The Order of Things by Barbara Ann Kipfer

Kipfer

Like most writers, I love lists. I love to know the relationship of one thing to another. THE ORDER OF THINGS is a fat book full of lists that is supposed to show the structure, hierarchy and pecking order of everything.  While some of the lists do just that, most of them do not.

The lists range from the interesting (boat and ship classification) to the silly (all the answers from a magic 8 ball). The problem is, Kipfer tries to impose an order where none exists. For example, there is a list of the eleven brightest stars in the night sky. However, knowing that Sirius is brighter than Vega doesn’t really tell you anything. Likewise, knowing that a tuba has 13-14 inches of tubing while a trumpet has 4-5 inches doesn’t put them into any kind of hierarchy. And I really don’t know why anyone except a McDonald’s line cook would need to know the order of assembly for a Big Mac. It’s as if Kipfer is trying to jazz up a dry list of lists. The result is a mishmash that is too dull to be truly entertaining, while also too lightweight to be truly useful.

As expected, the most thorough chapters were those on the military, government and sports. Those are places where the hierarchy is strict, confusing, and crucial to know. Kipfer’s lists would be helpful to anyone trying to sort out a chief warrant officer from a chief master sergeant, or a judo yellow belt from a judo green belt.

But none of this information is difficult to find. When looking for facts like this, my first instinct is to run for the computer, not the bookshelf. THE ORDER OF THINGS may be interesting at times, but in this age of Google, it’s hardly necessary. There is nothing here that I couldn’t find on my own with a few clicks of the mouse.

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THE ORDER OF THINGS can be found here.

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rating: 2 stars

 

Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds by Michael Hague

Hague

SELLING YOUR STORY IN 60 SECONDS is a book about pitching, which is the art of briefly describing your book/screenplay/story in such a compelling way that the listener wants to read your work. Screenwriters have always given verbal pitches, but more and more novelists are getting into the act. At most writer’s conferences and some genre conferences, pitching to literary agents and book editors is the centerpiece of the weekend. It seems awkward to describe a written work with spoken words, but it’s a great skill to have. At some point, every author will be asked, “What is your book about?” It’s important to be able to sum up a story quickly.

SELLING YOUR STORY IN 60 SECONDS has incredible focus. Hague is only telling readers how to pitch. Not how to write a screenplay or novel, not how to find an agent, not how to work with people in the business. Hague zeroes in on those ten minutes of a writer’s life when he’s sitting across from an agent or movie executive.

Hague outlines the ten key components of a story, then shows how they can be mixed and matched into an effective pitch. He also covers what to bring to a pitch, how to begin, how to end, and how to maintain confidence in the scariest moment of a writer’s life.

After a solid start full of useful information on pitch construction, the second half of SELLING YOUR STORY IN 60 SECONDS felt flimsy in comparison. Hague gives lip service to novels, but it’s clear that he’s only talking to screenwriters. He goes into great details about where to find opportunities to pitch, but many of his ideas seem like a stretch. (Video stores? Telephone research? Really?)

The book ends with forty pages of quotes from movie executives and literary agents. Hague asked all of them the same two questions: what are some common weaknesses in pitching and what was the best pitch they’d ever heard. The answers, as expected, are similar. Since Hague already spent the previous chapters telling writers what does and does not work, there is no need to repeat that same information. Hague is padding what would otherwise be a too-short book, with the added benefit of sucking up to the “experts.”

Even so, the first half of this slim volume is well worth the price. With Hague’s information, a writer can learn to pitch a story in person, or use his tips to write an extremely effective query letter.

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SELLING YOUR STORY IN 60 SECONDS 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

Platform: Get Noticed In a Noisy World by Michael Hyatt

mmhyattcvr

“Platform” has become the buzzword in publishing circles. Every agent and editor tells writers they need one, but few tell them how to build one. PLATFORM is a straightforward guide to building a solid platform. This is the book for people who don’t know where to begin (read: most novelists). There are a lot of things a writer can do to increase visibility and Hyatt details every single one. I took two pages of notes and have only begun to implement Hyatt’s suggestions. PLATFORM is firmly new media, telling writers how to set up a blog and maintain an active presence online. There is no information here about older forms of marketing, such as ads or book signings–a refreshing change from other marketing books.

Platform building starts all the way back at the product itself. If your product doesn’t have what Hyatt calls the “wow factor,” then no amount of hype will elevate it. As authors, we should always start with our books. If they aren’t the absolute best books we can envision, we shouldn’t even try to market them.

Hyatt goes on to explain some behind-the-scenes basics, like head shots and elevator pitches. These are things a writer needs before launching into any kind of online presence. From there, Hyatt tackles the online world, with an emphasis on blogging. He also covers the basics of Twitter and Facebook, but mainly as vehicles to drive traffic to a writer’s blog.

