5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing by C.S. Lakin and others

Lakin has teamed up with four other professional editors to explain the problems that they see over and over in manuscripts. But they’re not here to complain. These editors are sharp-eyed at spotting flaws in manuscripts and they’re eager to help writers do better. They offer in-depth explanations of the flaw, show why it’s a problem, and teach writers how to fix it.

Some of the flaws are on the macro level, the kind of thing an author would rewrite in the second draft. These are things like too much backstory, lack of tension, overwriting, telling instead of showing, flawed dialogue, and flat description. Others are things that could be considered copyediting errors, such as weak sentence construction, improper mechanics, or using too many adverbs.

The authors take turns writing the chapters, so this is more a compilation than a true collaboration. But even though many voices are represented in this book, none of the chapters contradict one another and it never felt repetitive. Had I not known it was written by five people, I could have mistaken this book for the advice of one single author. That’s because the advice within 5 EDITORS TACKLE THE 12 FATAL FLAWS OF FICTION WRITING is so accurate, well-presented, and well-taught. This is one of those great books that teaches by example. The authors are not here to bash anyone for doing it wrong. They only want to help authors get it right.

The example passages are written by the authors themselves, and they give a before and after example for every single point they make. This book is very hands on, nitty-gritty, do-this-not-that. At the end of every chapter, the authors give a sample passage and invite readers to rewrite it. The authors offer up two to three pages of prose, deliberately making one of the deadly mistakes, so readers can practice what they’ve learned. The ideal is always that we’ll apply these lessons to our own manuscripts, but it’s so much easier to spot the flaws when it’s not your own work. By going through the rewrites on a sample passage, writers can internalize the principles without any emotional resistance.

5 EDITORS TACKLE THE 12 FATAL FLAWS OF FICTION WRITING isn’t an “easy” book. The lessons are deep, the examples are detailed, and the process is complicated. It will take time to go through each chapter, absorb the lesson, and apply it to your own work. But the lessons are so thorough and so well-taught that any writer who spends time with this book will come out the other side a stronger writer.

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5 EDITORS TACKLE THE 12 FATAL FLAWS OF FICTION WRITING is available here

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

The Write Balance by Bonni Goldberg

THE WRITE BALANCE isn’t a book about how to write. What I mean by that is, it’s not a book about craft issues like plot, character, description, pacing, or dialogue. But it is a book about the writing process. Goldberg ignores the most obvious part of the process—the first draft. There are hundreds of books out there that will teach writers how to write a first draft faster, cleaner, in thirty days, or ninety days, or a year, with or without an outline. Goldberg leaves that to other books.

Instead, she shines a bright light into other, darker corners of the writing process—those that aren’t taught much and often not even mentioned in books and classes. THE WRITE BALANCE is divided into three parts. The first is about percolation, that pre-writing period where ideas are generated. The second is about revision, including on your own and with a critique group. The final part is about going public, which can mean publication, but doesn’t necessarily have to.

Too many writers focus on daily word count, as if that’s the only metric that matters. However, Goldberg devotes fully a third of THE WRITE BALANCE to what she calls percolation. She recognizes that writers are humans, not machines, and that we need quiet thinking time as much as we need butt-in-chair time. However, she doesn’t advocate for mindless woolgathering. Goldberg offers exercises to do and a reasonable timeframe in which to do them.

The middle part of the book is about revision—another thing that gets scant attention in most how-to books. Goldberg discusses the ins and outs of critique groups and beta readers, while constantly reminding writers that their intuition will guide them well if they listen to it.

Finally, Goldberg discusses going public, although her focus is not on rushing immediately to publication. Instead, she talks about taking your time, finding the right publication path, and finding other ways to share stories, whether that is through public readings, open mics, or blogging. Publication can (and should) be in that mix, but there are lots of ways to share what we write.

Throughout, Goldberg shares lessons steeped in empathy. Everything is seen through the lens of how it will nurture or hurt writers. But this isn’t a touchy-feely book full of woo. It’s an extremely practical guide to the areas of a writer’s life that are so often overlooked. Some of us don’t even have words for what we’re doing when we’re percolating. Instead, we call ourselves “lazy” or “procrastinators,” instead of honoring the idea phase of writing.

THE WRITE BALANCE was so insightful, I sometimes felt like Goldberg was sitting in my home office with me. More than once, I whispered to my kindle, “How does she know?” But Goldberg doesn’t see through walls. She’s simply tapped into the universal struggles that all writers share, and she shows us how to make it through all the phases of writing, from first idea to publication.

