Can You Make the Title Bigga? by Jessica Bell

Bell is a self-taught book cover designer who considers herself an expert—not an expert in what to do right, but an expert in what everyone else is doing wrong. CAN YOU MAKE THE TITLE BIGGA? is my least-favorite kind of how-to book. It’s a ranty book filled with complaints, but no real instruction.

Great cover design is an ever-shifting goal. Trends change in a blink and “same but different” can be a fine line to walk. The other problem is that the writer must use words to communicate her vision to an artist who thinks in pictures. And they’re trying to agree on a design that they both love that will also sell books. Money and emotions are involved. It would be great if there was a book out there that could help self-published authors navigate those treacherous waters, but CAN YOU MAKE THE TITLE BIGGA? isn’t it.

Bell hasn’t spoken to other designers so she can’t say what’s typical in the industry. She can only explain how she does things, which she’s eager to do, over and over and over. When Bell isn’t complaining, she’s promoting her own design services. She’s certain that authors would get better covers if they did things her way. But the reader is never sure what that way is, since Bell contradicts herself constantly. She complains that authors don’t give her enough direction, and then claims to want complete creative control. She says that the worst thing an author can do is to give the designer a photo they took for the cover, but a few chapters later, she’s gushing over one of her authors who always takes the most perfect photos for her covers. She warns against “cluttered” covers, and then proudly shows off a cover that uses every available bit of white space.

Bell quotes directly from emails with clients, and she delights in showing the reader the rookie mistakes her clients have made, from not knowing how to get an ISBN to not having their jacket copy prepared ahead of time. She also includes her responses—snarky one-liners that put the authors in their place instead of soliciting the correct information from them. I have hired cover designers myself, over twenty times, and my experiences were nothing like Bell describes. Either she’s cherry-picking the worst of her client interactions, or she’s not capable of attracting professional-level clients.

Even worse, she badmouths her own employees. First, she explains that her employees are only good for grunt work, but she gives them design work anyway, which she then does over. Bell blames herself for this, because she didn’t hire the best. She even calls out these employees by name (first and last) making sure to trash them in public. It’s a major red flag and I’m not sure why anyone would want to work for her—or hire her.

Bell is a decent cover designer. She includes a handful of color images of her work to prove it. But she’s a terrible communicator. She puffs herself up while putting others down, she doesn’t know how to work with clients, and somehow, she’s written an entire book about cover design that doesn’t teach a single thing about what makes a good book cover.

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CAN YOU MAKE THE TITLE BIGGA? can be found here

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Rating: 1 star

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I recommend Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran instead of this book

The Relaxed Author by Joanna Penn and Mark Leslie Lefebvre

There are two truths that self-published authors have taken as holy writ: there is no better marketing than writing a new book, and books are only “new” for thirty days. In the first month of a book’s life, Amazon and the other retailers will help out quite a bit with behind-the-scenes marketing. After that, you’re on your own.

If both of those things are true, then it stands to reason that the best way to succeed in self publishing is to write a new book every single month. Lots of indie authors tried it, either on their own or as a conglomerate of four to six authors publishing under a single pen name. And to no one’s surprise, many of these authors have burned out.

Even if an author isn’t writing a book a month, trying to wear both the writer hat and publisher hat can be exhausting if the writer is trying to get maximum results from both jobs. Something’s got to give. But what should that something be?

THE RELAXED AUTHOR is part manifesto, part wise guide, and part evaluation tool. Writers don’t have to do it all, and Penn and Lefebvre are here to help sort out what’s truly useful for indie authors and what’s mere hype.

THE RELAXED AUTHOR is divided into four sections: writing, publishing, marketing, and running your author business. Each step of the way, the authors ask the right questions to help writers decide how to spend their time and effort. Being a “relaxed author” doesn’t mean doing things half-assed. It doesn’t mean you should stop caring about things. Being relaxed means going at the speed that’s right for you, and making good decisions that will provide a solid foundation for your writing life.

Penn and Lefebvre take turns writing the chapters, giving two perspectives on every problem. All of the advice is solid, and where Penn and Lefebvre have differing opinions, the reasons behind those opinions is also instructive. For example, Penn uses virtual assistants while Lefebvre finds them more trouble than they’re worth. Neither one is right or wrong. They are simply doing what’s best for them. That’s the final key. To be a relaxed author is to be self-aware, and THE RELAXED AUTHOR helps writers think through every aspect of their writing and publishing life.

Stressed out writers don’t write well. Staying relaxed can, ironically, help an author stay more creative and productive for the long haul—both as an author and as a self-publisher.

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THE RELAXED AUTHOR 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

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

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.

From Page to Stage by Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

Everyone expects that writers will do a bit of public speaking—book tours for the most successful writers and at least one or two local events for those in the midlist. Authors of books for children are expected to do school visits, speaking to the most demanding audience of all. But in the social media era, opportunities for authors to speak have exploded. Authors are supposed to seek out chances to be on podcasts and Zoom with book clubs and post to their Instagram stories. Staying home and writing just isn’t enough anymore.

