really well in the first half, and then they would, you know, then they would just start to tank in the second half, and they were just getting tired.

Lavagnino: It’s a lot.

Meltzer: It is a lot, it’s intense, and your brain just starts to cloud over as you go through it. And I said, you know, I don’t care if you don’t feel tired, you need to stop and you need to take a break and just let yourself reset before, instead of just keep crashing through this.


The Critical Reader vs. Princeton Review and Kaplan

Lavagnino: And it seems like your book, I mean, I admit I have not read it cover-to-cover. However, I did notice that in one section, and it this seems to be a theme in what you’re talking about, is logic and structure. So how do you apply those, or how I guess, maybe the question I’m really getting at is, what is the differentiator between your books and that of Kaplan or Princeton Review?

Meltzer: Absolutely. Okay, so there are a couple, there I mean there are a few major differences. The major one I would actually say is content more than anything else. My books go really in depth, and because what I noticed with reading through some of the other books is they would they would give you a rule, for example, they would give you the very general form of the rule, or they’ll tell you, you know, they’re gonna test subject-verb agreement, says a little bit more the old SAT.

But it’s a good illustration, and you know, or they would say, you know, they’ll put stuff between the subject and the verb. I mean, I this is, I actually don’t know the specific thing.

Lavagnino: Sure.

Meltzer: But this is just sort of just general illustration. I’m not saying we do specifically this. But, you know, and then they’ll give like an example with maybe a prepositional phrase. They’ll give maybe an example with a nonessential clause — you know, information with between two commas — but they won’t really explain what that information is.

They also won’t explain how to find the subject of a verb. They won’t explain what parts of speech can be a subject, because a lot of kids won’t know that something like a gerund, like writing. Writing papers is hard. Not writing papers are hard. A lot of kids will look at the noun that’s right next to that verb and just assume that it’s the subject. 

So something that looks like it’s really simple on the surface actually has all sorts of components that really are very challenging and that need to be explained piece by piece, and that that’s what you don’t find in the other books.


Do Tests Aim to Trick Students?

Lavagnino: Which I definitely saw in your book. And do you think that’s done by design to trick students?

Meltzer: I have issues with this whole idea of a trick. You know, I wrote a very long time ago one of my first blog posts was actually entitled “Tricky Is in the Eye of the Beholder,” because I think, you know, I don’t know if it was Princeton Review but, you know, there’s this very well-established narrative around standardized tests, ooh, they’re trying to trick you.

You know, oh, they put stuff between the subject and the verb because they’re trying to trick you. Nobody ever puts prepositional phrases between subjects and verbs in real life. I mean I think they do things that students tend to have trouble with.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: Um, and that’s why they’re tested. I mean, in real life you need to be able to identify, you know, okay, this is subject, this is the verb, so your writing will be basically grammatically correct.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: If you want to interpret that as a trick, you can interpret that as a trick. Or you can interpret that as, okay, you still need to know your way with basic grammar.


Teaching Grammar, Then vs. Now

Lavagnino: I remember in fifth grade that I actually had to diagram sentences. 

Meltzer: Nobody diagrams sentences anymore.

Lavagnino: That’s not taught anymore.

Meltzer: That’s not taught anymore, no. 

Lavagnino: And, you know, one of the scariest things I ever heard my older daughter say is, “I don’t need to know how to spell because my spell checker will pick it up.”

Meltzer: Right.

Lavagnino: And that’s pretty much how it goes.

Meltzer: Yep, and I mean, you know, I was working because, you know, I kept seeing this with high school junior after high school junior, they didn’t know parts of speech.

 You know, you can’t talk about prepositional phrases if you don’t know what a preposition is.

Lavagnino: Of course.

Meltzer: And you can’t talk about what about prepositions are if they can’t remember what prepositions are. And you’re having the same conversation week after week.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: Where they just can’t retain it, and I mean, I used to see this. You know, some kids would pick it up right away, but then there were also kids we would go over week after week after week, and they just couldn’t seem to retain it.

Lavagnino: Why do you think that is?

Meltzer: I think they just didn’t have enough practice memorizing things.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: You know, it takes practice.


The Value of Memorization

Lavagnino: Well, and I think that as, I’ve noticed this also with my children, that we’ve moved away a hundred percent from any kind of rote memorization.