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THE WRITE BALANCE can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch

I used to worry about the state of the English language every time I used social media. Faced with a wall of misspellings, incorrect grammar, and wild punctuation, I despaired for my mother tongue. I sometimes reminded myself that until the digital age, public writing was something that professionals did, and we never read printed words from an average person. Perhaps most writing was always terrible, it’s just that we didn’t see most of it. Other times, I worried that nobody cared about the “rules” of writing and we were all doomed to a slow slide into illiteracy.

BECAUSE INTERNET showed me that my assumptions were wrong on all counts. It’s not that people are using English incorrectly, it’s that they’re adapting language to their needs. Until recently, we had formal writing and informal speech.  For example, you’d start a letter to your grandma with “Dear Grandmother,” but when you saw her in person, you’d say, “Hi, Gran!” However, with the rise of social media, for the first time, we have informal writing.

Internet language isn’t incorrect, and it doesn’t signal the end of good grammar. It’s simply a way of expressing the informality of speech in a written format. Nor should we worry about young people being unduly influenced by it. McCulloch sites studies that show that students can easily code-switch into formal writing when required for tests or papers.

BECAUSE INTERNET takes a deep dive into internet language, starting with its history. McCulloch explains why different generations use language differently on the internet. Users are roughly divided by age, but more importantly, by when they first got online. Like all good linguists, McCulloch is descriptive rather than prescriptive, explaining why and how language is changing without ever judging people for it.

Because when it comes right down to it, the way that we write when we’re online makes sense. When we’re face to face, we communicate so much in body language, tone, and facial expressions. Written words don’t express tone of voice, so we sometimes use uppercase for emphasis, or add asterisks or tildes. We use /s to indicate that this is sarcasm or a joke, but we use a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters to indicate mockery. We misspell on purpose for humor or to pull out a word, as in, “I allllmost forgot my phone,” or the Tumblr favorite, “sameeee” to indicate absolute agreement.

And when words aren’t enough, we use GIFs to show a facial expression, or turn to emojis. McCulloch gives a detailed explanation of the history and purpose of emojis. They aren’t taking the place of body language, since body language is unconscious. Emojis are deliberate, and therefore represent gestures, such as a thumbs up or a shrug. McCulloch details how and why emojis are used and by whom. (I laughed the first time my mom sent me an emoji. It looked strange because most senior citizens don’t use them.)  

BECAUSE INTERNET is not written in an academic tone. It’s easy to read, sharp, insightful, and quite funny in parts. It gave me new appreciation for the way that language is changing right before our eyes, with the birth of new grammar for the digital age.

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BECAUSE INTERNET can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

Into the Woods by John Yorke (content warning)

Content Warning: sexual assault

Yorke is a TV writer and producer for the BBC, so he has an interest in story structure. His career would seem to depend on it, and yet, he treats the most basic and well-known elements of storytelling as if they were brand-new insights. Yorke references the screenwriting teachers who came before him like Vogler, Snyder, and Field, while at the same time trying to take credit for ideas they developed.

While studying the three-act structure, Yorke noticed that act two was longer than the others, with a distinct dividing line in the middle. In short, he learned about Midpoints. That’s when Yorke decided that the three-act structure was really a five-act structure, and INTO THE WOODS is littered with charts to “prove” his point. It’s still the exact same story structure. He simply renamed the parts.

All of INTO THE WOODS is like this. Yorke describes some well-known facet of storycraft and then pretends he was the first to discover it. The first chapters are about story structure, while the second half of the book deals with characterization, dialogue, and exposition. Yorke ends with a long and boring history of TV shows. His entire point here is that TV shows either end because the characters change, and therefore their story is finished, or the characters don’t change at all (such as in sitcoms) and the show gets repetitive. It’s so obvious as to be laughable. There is literally nothing here that hasn’t been said before in better books.

Yorke’s examples are mostly random and never illustrate his points in any meaningful way. In fact, his points are so general that nearly any example from nearly any movie or TV show would fit. INTO THE WOODS reads like a paper from a student who did a lot of research and took a lot of notes, and is determined to cram it all into the text, whether it fits or not.

Throughout, Yorke keeps hinting at a big reveal. He keeps promising that he’s going to explain why humans tell stories. Like a late-night infomercial that keeps hyping a gadget before showing it to you, Yorke hints that his upcoming insight is going to be brilliant. Finally, he shares the secret. Are you ready for this?

Humans tell stories to make sense of the world.

That’s it.

That’s the insight that Yorke thinks is so groundbreaking that he spends an entire book leading up to it.

