Successful Self-Publishing by Joanna Penn


When I self-published my first book, I didn’t know exactly how to do it. But I figured that the Amazon self-publishing platform was fairly intuitive, and that if I got horribly stuck I could google the answer. Besides, if I really screwed it up, I could always go back and fix it later. On the internet, there are endless do-overs. So I gleefully jumped in without much instruction and started publishing my own novels.

I soon found out that not everyone shares this attitude. I’ve met many first-time authors who are terrified. They don’t know the first thing about formatting and uploading their own books and rather than give it a try, they become stuck and do nothing. Or worse, they pay thousands of dollars to scam vanity publishing companies to do what they could do themselves for free.

Enter Penn and SUCCESSFUL SELF-PUBLISHING. This is the book that beginners need. It’s not about the why, it’s about the how. Penn assumes authors have a polished, professionally edited and well-covered book, but simply need a basic primer to go from there. This is self-publishing 101, and it covers everything authors need to know to get a manuscript from their computers to online stores.

Authors could find all this information out online by going from website to website, chasing pieces of it all over the internet, or they can get SUCCESSFUL SELF-PUBLISHING and have it all in one place. Penn covers the nuts and bolts of indie publishing, including how to format a book, how to get a cover, whether you should stick with just Amazon or sell at all retailers, and how to price your book.

Penn also has a breakdown of the costs of publishing. Editing, formatting, and cover design will all cost the author something, but putting your book on sale at retailers is free. (Retailers take a cut of each sale.) It’s important for authors to understand what to spend money on and what not to, so they don’t get scammed.

The second half of SUCCESSFUL SELF-PUBLISHING covers marketing—another thing that scares new authors. Authors can spend money on advertising, spend time doing content marketing (blogging, guest blogging, etc.) or both. Penn is realistic about how and when marketing efforts can help an author, and when it would be better to just write more books.

The self-publishing boom is still in its first decade, and things change all the time. Some of Penn’s specific advice might become dated, but the underlying principals she teaches won’t. Her advice boils down to, “Do what you can, hire out what you can’t do yourself, and don’t get scammed.”

And then, step by step, she tells you exactly how to do it.


Successful Self-Publishing can be found here. (The ebook is currently free)


Rating: 4 stars


This book is best for: beginning authors


I recommend this book





The Last Fifty Pages by James Scott Bell



Starting a novel is easy. Ending one is hard. Bringing a narrative of 70,000+ words to a satisfying conclusion is a high-wire act that demands an epic showdown, deep character change, tying up loose ends, and an emotional resolution. No wonder every writer has files of half-finished manuscripts on her computer.

But Bell is here to help. THE LAST FIFTY PAGES zeroes in on that all-important third act. Bell discusses the mechanics of endings, which most writers already know how to do: good guy and bad guy face off, one of them wins. But Bell goes far beyond the mechanics. He’s more interested in the purpose of endings. Tying up the plot is only a small part of that.

Bringing things to a satisfying conclusion means looking through the novel for moments of character change, and then amplifying them at the last moment. Bell gives examples from stories that work, from Huckleberry Finn to the Maltese Falcon, showing examples of this technique done well. Character change is what gives the ending—and the entire novel—emotional resonance.

Bell also discusses the different kinds of endings. Different genres have different requirements for their endings and one size does not fit all. Sometimes the protagonist wins. Sometimes she loses. Sometimes she wins but at too high a cost. Sometimes she loses one thing but wins another. Bell uses examples of well-known books and movies to illustrate his points. I’m a big fan of well-chosen examples, since that’s how I learn best.

Bell has a short chapter on ending blunders, but does not dwell too much on it, which I also appreciate. It’s important to know what not to do, but instructors need to go beyond that, to teach writers what they should do instead, and Bell really delivers here.

There are numerous ways to get to those magical two words: the end, With THE LAST FIFTY PAGES along as a guide, a writer will get there, and she’ll make herself—and her readers—happy along the way.


THE LAST FIFTY PAGES can be found here.


Rating: 4 stars


This book is best for: intermediate writers


I recommend this book

Author Your Life by Lara Zielin


A few years ago, Zielin was in a place that many people get to in the middle of their lives. Things just weren’t working out the way she wanted them to and everything was a struggle. Her finances, her weight, and her relationships were all bad and getting worse, and she was drinking more than she should. She knew she had to do something, but what?

Zielin is the author of several novels and nonfiction books, so naturally she turned to writing as a way out, and AUTHOR YOUR LIFE was born. Every morning, she woke up early and wrote down her life—not as it was, but as she wanted it to be. And slowly, over the course of a year, her real life started to match what was on the page. Not exactly affirmations, not exactly morning pages, Zielin’s journal was more of a roadmap for her soul.

Like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or On Writing by Stephen King, AUTHOR YOUR LIFE is part memoir, part instruction. Zielin is honest about her struggles and mistakes. She’s also extremely witty. She’s not some guru dispensing wisdom from on high. She’s a completely relatable middle-class Midwesterner. Zielin could be me. She could be all of us.