Meltzer: Rote memorization, yeah.

Lavagnino: I remember with times tables.

Meltzer: Right.

Lavagnino: Different topic, but whether or not I understood it, I had to do memorize it.

Meltzer: It was incomparable. You had to know it. Yeah, and I mean, you know, obviously, you don’t want you everything just from disconnected mere facts, but that’s where the conversations become that any kind of memorization is discarded, just sort of disparaged out of hand, and there, there needs to be a balance. And also, you know, when kids are learning, there are different levels of comprehension.

Lavagnino: Yes.

Meltzer: When kids are learning things for the first time, sometimes you need to give them the simple version of the rule. Sometimes you just need to say, “Okay, you just need to know this.” And then, you know, as you see how that particular concept, its concept interacts with other concepts, then you can bring in a more sophisticated understanding of it.

Lavagnino: And I definitely think that you have that, you can see that light bulb moment.

Meltzer: Right.

Lavagnino: When kids get it.

Meltzer: Yeah. Absolutely. So sometimes things need to be presented in a very simple, concrete way initially to lay the foundation for being able to do more sophisticated things.


Disparities in SAT Performance

Lavagnino: Foundation is essential. I looked at the stats from College Board. I was just curious, and it seems like it tells the same story as it did when I took the SAT, which is that women score slightly lower as an aggregate to men.

And then when I looked at race, the aggregates were that Asians scored highest, at 1,223; whites at 1,12; Hispanics, 990; and the black population, on average, 946. What goes into that disparity, do you think?

Meltzer: I mean, you know, years of accumulated socioeconomic factors playing into those disparities. I mean, I think the SAT, the standardized testing in general, takes an enormous amount of flack for, you know, all these numerous factors from, you know, housing segregation to, you know, to who can afford to live to live in what neighborhood, you know, taxation, finding public schools, who can afford to go where, who can you know who can afford that, who can afford to pay for tutoring.

Obviously, that’s a component of it. But tutoring also for academic tutoring — not just for subject, not just for test prep tutoring.

You know, who has access to stable housing, who has enough to eat. I mean, there are all sorts of factors that go into it, and it’s impossible to, you know — what you see in standardized testing is the culminating influence of a huge host of factors.

Lavagnino: And I think that that is why so many people that are critics of the exam —

Meltzer: Right. 

Lavagnino: Say, okay, so this is what we’re doing to equalize —

Meltzer: Right.

Lavagnino: This is what we’re doing to say everyone’s had education up to senior year. It’s supposedly a level playing field.

Meltzer: Right.

Lavagnino: And so colleges are going to evaluate people based on these numbers in addition to other factors.

Meltzer: Right.

Lavagnino: But those factors aren’t really fair.

Meltzer: Right. But the thing is none of the call — none of the factors involved in the college application process are fair. You know, a transcript, fine. You say people say look at transcripts.

Okay, well, who has access to AP classes? Who has access to subject tutoring? Who has parents who can call up the school and say why didn’t my kid get a B in this class instead of an A?

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: Who can afford to pay $50,000 a year for private school? You know, who can afford to hire a private tennis coach for their kid so that they, you know, they can become a championship player.

I mean, you know, extracurricular sports, massive tip to athletes at top schools. But nobody’s saying, well, how much do they really pay for tennis coaching?

Lavagnino: Right. So what you’re saying basically is it’s never a level playing field.

Meltzer: It’s never a level playing field.


How Can We Address These Disparities?

Lavagnino: So what can we do? Because it seems as though you and I both deeply care about the socioeconomic part of it. So what can we do as entrepreneurs?

Meltzer: I mean, from my perspective, I think what I can do is simply, one, make the information available.

So have a complete curriculum essentially saying, here, this is what you know, this is the full range of things that you have to know, and just, you know, put it — one, put it out there and make it accessible.

Yes, the books do cost money. I mean, you know, they’re about $25, $30 a piece.

Lavagnino: How much are yours? I don’t remember.

Meltzer: Oh, so they sell, I mean, they retail for basically between $30 and $35 on Amazon. I sell them for lower on my website. So basically between like $21 to $25.

Lavagnino: Got it.