All this would probably add up to a two-star rating but what sinks it to a one-star is Yorke’s misogyny. The vast majority of his examples are taken from macho movies such as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, and every single one of the experts he quotes is a man. He brings up sexual assault at least once per chapter, as if he’s fascinated by the subject. Out of the thousands of examples he could use to illustrate his points, over and over he chooses examples of women being assaulted by men. The only woman-centric movie he cites is Thelma and Louise, and you can guess which aspect of it he’s fixated on. He even reimagines the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel with the children raped and murdered.

I never thought I’d have to put a content warning in a book review, but there’s a first time for everything. And here’s another warning: don’t buy this book.

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Rating: one star

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I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell instead of this book.

Firefly Magic by Lauren Sapala

Marketing isn’t something that comes naturally to writers. In fact, many of us are put off by the idea. Some of that is fear of rejection or fear of wasting time and money. But most of it is because the traditional methods of selling just don’t mesh with our personalities. We think of book marketing as something extroverts do, or people who are shameless about tricking buyers, or writers who treat their books like commodities. At the very least, we think successful marketers have an unhealthy obsession with money and sales, and their art suffers for it.

FIREFLY MAGIC upends all of those assumptions about marketing. Sapala shows writers how to sell their books in an authentic way, from a place of integrity and confidence. By thinking of our books as our service to the world, we can sell books without selling out.

Sapala is a student of the Meyers-Briggs personality matrix, and she makes it clear she’s speaking to “INFJ” writers. However, you don’t need to be one of those, or even know what the letters stand for, to benefit from FIREFLY MAGIC. Sapala is speaking to introverted and highly-sensitive people, which means she’s speaking to the vast majority of writers.

Unlike other marketing books that say “do this and get rich,” Sapala understands what’s going on inside writers. She feels those feelings and knows exactly why writers are resistant to marketing. If something feels inauthentic or sleazy or uncomfortable, we won’t do it.

But here’s the interesting thing. The middle section of FIREFLY MAGIC lists the things that writers must do to be successful, and they are the very same things that other books tell us to do: get a website, use social media, have a newsletter, find your niche, lead with your unique selling point, and most of all, keep making more content. So if Sapala is telling writers to do the same thing as other marketing books, why is her book so much better? That small mindset shift—from selling to serving—makes all the difference. Other marketing books feel like sitting on a cactus, while FIREFLY MAGIC feels like stepping onto fluffy clouds. Believe it or not, Sapala can make you feel excited about marketing.

FIREFLY MAGIC is very much a “why to” rather than a “how to,” so it’s more of a companion book rather than a complete one. You’ll need other marketing books to learn the actual nuts-and-bolts of how to do it. But reading FIREFLY MAGIC first means you’ll actually be able to absorb the lessons of the other books, making sure you start your marketing efforts on the right foot and maintain them for the long haul.

FIREFLY MAGIC can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book

The Writer’s Roadmap by Leigh Shulman

It seems so simple: make a goal, break it down into steps, and follow the steps. That’s been said in hundreds of books. Shulman says that too, but THE WRITER’S ROADMAP is specifically geared toward writers—especially writers who are trying to leave their day jobs to write full time. And Shulman adds a few extra steps and refinements that made me see this timeworn advice in a new light.

The problem is that many authors put “write a book” at the bottom of a long to-do list and wonder why it never gets done. We’re all working as hard as we can every day, but Shulman reminds us that working harder won’t get you anywhere if you’re working on the wrong thing. To keep writers on track, Shulman uses the acronym OGSM (which I kept reading as “orgasm” because I am twelve.) It stands for Objective, Goals, Strategies, and Measures.

Most how-to books start with goals. It seems like a natural place to start. Goals are what we’re working toward, right? But Shulman goes one level higher. What’s the overall objective? What ties your many goals together? What gives your life purpose? It’s almost like you’re writing a mission statement for yourself and your writing.

Only after the overall objective is super clear should you turn to your goals. Goals give you focus and help you find opportunities. THE WRITER’S ROADMAP is full of questions and worksheets to help writers clarify their goals and put them in order.

Strategies are the specific steps taken. These change the most. Many of us get stuck at this step because we think we need to know exactly how to accomplish our goals. But Shulman reminds us that of all the things in an OGSM, the strategies are the most flexible. We learn as we go, and it’s perfectly okay to refine your strategies.