Ironically, I did not pick up PLATFORM because of Hyatt’s platform. Before buying the book, I had never read Hyatt’s blog, did not follow him on social media, and had no idea he was the chairman of a large publishing company. So what made me buy PLATFORM? I spotted it on a “recommended for you” page on Amazon. Does that mean Hyatt’s platform didn’t work? Not necessarily. Hyatt gave away hundreds of advanced-review copies to generate good endorsements and a successful book launch. As all writers know, when it comes to books, being visible on Amazon is the best platform of all.

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PLATFORM 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 Author’s Marketing Handbook by Claire Ryan

TAMH

Claire Ryan markets books for a living, so she seems the ideal person to write a how-to guide on the topic. I’ve read dozens of books about marketing for writers. THE AUTHOR’S MARKETING HANDBOOK is one of the best I’ve seen. It’s full of straightforward advice without a bit of fluff or self-praise. Too many authors of these kinds of books want to trumpet their own success as if it can be perfectly duplicated by another writer. Ryan never falls into this trap. She never gives “case studies.” She never uses her own clients as examples. She simply tells what works, and why.

Ryan’s focus is on new-media marketing. She knows that old-school methods like book signings or press releases are irrelevant today. THE AUTHOR’S MARKETING HANDBOOK is focused on what’s effective right now.

The best chapters teach authors how to set up a website or blog and how to use social media. Ryan gives practical, step-by-step instruction. She does not go into the nuts and bolts of creating a website because that information is available everywhere and it’s different for each platform. Instead, she explains the things a website should include and why. What are readers looking for when they visit your site? Are you giving it to them?

I really liked Ryan’s take on social media. Too many writers treat social media like a promotional bullhorn. Ryan’s approach is low-key all the way. Rather than spamming your friends, you should barely mention your book unless you have a special promotion going on. In other words, only mention it when there is something in it for the reader, not the author. The same thing goes for blogging and commenting on other people’s blogs. The key is to become a good citizen of the online writing community. Readers want to buy books from writers they like, not from writers who treat them as nothing more than an open wallet.

A person will need a good amount of tech smarts to implement all of Ryan’s suggestions. I’m tech-savvy and I still needed to re-read several sections. Still, with a little patience and some smart googling, a writer shouldn’t have too much trouble.

If all this seems like it takes a lot of time and effort, that’s because it does. There are no shortcuts. It’s always been difficult to market books effectively, and it’s getting harder every day. But with the help of THE AUTHOR’S MARKETING HANDBOOK, a writer can be assured that all the effort is worth it.

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THE AUTHOR’S MARKETING HANDBOOK can be found here.

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rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

Betsy Lerner won me over on page seven of THE FOREST FOR THE TREES with these words: “As far as I’m concerned, writers have very little choice in what they write. Nor will I Strunk you over the head with rules about style.” I immediately knew this would be a different kind of how-to book, one more concerned with how people write than what they write. Instead of rules, Lerner discusses two very important things in this book. The first half is about writers’ personalities, and how those personalities intersect with the page. The second half is about the publishing business from an editor’s point of view. It seems like the two topics are incompatible, but it works. THE FOREST FOR THE TREES is a wise guide, helping writers get a clear-eyed look at the whole process, from pen to bookshelf.

According to Lerner, there are six kinds of writers. The ambivalent writer flits from project to project, rarely finishing anything. The natural has tons of talent and writes easily, but unless it’s married to a hearty work ethic, all the ability in the world will not help. The wicked child delights in exposing secrets, especially family secrets. The self-promoter seeks fame through good writing, but can easily seek fame instead of good writing. The neurotic worries about everything; most develop elaborate rituals (called their “process”) to cope with the anxiety. Then there’s the most difficult type of all–the addicted and/or depressed. Alcohol and drug use is legendary among writers, and many live with depression.

Lerner is careful not to condemn writers for any of these behaviors. Neither good nor bad, they simply are. But understanding the pitfalls of each type can help writers avoid the most damaging of aspects of them. One could even learn to thrive within them.

Part two covers the machinations and intrigues of the publishing business. Publishing has changed radically since 2000, when THE FOREST FOR THE TREES was written, yet it’s still relevant for writers who seek a big New York contract. If anything, things are more intense now. So, when Lerner discusses the slowness of agent responses or the fact that real editing has become a luxury, writers should not only pay attention, but read every sentence as if it’s in bold type.

Yet Lerner never takes herself, or her craft, too seriously. Her love for writing and writers shows through on every page. She calls books “the brilliant conspiracy between author and reader.” She also says, “All people write what they know, for God’s sake. It’s the air you breathe.” I’m glad that Lerner wrote what she knew in THE FOREST FOR THE TREES, so that we could all benefit from her eloquence and wisdom.

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THE FOREST FOR THE TREES is available 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.