Never mind that most authors are introverts who dislike the spotlight. Readers assume that authors who are interesting and dynamic on the page will be equally engaging in real life, even though holding a pen and holding the stage are completely different skillsets.

Fear of public speaking is real, but it’s a lot less scary with FROM PAGE TO STAGE as a guide. Fasbinder is a public speaking coach who specializes in writers, so she has tips tailored to our specific needs. She understands how hard it is to talk about our novels and memoirs, when really, we just want people to read them.

Fasbinder begins by calming writers’ nerves, reminding us that there are lots of rewards for speaking in public. She then provides all the tools necessary, from the blueprint of a perfect talk, to how to stand, how to remain composed, and even how to handle those annoying people who have “more of a comment than a question.” She has tips for using Powerpoint slides, and tips for doing a live reading. She even discusses things like podcast interviews or how to talk about your book one-on-one in casual conversation.

There are exercises at the end of every chapter, although I don’t think they’re necessary. Most of them consist of Fasbinder recommending a TED talk, but watching TED talks doesn’t teach you anything about how to give one. It would have been nice to have some exercises about posture or a practice Q and A. Instead, I figured out what to practice on my own from the excellent information and examples in the book.

FROM PAGE TO STAGE is a gift to authors. It’s filled with concrete advice and actionable steps a writer can take to get better at public speaking. It’s the book we need for the skill that we all need to develop.

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FROM PAGE TO STAGE can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book

Hollywood vs. the Author by Stephen Jay Schwartz

Novelists are fascinated by Hollywood. It’s a dream of many to have our novels turned into movies–to see real people portray characters that once only lived in our heads and hear dialogue that we wrote. Places we dreamed up could appear in real life. If this seems cool to you? Read on.

Schwartz has collected essays from eighteen authors who wrote books that became movies and TV shows. Authors like Lawrence Block (Burglar), Tess Gerritsen (Rizzoli & Isles) and Michael Connelly (Bosch) give candid reflections on the experience in exacting and often gruesome detail. They tell of lies, misogyny, shady accounting, dirty deals, and more lies. Taking the collection as a whole, it becomes abundantly clear that the author is the least important and least respected member of the team. I read HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR in sick awe. I knew some of this, but I never fully grasped just how awful Hollywood is for writers.

If it’s so bad, and writers know it’s bad, why do they do it? Money, mostly. There is money in Hollywood. Sometimes a lot of it. Jeff Parker (Laguna Heat) tells of a six-month movie option that was five times the advance for his novel. (An option is when a studio has an exclusive look at your work for a period of time.) Many an author has bought a house with movie money. But just as often, a writer loses money on the deal.

There are two ways an author can lose money in Hollywood. The first is when the novelist is hired to write the screenplay. That’s a sucker’s bet. No matter what script is turned in, the studio will demand multiple drafts and ultimately reject it so they can hire their own people. In the meantime, the author has lost a year or more that she could have been writing more novels.

But the other way is worse. Movie studios steal work every single day. But good luck proving it. Tess Gerritsen wrote the novel that became the movie Gravity, as well as most of the screenplay. It was stolen by director Alfonso Cuaron, who put his own name on it. When Gerritsen tried to sue, in what should have been an iron-clad case, she ran up against two truths: Hollywood has deep pockets and local judges don’t rule against the movie industry because Hollywood is basically a company town. Fifty copyright infringement cases were filed in California’s Ninth circuit between 1990 and 2010, and the authors lost their cases every single time.

Even when the process of book adaptation goes well, the author is always disappointed in the movie and never feels like she was respected or listened to. Most often the best an author can hope for is that they don’t lie to her too much and they don’t screw up the book too badly.

Because Hollywood will screw up the book. Every time. Novels and movies are different mediums and there is no such thing as a faithful adaptation. But more than that, producers, directors, and screenwriters don’t want a faithful adaptation of the book. Most of the time, they haven’t even read it. What they’re buying is the idea—basically a one-sentence log line. Movie studios don’t care about an author’s carefully written characters, setting, dialogue and plot. They’d never let a mere book get in the way of their movie.

The second-happiest writers in HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR are the ones who sold the rights to their books, took the money, and then turned their backs on the whole process, sometimes not even watching the movies that got made. The happiest writers are the ones who sold the rights to books that never got made into movies at all.

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HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

This book is best for: all authors

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I recommend this book

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

In Newport’s 2016 book, Deep Work, he insisted that one could not both do meaningful work and have social media accounts. Newport himself has never had an online presence beyond a blog and email, and he insisted that this was the only way to be successful as a knowledge worker.

However, in DIGITAL MINIMALISM, Newport takes a more nuanced approach. He acknowledges that social media, Netflix, news sites, and video games are a part of life and not things that need to be banished entirely. He still thinks they’re bad, though, and explains why we’ll all be happier if we spend less time online.

We’re all walking around with powerful computers in our pockets, loaded with apps that invite us to use them any time we have more than fifteen seconds of downtime. These online services offer a mix of benefits and harm, but most people only think about the benefits—or the possible benefits, even if they can’t point to anything concrete they get out of scrolling through Twitter. These sites are addictive, using every psychological trick (especially the variable reward of the “like” button) to get you to stay on them longer.