AUTHOR YOUR LIFE teaches you to use that awesome writer’s imagination of yours, but instead of visualizing the perfect outcome for your characters, you’ll be visualizing the perfect outcome for yourself. Through specific writing exercises and free-form journaling, Zielin takes you through all the steps needed to create your own happy ever after.

Writing down your ideal life every day won’t magically manifest your goals with no effort on your part. I don’t think there’s any magic involved. But I still think Zielin’s approach is brilliant.

Writing down your ideal life, day after day, forces you to clarify your goals. What do you really want? So many of us say we want to be writers, but don’t do the work that will make it happen. Doing the exercises in AUTHOR YOUR LIFE will force you to get super clear on your goals and see, in black and white, what it will take to get there. As you write, unexpected connections and solutions will come. Working toward your goals then becomes a pleasure, rather than a struggle, because you’ve cleared your own path.

Zielin doesn’t promise miracles. She’s far too smart for that. She promises hard work and struggle and setbacks and also clarity and joy and fun—just like the stories we love so much.

Reading AUTHOR YOUR LIFE was eye-opening and inspiring. I’ve already purchased several of my favorite blank notebooks so I can start telling the story that matters most: my own.


AUTHOR YOUR LIFE can be found here.


Rating: 4 stars


I recommend this book

Write Your Book in a Flash by Dan Janal


WRITE YOUR BOOK IN A FLASH is a how-to book for nonfiction writers, mainly businesspeople who want to write a book. Janal starts with the assumption that his audience has never written a book before and probably never will again. They aren’t writers, they just need a book as a credential, a calling card, or an add-on to public speaking gigs. Therefore, Janal starts with the very basics of nonfiction book creation, taking a paint-by-numbers approach of starting with the outline and filling it in little by little.

Janal’s approach is solid. To a non-writer, attempting to write forty thousand words of prose is daunting. Organizing all that research can seem impossible. Where do the quotes go? How about the personal stories? What should I leave out? What structure do I use?

Janal also understands that nonfiction books aren’t literature. They are tools to help solve a problem. He wants his readers to get the words on the page in any way possible, let hired editors clean up the mess, and start using the book to help boost their businesses.

To that end, Janal recommends that you start with a 400 word executive summary, research the market to see where your book fits and then make a ten-chapter outline (introduction, eight chapters of content, conclusion). This isn’t new to anyone who has been writing awhile—or has other nonfiction books to use as models—but it’s still useful advice.

Janal also provides ample cheerleading, sensing that this is what his audience wants most, and he includes information on beta readers and what formatting to use once the book is complete. And if it all sounds just too difficult, Janal himself is ready to step in as the ghost writer or book coach you might need.

WRITE YOUR BOOK IN A FLASH is the non-writer’s how-to book. It’s the perfect guide if you’ve never written before, don’t like writing now, and will never write again.


WRITE YOUR BOOK IN A FLASH can be found here.


Rating: 3 stars


This book is best for: beginning writers


I recommend this book or Everybody Writes by Ann Handley or Help for Writers by Roy Peter Clark 

Bonus Blog: Valentine Giveaway

It’s February, Valentine’s Day is coming up, and everyone wants to give gifts to their loved ones. Writers are my favorite people. I adore everyone who reads this blog and I wish I could give gifts to each and every one of you. I can’t do that. But I can give my favorite how-to book of all time to one lucky reader.

I put together a gift box that includes a paperback copy of the best how-to book ever: WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT TO PIXEL by Lawrence Block.


This gift box also includes…

  • A notepad to track your writing goals
  • A seven-year pen
  • A laptop sticker
  • And a tote bag

But wait! There’s more! It’s Valentine’s Day, when things come in pairs, so I’m making a second gift box that includes a copy of the first two Detroit Next novels, TWISTED and ZONERS.


I’m also including…

  • A super cute pillowcase with typewriters on it
  • A blank notebook
  • A laptop sticker
  • And a key chain

Want to win a gift box? Just leave a comment below telling me two things: which how-to book was the most helpful for you on you writer’s journey, and a place I can contact you. (Email, website, or Twitter.)

I’ll draw two random names from the comments to this blog post on February 14, 2019 at 22:00 EST so be sure to comment before then!

And of course I have not one, but two notes.

First note: You don’t have to subscribe to my blog or follow me on social media to enter, but I’d be pleased if you did. (I’m @ AlexKourvo on insta and the twitterz)

Second note: this giveaway is open to everyone but I can only mail stuff to US addresses. If you live outside the US and I draw your name, I’ll send you a $10 Amazon ecard so you can buy Lawrence Block’s book yourself.

Leave me a comment with a book recommendation, and I’ll announce the winners on Valentine’s Day.


Alex K.


Update: The winner of the Lawrence Block book was KirstiJones and the winner of the Detroit Next books was Kodermike! Congratulations to the winners.