Novel Blogging by Liberty Montano

This book is a mess. It’s a neat idea, and well-intentioned, but the execution is beyond bad. For starters, it needs an editor, a proofreader, and a formatter. There are no apostrophes in the entire book. Contractions and plurals are spelled correctly, but without apostrophes. For example, don’t becomes dont. At first, I wondered if it was just a problem with the Nook version. Conversion issues sometimes happen. But I looked at the Kindle version too. Same problems. There are also double periods, improper indentation, and grammar/spelling mistakes too numerous to mention. NOVEL BLOGGING is an editing and formatting nightmare.

Then there are the charts. The book is loaded with them, several per chapter. Charts can be useful as a clear, simple way to get across difficult information. However, the charts in NOVEL BLOGGING are there just for the sake of charts. A list of possible blog topics does not need to be in a chart. A checklist of time-management ideas does not need to be in a chart. Questions to ask yourself before blogging do not need to be in a chart. Hasn’t Montano ever heard of lists?

None of these charts showed up correctly on my ereader. Changing the font, the margins, or the line spacing did not help. This wasn’t user error. There was absolutely nothing I could do on my end to stop the ereader from cutting off half of each chart. And really, it’s not up to me to make an ebook readable. That is up to the publisher (who in this case is also the author).

I waded through half the book before giving up. If the content were decent, I’d probably try to make it all the way through the mess. However, this book is nothing more than shallow observations and “you can do it!” platitudes.

My blog doesn’t have a zero-star rating, so I’ll have to go with one star for NOVEL BLOGGING. I’m sorry I wasted my time on it, and I hope that none of you waste your time trying to read it.

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rating: 1 star

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I recommend Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran or How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age by Dale Carnegie and Brent Cole instead of this book

Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success by Mark Coker

There are a lot of how-to books about self publishing your ebooks. Most are written by authors, many are overpriced, and the quality varies from extremely useful to downright offensive.

SECRETS TO EBOOK PUBLISHING SUCCESS is different. It’s by Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords. Coker not only knows what he’s talking about, he has the data to back it up. Plus, this book is free.

Unfortunately, the 28 “secrets” he reveals are mostly common sense. “Write a Great Book” and “Create a Great Ebook Cover” aren’t really secrets. Besides, even truly crappy books represent someone’s best efforts. Nobody deliberately puts out a bad book with an ugly cover, so I’m not sure who Coker is talking to, here. A few of the “secrets” might be useful to an absolute beginner, like the chapter on being patient or the chapter on thinking globally, but the majority are self-evident to anyone who has published even a single ebook.

Coker repeats himself throughout SECRETS TO EBOOK PUBLISHING SUCCESS and a lot of it reads like a commercial for Smashwords. Any chance he can, Coker explains the advantages of using a single distributor and the ease of pushing your books to all the major selling sites by using Smashwords. A book needs to be available everywhere, Coker says, so of course you’re going to use his distribution company. He warns of the harm authors do their books by participating in KDP Select, which makes their books exclusive to Amazon.

The longest, most detailed chapters are the ones called “Maximize Distribution” and “Avoid Exclusivity,” making me think they are the point of the whole book. However, I doubt that any author who has tried KDP select feels harmed by it. The majority have enjoyed a significant sales boost from the program.

I’ve met Mark Coker. He is just a super person, truly invested in his authors’ success. Smashwords is a stellar business. It’s so good that I don’t know why Coker had to keep piling on the Smashwords propaganda in this book. A business as wonderful as his should speak for itself.

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rating: 3 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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

Unmarketing by Scott Stratten

You know you live in the modern world when acquiring Twitter followers is a marketable skill. Scott Stratten spent months following people on Twitter and gaining followbacks. He then made an emotionally-appealing video for his followers. It went viral, Stratten started public speaking, and a career as a marketing consultant was born. One of Stratten’s favorite sayings is “You’re an expert when you say you’re an expert.” Which brings to mind one of my favorite sayings: “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

Twitter is amazing. Of course it is. And Stratten is good at it. However, there is an entire world that is not Twitter-savvy. It’s possible to be well-connected online by using other platforms, such as Facebook, blogs, and Tumblr, but Stratten never discusses those things. It’s as if the entire internet is limited to 140-character micro-updates. Moreover, instead of developing truly meaty content, and then tweeting about it, Stratten’s tweets are an end in themselves. There is no there, there.

UNMARKETING has short chapters, which can be read in any order since they don’t connect with each other in any meaningful way. The book feels like scrolling through the archives of a blog. Like most blogs, it’s very writer-centric, making UNMARKETING read more like a memoir than a how-to. Stratten learned to use Twitter, got some freebies because he uses Twitter, and screwed up a few times with his mailing list but got better at it. Fair enough. He’s writing about his own experience because it has worked for him. However, he’s not teaching other people how to duplicate his success.