Measures are important too. You either do the thing or you don’t do the thing. You need to keep track so you know for sure that you’ve done the thing. Numbers don’t lie. Shulman also includes short, snappy sidebars about setting boundaries and dealing with money. I really appreciate those because don’t we all struggle with those two issues? But having them as small sidebars feels insufficient when they really need whole chapters.

I think we’re all re-evaluating our goals in 2022. The last two years have been extremely hard, and we’re all looking at our writing goals in new ways. Some writers have scaled back. Some have taken on projects outside their usual genres. Some are exploring new revenue streams. But I don’t know a single writer whose objectives and goals have stayed the same since 2019. THE WRITER’S ROADMAP is a refreshing look at an old topic, and a perfect way to start the new year.

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THE WRITER’S ROADMAP can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning authors

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I recommend this book

Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration by K.M. Weiland

The first thing you need to know is that Weiland doesn’t actually believe in writer’s block. At best, it’s a bogeyman used to scare writers. At worst, it’s an excuse for not writing. However, Weiland does believe in frustration. Every writer has good days and bad days. CONQUERING WRITER’S BLOCK AND SUMMONING INSPIRATION is the book you need on the bad days.

The second important thing about CONQUERING WRITER’S BLOCK AND SUMMONING INSPIRATION is that the book is short, to the point, and no-nonsense. This isn’t the book that’s going to coddle writers, or let writers feel sorry for themselves, or tell writers that they are brave and heroic for simply putting pen to paper. Professional writers work long, diligent hours on their craft, and if you expect to join them, you will have to work hard too.

Inspiration exists. It’s wonderful, and when it happens, a writer feels invincible. But inspiration doesn’t come for free. The price is that the writer has to show up at the page day after day. Weiland gives solid advice for putting this foundational habit in place. Let go of perfection, study the craft, cultivate excitement in the work, and don’t cling too tightly to writing rules. Weiland also discusses the dangers of trying to “failure proof” a piece of writing, which will only bleed the life out of it. And if a writer is dreaming of fame and fortune more than she’s dreaming about her characters and her story, she’ll likely never finish her book.

However, even with solid writing habit in place, sometimes the words won’t come. In that case, Weiland lays out some emergency measures. Things like brainstorming ahead of time, stopping mid-sentence, throwing in random plot twists, or shaking up point of view, tone, or a heroine’s goal.

Throughout CONQUERING WRITER’S BLOCK AND SUMMONING INSPIRATION, Weiland reminds us that writers write. A writer can’t expect success without putting in the work. Whining doesn’t get the job done. Waiting for inspiration doesn’t get the job done. Talent doesn’t get the job done. The only thing that matters is putting your butt in the chair and typing one word after another. Sometimes, doing the work is the only inspiration a writer needs.

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CONQUERING WRITER’S BLOCK AND SUMMONING INSPIRATION can be found here

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Rating: 5 stars

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I recommend this book

Trough of Hell by H.R. d’Costa

Most authors are fired up to write the beginning of their novels. They know how the story starts and are eager to get going on the wonderful story they want to tell. Many authors have an easy time with the ending as well, feeling like they’re coasting downhill to the climax. Then there’s the middle. Somehow, blank pages in the middle of a story are the worst kind of blank pages.

D’Costa specializes in taking a deep dive into one aspect of story, breaking down the story beats into their smallest possible units. TROUGH OF HELL zeroes in on that section about 75% of the way through the story, when things are as bad as they can get.

This is the all-is-lost moment, when the heroine is at her lowest point emotionally. Paradoxically, she’s also the closest to achieving her true goal—perhaps not the one she wants, but the one she needs. But in order to get there, she has to reach rock bottom. Only then, when she’s at her most vulnerable, can she face the truth about herself and change for the better.

D’Costa gets very specific here, showing readers all the ways they can hurt their heroes, and how to evoke true emotions by tailoring them to the story. She gives consideration to different genres, since this story beat plays out differently in comedies and serious stories. She also shows how to use minor characters to make the all-is-lost even more resonant. She wraps it up by discussing ways to avoid cliches, keep the pace from dragging, and make the all-is-lost moment deeper and more meaningful.

D’Costa is a screenwriter, so all the examples are from movies, some of them stretching back to the 1990s. But she never discusses obscure or arty films. All of the examples are from well-known movies, and D’Costa gives enough explanation so you can follow along even if you’ve never seen the film in question. The all-is-lost moment is a vital story beat in both novels and screenplays, with the same emotional job to do, so this concept applies to novels too.