And thank you to everyone who shared their favorite how-to book with me. I love to see what you’re reading.


Dear Writer, You Need to Quit by Becca Syme


In addition to being a bestselling author, Syme has been a writing coach and productivity teacher for over a decade. She’s seen the same patterns over and over, and seen writers stumble in some very predictable ways. Now Syme has written her coaching philosophy on paper, so anyone not lucky enough to take one of her classes can still benefit from her advice. DEAR WRITER, YOU NEED TO QUIT is not a book about quitting writing. It’s about quitting the bad habits that steal your writing time or make you unhappy.

There is a lot of tough love in this book. Syme has been coaching long enough to have seen every bad habit that writers fall into and she’s here to cut the bullshit—especially the bullshit we tell ourselves.

With chapters titles like “Quit Thinking Facebook is Your Friend” and “Quit Expecting This to Be Easy” and “Quit Fixing the Wrong Problem” you know Syme is not going to sugarcoat anything. She tells writers exactly what they’re doing wrong, exactly why they’re doing it, and how to get out of their own way to get words on the page. She especially wants to destroy the myth that there is a single switch you can flip to magically change your life. There isn’t. You have to do the work.

But even as she’s telling it like it is, Syme’s kindness shines through. Her advice comes from the deep understanding of a writer’s psyche and a sincere desire to help. The advice she gives most often is to “question the premise.” Instead of simply copying other people’s workflow systems, first look within and ask if this is something that will truly fit with the way you’re wired. So many productivity books remove your agency by forcing you into someone else’s box. Syme empowers writers—not by teaching a system, but by teaching writers how to make their own system.

There were a few times that Syme glossed over things, telling writers that if they wanted more information, they should sign up for one of her online classes. I guess that’s to be expected. Her classes are several weeks long and she can’t put it all in one book. However, I do wish DEAR WRITER, YOU NEED TO QUIT stood alone a bit more rather than serving as an introduction to her class.

But about that class? I took Syme’s Write Better Faster class in 2017 and it was the best thing I ever did for my career. I mean it. Before that class, I’d been devouring time-management and productivity books, wondering why all of them worked some of the time but none of them worked all of the time. The answer is that we’re all wired differently, and everyone has a different relationship to time. It’s obvious in retrospect, but it was something I had to be shown, rather than told. Syme’s class helped me find a system that worked for me and I’ve been a happier, more productive writer ever since.

If you can take Syme’s class, do it. If you can’t, DEAR WRITER, YOU NEED TO QUIT will take you a long way on your career path.

You’ll have to go the rest of the way on your own.


DEAR WRITER, YOU NEED TO QUIT can be found here.


Rating: 4 stars


This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers


I recommend this book.


13 Steps to Evil by Sacha Black


Villains are the most necessary part of a story, because the villain is the one who creates the conflict and keeps it going. No conflict? No story! However, most authors lavish attention on their heroes, neglecting the villain, leading to novels that feel flat.

Black is here to correct that. She starts by explaining just how important a good antagonist is. Black then lists the steps necessary to create an ideal villain, including negative-yet-relatable traits, a strong personality, and a good motive. She shows how to write a villain’s backstory to create a believable antagonist who is a credible threat to the protagonist. Black also emphasizes the need for both the hero and the villain to be proactive, not victims to the whims of the plot.

But it’s not enough to create an ideal villain. An author must create an ideal villain for this book. So much depends on the needs of the story and the genre, and 13 STEPS TO EVIL is the first how-book I’ve seen that breaks down the different kinds of antagonists. In fact, the title is somewhat misleading, because not all antagonists are evil—or even bad—and Black is careful to distinguish the well-meaning antagonists from the truly villainous ones.

Black goes on to explain what makes a villain different from an anti-hero. She cautions against using clichés such as the sex-crazed femme fatale with too-much makeup or the supervillain with a giant self-portrait in his lair. And she teaches writers how to write a convincing climax—again, focusing on the needs of each genre.

My favorite chapter was the one on villains and mental health. Too many authors give their antagonists a mental health diagnosis and then clap their hands, thinking their job is done. This is discriminatory and offensive because it implies (or outright states) that bad guys are bad because they are mentally ill. Rather than create an interesting antagonist, some writers would rather rely on myth and stereotypes to stigmatize an entire sector of society. Black isn’t saying that your villain can’t have a mental health issue. In fact, she’ll teach you how to do it well. Black wants you to be as careful with this as you would any other part of villain creation.

13 STEPS TO EVIL is perfectly organized to function as both a how-to book and a reference book, so you can learn it all now, and also go back to look stuff up later. It has everything a new writer needs as well as tips for advanced writers who wonder why their bad guys aren’t quite hitting the mark. 13 STEPS TO EVIL delves deep into the psychology of heroes, villains, and readers to show what works and why it does.


13 STEPS TO EVIL can be found here


Rating: 5 stars


This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers


I recommend this book