That isn’t to say UNMARKETING is all bad. There is some solid marketing advice in here. Stratten understands that with social currency, you have to give before you get. He’s against spammy things like auto-responders. He knows how to set up a newsletter and even what the welcome message to new subscribers should look like. He discusses what makes a good website and uses social networking in clever ways. He obviously knows his job and is probably good at working one-on-one with companies to craft their marketing message. However, he doesn’t know how to broaden that message into a more general how-to. There isn’t enough material that’s applicable to enough people to make UNMARKETING worth the time spent reading it.

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rating: 2 stars

 

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I recommend How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age by Dale Carnegie and Brent Cole  or Platform by Michael Hyatt instead of this book.

Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran

David Gaughran makes an unusual choice in the introduction to LET’S GET DIGITAL. Most people would start by listing their credentials, but Gaughran admits he has none. He’s not a best-selling author. He’s not a digital superstar. He’s a nobody. And that’s a good thing. Because he wants you know something important. Anyone can publish an ebook.

LET’S GET DIGITAL is divided into three parts. The first is philosophy. Before we can understand the how, Gaughran says we need to understand the why. He starts by listing the reasons big publishers are in trouble and why print books are in a death spiral. He makes good points, but he also assumes that his readers have zero knowledge of the publishing industry. Most writers have spent years working (or trying to work) within that system and know it well, so this part won’t be of much use. Besides, the audience for this book won’t need convincing that they should self-publish. They’d just like to know how.

The second part is absolutely bursting with useful information. It covers the how-to of editing, covers, formatting, uploading to sales channels, and pricing. Throughout, Gaughran urges writers to produce nothing but their best, and shows them how to do just that. He also covers post-publication work like sales, marketing, and reviews. A lot of this is common sense and the information is widely available all over the internet. However, having it all in one convenient place feels like a gift.

Gaughran also discusses how to handle a sales slump. This is somewhat of a taboo subject among indie writers and Gaughran is courageous for tackling it. His advice is mostly of the “keep calm and carry on” sort, but he also offers a few tricks to goose sales such as a revamped book description and extra promo work. However, the only thing a writer can really do is keep writing. Nothing boosts sales of a book like more books.

Part three is inspiration. Thirty-three successful authors tell their own publication stories in short essays. Every author took a slightly different path, but some common themes emerged. Self-publishing wasn’t a lifelong dream for these authors. Many of them stumbled across the idea almost accidentally. Many authors also talked about the ease of self-publishing. Turning a finished manuscript into a book really isn’t that hard. All of the contributors exceeded their own expectations. Most are doing phenomenally well, seemingly overnight. This last one might be a bit of a downer for people who don’t immediately see big sales numbers, but they are called success stories for a reason.

The other thing that came up many times, from many authors, is the importance of other people. None of them succeeded alone. They all benefited from the strong indie community that has developed on the blogs, the Kindle boards, and Twitter. Writers have always helped writers by sharing what they know, and it’s clear Gaughran has that same generous spirit. The introduction is correct. With the information and inspiration found in LET’S GET DIGITAL, anyone can publish an ebook.

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rating: 4 stars

 

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This book is best for: intermediate to advanced writers

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I recommend this book

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age by Dale Carnegie and Brent Cole

In today’s online world, we often forget that our computers aren’t connecting us to other computers. They are connecting us to other people. Dale Carnegie’s ideas may seem old-fashioned to the digital generation, but Brent Cole has written an adaptation for modern life, reminding us that Carnegie’s simple yet timeless principles still work. In fact, they are needed now more than ever.

Too many writers on Twitter and Facebook talk constantly about their books. They are either telling their followers to buy their books, sharing quotes from their books, or linking to reviews. It’s as if they are shouting, “Look at me! See how clever I am? How popular?” It’s a huge turn off and not what people want to see on social networks.

Cole advises the opposite of most sales strategy. It’s not about you. It’s not about your book. It’s about the other person. What are his interests? How can you affirm his good self-image? How can you serve his needs? (Hint: it’s not by selling him a copy of your book!) In short, your ego needs to check out of the conversation. When it does, an amazing thing happens–people start paying attention to what you say. A side effect is that you’ll enjoy your time online much more. Wouldn’t you rather chat with friends than sell to clients?

Cole suggests you begin every digital encounter with the idea that you’re making a connection with a person. What good is another Twitter follower or another Facebook fan if you have no plan to stay connected long-term? The idea is conversation, not monologue. The days of unidirectional marketing are over.

Cole never discusses the difference between the social media platforms (blogging, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) or how to use each one to its fullest effect. I usually dislike books that tell you what to do without telling you how to do it. However, in this case, everyone’s “how” will be different, since the most important thing is to be authentic. Take a true, honest interest in the people you meet online. Make that human connection. In short, be the best version of yourself.

Carnegie and Cole can’t teach you how to do that, because you already know.

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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