Meltzer: So, I mean, they do cost something. But I also have a huge number of free articles on my website. I mean, a lot a lot a lot of the content that’s covered in the books is covered separately on the site.

Lavagnino: And so that’s your attempt at democratizing knowledge, which is similar, I think, to what we’re doing at CentSai, which is giving free information in terms of stories to help with financial concepts. So I agree that democratization helps.

Meltzer: And I’ve had people just study from the website and have their score go up 150 points without ever spending a cent.

Lavagnino: That’s incredible. What is the average, like, differential when they start your or do you have?

Meltzer: I actually, you know, I don’t I actually I don’t have those figures.

Lavagnino: Probably it depends on the student.

Meltzer: Yeah, I mean, you know, it’s interesting there’s studies that the College Board has done showing that students only gain an average of something like 15 points after prep, but, you know, I think that there’s really — you can’t really lump all prep together.

Lavagnino: Right. It sounds like there’s a big difference.

Meltzer: Yeah.


Thoughts on Being a Female Entrepreneur

Lavagnino: So as a woman and as an entrepreneur, have you ever felt silenced in any way? 

Meltzer: That’s an interesting question. Um, not so much. I mean, I think I’ve been very lucky in that regard. There have been small eye-opening moments.

For example, a couple of years back, I was interviewed for a documentary called The Test. It’s basically about the SAT, and the person putting together — I did like a roundtable panel of tutors — and I was the only woman there, which was extremely odd, because, I mean, there were maybe 12, 13 of us, and I thought, Seriously? You could not find one other woman who tutors these tests. Like, did you how many female tutors there are?

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: It was very bizarre.


Differences Between Men and Women in Education

Lavagnino: And female, more women, I think, tend to be in education, on a whole.

Meltzer: Right, you know, on the whole, yeah, but the playing field is very tilted, I think. Like, the elite tutoring level and, you know, I’ve — I won’t mention names, but there’s a company in Manhattan, for example — it’s based in Manhattan — that, you know, hires very, very high-level tutors, and if you look at, they let tutors set their own rates. And if you look at the salaries, if you look at the disparity, it’s astounding between male tutors and female tutors.

Lavagnino: So you’re able to see?

Meltzer: They post their rates.

Lavagnino: Oh, I see. So the women are actually posting their rates lower?

Meltzer: Much lower. Or the men are just posting their rates higher.

Lavagnino: What do you make of that?

Meltzer: Um, I mean, I think part of it is a confidence issue, um, where men are just more likely to value their competencies higher. Um, I think that that’s the primary driving factor behind it.

I mean, some of them, I think, they may be are, slightly more of them are more experienced on the whole than women. That should not be sufficient to explain, and the gap is, it’s one of the biggest gaps I’ve ever seen. It’s astounding.

Lavagnino: Now I’m very curious, and I will take a look at some point.

Meltzer: It’s really quite impressive, and one of the people actually asked me a long time ago to work for, to do, to come and do some training for a company, and he was offering me probably, like, no, maybe like 40 percent less than my current rate.

And I was, like, no, why would I do that? I mean, it didn’t even occur to me to think about it in gender terms at that point, but later on I thought, like, what, why would you do that to somebody? Why would you insult somebody like that?

And, you know, there’ve just been little, just tiny flashes of what, I think, women experience. But I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been largely insulated from that. Although occasionally I wonder how my books would perform if my, if I were a male or if they had a male name attached to them?

Lavagnino: I’ve heard that before.


Obstacles and Success for Women in Publishing

Meltzer: I’m really curious. It makes me think that, like, maybe I should try publishing under a pseudonym just to do, just as an experiment.

Lavagnino: Well, and we know J.K. Rowling is someone who did that because she was worried. And I have another friend who publishes romance novels, actually, and she also changed her name because her name is ethnic, and apparently white women and very kind of standard names do better.

Meltzer: Better. Oh, I’m not surprised but, yeah, but I’ve also actually, come to think of it, I’ve also had people say, “Oh, really, do you make a living off your books?”

Really? Do you your books actually sell or, you know, do you do this, is writing your only job? I’m like, yeah, yeah, you might want to check my books out on Amazon. I’m saying you might want to see the 173 reviews.

Lavagnino: Exactly.