However, interacting with a phone is not the same as interacting with a person. Moreover, dependence on the instant gratification of the online world is making our brains less capable of the sustained thought we need to get our creative work done. If every single moment is filled with entertainment provided by others, when will we think up our own ideas?

Newport doesn’t just tell you why you should use online services less, he also tells you how. There are many tricks and hacks out there, such as the “digital sabbath” or using internet blockers while working. However, Newport explains why simple tricks don’t work. It takes a mindset shift, because no habit can be changed long-term without an underlying shift in values.

Step by step, Newport shows you where to start, how to overcome temptation, how to deal with the expectation that you’ll be always “on,” and how to use the internet more thoughtfully. By taking a minimalist approach, Newport argues, you’ll find yourself still as connected as ever, but in a more meaningful way. The benefits of this approach are numerous, from reclaiming time, to decreasing stress, to redefining leisure.

I enjoyed Newport’s previous book, despite its flaws. However, DIGITAL MINIMALISM is better in every way. It gave me concrete tools for turning off the internet as well as a solid plan to use it more thoughtfully.

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DIGITAL MINIMALISM is available here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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I recommend this book.

Cash Flow for Creators by Michael W. Lucas

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Writing full time is a dream for most writers. But how do we turn our hobby into a job? Writers are constantly told to treat our writing as a business, but most business books are not suitable for artists and very rarely address our unique concerns.

That’s where CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS comes in. It’s the most art-friendly business book you can imagine. Lucas pays his bills with his writing so this is where his focus is. He wants to teach you one thing: control your cash flow so you can make a living off your art.

Most advice for writers relies on knowing your income. One book will tell you not to quit your day job until your income from writing equals eighty percent or one hundred percent or two hundred percent of your day job salary. Another says not go full time until you have six months or eight months or twelve months of your day job salary saved. But looking at it from the income side does not work. The “experts” can’t agree on the right number, different writers need different amounts, and a writer’s income fluctuates.

Lucas has a different—and much better—approach. He knows a writer’s income is uncertain, but it’s the amount going out that will make or break a writer. It sounds simplistic to say that the amount coming in must exceed the amount going out, or the writer will go broke. However, CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS explains in detail how to calculate those numbers so that a writer always remains in the black. Using Lucas’ methods, even the most math-phobic author will have no trouble understanding the numbers she needs to decide if she can afford to go full time and if she can afford to stay there.

CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS covers every stage of a writer’s life, from pre-published to bestselling. Lucas breaks down the unique challenges of every phase, explaining what to spend money on, what to save for, and how to pay taxes. He has solid advice on hiring an accountant, dealing with banks, and taking on assistants. He knows what to do when things go really, really wrong—or really, really right.

Lucas gives lots of examples, some of them true-to-life, others fanciful. One moment, he’s giving serious consideration to the different cost of living in different regions, and how that will affect the amount a writer will need in savings. The next moment, he’s talking about making parachutes for capybaras. The better you can roll with his sense of humor, the more you’ll get out of CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS.

Because to Lucas, business—and life—are a game. It’s a game he has every intention of winning. And he wants to show you how to win it too.

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CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS can be found 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

 

 

 

Writing Killer Cover Copy by Elana Johnson

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Many authors have no trouble spinning out stories of 70,000 words or longer, but freak out when it comes to writing a 200 word description of that same novel. They either get super vague, telling the reader everything except what the book’s about, or they get super detailed, trying to cram every plot point of the story into two paragraphs. Neither of these approaches will sell books.

WRITING KILLER COVER COPY is meant for indie authors who want to write better book descriptions for online retailers, but Johnson’s approach will work equally well for authors who want to write query letters that will entice agents and editors. Before going indie, Johnson herself was traditionally published and wrote for the Query Tracker blog, so I believe her approach—with minor tweaking—works in both situations.

Johnson breaks down the process step by step, showing writers what they need to include in their cover copy and what they don’t. And just like good cover copy itself, WRITING KILLER COVER COPY is short, to the point, and useful.

Johnson writes in a very casual tone, with lots of digressions and extremely lame jokes that grew more tiresome as the book went on. I understand the value of humor when trying to tackle a difficult subject, but only when the humor works. Johnson’s jokes were as cringe-worthy as watching a stand-up comic bomb on stage night after night. Luckily, the central instruction holds up and the cornball jokes didn’t get in the way of the information.

Johnson suggests that writers start with a tagline—a one-sentence “grabber.” Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that taglines are effective. She then breaks down the four sections of a good book description: the hook, the set-up, the conflict, and the consequence. Johnson provides examples and exercises so writers can make sure that every part of their cover copy works.

Publishing is a strange business, and writers don’t control much. We can’t control what’s hot today, or how Amazon changes its algorithms, or if we score a BookBub feature. What we can control is our own product. The quality of our books and the way we present them to the market is completely up to us, and WRITING KILLER COVER COPY will help writers learn this essential skill.

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WRITING KILLER COVER COPY 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.