The trough of hell is one of the least fun parts of a novel to write. It’s the moment when we have to be very mean to our imaginary friends. But with a guide like TROUGH OF HELL, writing that section of a novel will be easier, and the author will have the satisfaction of knowing that the terrible trouble she put her heroes in was all worth it.

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TROUGH OF HELL can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book

Never Say You Can’t Survive by Charlie Jane Anders

NEVER SAY YOU CAN’T SURVIVE is a collection of blog posts that Anders wrote for Tor.com during 2020, when the world was falling apart and many writers weren’t writing. Anders wanted to counter the doom and gloom, but while other writers offered only empty cheerleading, Anders offered more. This book is a balm for the soul, a rallying cry, a creative manifesto, and an act of resistance.

There’s a lot to be said for writing despite all the awfulness of the world. In a world rocked by disease, prejudice, war, and political cruelty, stories aren’t luxuries. They’re necessities. Telling the world, “I won’t engage with your bullshit because I have books to write” is a powerful statement. As Anders puts it, escapism is resistance. Stories help us retain our humanity in a world that’s trying to take it away.

But it goes far beyond that. Writers help frame the narrative, to counter the gaslighting from those in power. We dream of things beyond the world we know, and we show those dreams to others. By actively imagining how the world can be different, writers help to create the world they want to live in.

We’re all angry at the state of the world, and Anders encourages us to embrace that anger and use it as fuel. Novels are always, always political. Who has power in our story worlds? How do they use it? What choices do our characters make and how does it change them? Who are we as humans, and who do we want to be? Anders engages with all of this in writing that is fresh and fierce and exactly what we need right now.

There is also writing craft instruction sprinkled throughout NEVER SAY YOU CAN’T SURVIVE, but Anders is on shakier ground here. Some things that are common knowledge to anyone who has read even a single how-to book seem to be revelations to Anders. For example, she’s floored by the idea that every story needs a strong midpoint scene, and is delighted that when she includes one, her stories work better. And she only recently learned that the final word in a sentence is the one that packs a punch.

Anders describes her own writing process, which can best be described as quirky. Very little of what she discusses will be applicable or helpful to the average writer. A writer looking for solid instruction would be better off reading other how-to books.

Where Anders truly shines is in her unique vision, and her ability to share that vision with the rest of us. The most important thing to know when creating is your “why.” Anders knows her why and is therefore unstoppable. NEVER SAY YOU CAN’T SURVIVE is the guide we need to keep writing through the end of the world.

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NEVER SAY YOU CAN’T SURVIVE can be found here

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Rating: 3 stars

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I recommend this book or Take Joy by Jane Yolen or A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld

How to Market a Book by Ricardo Fayet

When people find out that I publish myself, they almost always ask the same question. “How do you market your books?” I tell them that I market my books the same way large publishers do, since nowadays, indie authors have access to almost all the same tools and sales channels the bigger publishers do. That’s usually a satisfactory answer for readers.

Fellow writers, on the other hand, often blurt out a frustrated, “Yes, but how?” Beginning writers want to know the step-by-step method from uploading a book to getting it into readers’ hands. How, exactly, does that work?

HOW TO MARKET A BOOK is a great introduction to this topic, as Fayet covers all the basics in detail. He starts with mindset, that crucial jump an author takes from creator to salesperson. Then he talks about elements of the book itself that will help it to sell—the cover, the blurb, the niche, and endorsements. Only then does he turn to things like sales channels, email lists, and price promotions. Putting things in this order makes sense. There is no use spending time and money trying to market a book that is fundamentally unmarketable.

Fayet then turns to more advanced topics like advertising platforms, audio books, boxed set promotions, understanding Amazon algorithms (as much as anyone can understand Amazon algorithms) and the ever-popular wide vs. exclusive debate. The writing is smooth throughout, with exactly the right amount of depth to serve as a good introduction without being overwhelming. And when you’re ready to go deeper on a particular subject, Fayet offers suggestions for further reading.

Fayet is one of the founders of Reedsy, which is a freelance marketplace that matches service providers (editors, book designers, web designers, etc.) with authors. Many parts of HOW TO MARKET A BOOK sounded like commercials for Reedsy. There is nothing wrong with giving your company a shoutout if you think it does things well, but there were a few times that I felt like I was reading an infomercial rather than a how-to book.

Even taking that huge grain of salt into consideration, I still found HOW TO MARKET A BOOK extremely worthwhile reading. I liked that it didn’t promise shortcuts or “easy” tricks. The suggestions were practical and straightforward in an excellent beginners’ marketing book that will teach the essential skills that every writer should learn.

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HOW TO MARKET A BOOK can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.