Meltzer: And there’s no clue what.


The Critical Reader’s Success

Lavagnino: And you’re number 14, I believe, in that genre.

Meltzer: I might be today. Yeah, I mean, you know, I usually bounce around between, like, nine and 15 for the reading book.

Lavagnino: Which is great because it’s, like, up to a hundred or something.

Meltzer: Yeah, but people have no idea, um, and, you know, aside from, you know, if you’re not using those books, but yeah, it’s just, like I said I’ve had tiny flashes of experiences.

Lavagnino: And that really resonates with me well, because I think what I’m hearing from you is that you’ve done what you wanted to do regardless of your gender.

Meltzer: Yes, and I didn’t even think about in terms of gender initially.


Female Entrepreneurs and Representation

Lavagnino: But nonetheless you have had the experiences that I’ve had as well, where I’m the only co-founder in a room and I look around and I’m in a meeting of all men, and I’m like why is that?

Meltzer: You’re, like, seriously? Yeah, that you really actually couldn’t find another woman who does this?

But yeah, I mean, if you look at all the self-published test prep books on Amazon, I’m really the only woman doing it.

Lavagnino: I think that’s true.

Meltzer: Which is, because I mean I, you know, the community of people who, you know, people who are successful test prep, independent test prep authors is very small, and most of us know each other.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: Um, and I don’t know of any other woman who does this, and I only realize this after I’ve written the books and, you know, after they had started to do well. I looked around I said, huh, I’m kind of alone up here.


Erica Meltzer’s Writing Process

Lavagnino: Do you feel alone?

Meltzer: Not terribly. I mean, you know, the writing process can be isolating because, you know, you’re just you’re sitting there in a room just cranking it out.

Lavagnino: Right.

Meltzer: And it’s nice to have colleagues to talk to. I mean, I did actually co-author a book with somebody, which was, you know, which was a great experience, but, no, I can’t say that I do. There are moments but, you know, I mean, I work this way by choice.

Lavagnino: That makes sense, and I think we all find the style of work that works best for us.

Meltzer: Yes.


Finding Inspirational Women: Madame de Stael

Lavagnino: Something that I’m curious about is, if you had to name a woman that you could have an hour-long conversation with, anyone, who would that be?

Meltzer: Oh my goodness. Um, well, I wrote my college thesis on Madame de Stael, who was basically, she was an extraordinary woman who lived around the time of the French Revolution.

And she basically invented comparative literature, and she was an extraordinary field literary theorist and social theorist and just some of the things she writes are astoundingly modern. Really, really astonishingly perceptive person, who sort of barreled her way into the world of letters and —

Lavagnino: Which I would imagine was very male dominated.

Meltzer: It was fairly male dominated. You did have a fair number of women writing in the Pre-Revolutionary period, but it’s just an astoundingly brilliant woman whose contributions I don’t think get quite the recognition they deserve. I would I would love to have a conversation with her.

Lavagnino: I must admit, I would have never expected that answer, and that’s someone that I have to look up because —

Meltzer: She’s the first person who popped into my mind.

Lavagnino: That’s wonderful, and I don’t know who she is, which also makes me realize that so much of our history is invisible.

Meltzer: Isn’t it? Yeah. But, you know, she corresponded with Goethe. I mean she was really quite a, quite a formidable personality.

Lavagnino: I wanted to thank you for coming on. You are an amazing woman.

Meltzer: Thank you so much for having me.

Lavagnino: Absolutely. You’ve taken on an industry that’s huge, publishers that are huge. You’re doing it despite the challenges that we’ve discussed, day by day, and I think it’s really inspiring to hear your story. So thank you for sharing it.

Meltzer: Thank you so much for having me again. I really appreciate it.


How to Find Erica Meltzer and The Critical Reader

Lavagnino: And if our listeners want to find your books or any information about you, can you let them know?

Meltzer: Absolutely. So I’m on Amazon. So if you are looking for one-day shipping or free shipping, that is the place to go, and you can just type in The Critical Reader or Erica Meltzer SAT or Erica Meltzer ACT, and the books will pop right up. Or I would also encourage people to visit my website, And you can also find me on Instagram, at TheCriticalReader.

Lavagnino: Fantastic. Thank you.

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