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Posts Tagged book covers
I nearly made a big mistake.
You remember a few months ago I blogged about the development process for the cover of Lifeform Three.
Oh it was brilliantly nifty. To save you reading the original post, I made dummies of different concepts and asked people to interpret what they said about the book. I thought this was a good way to teach myself the language of covers, which I’m not exactly fluent in. But I have to confess there was one flaw. In my haste and certainty, I neglected one thing.
I didn’t get the opinion of someone who’d READ the final version.
Getting reviewer reactions was another thing I’ve left until the last possible moment. It’s because I like to do my ultimate edit when I’m making the paperback. If I see typos or edit to change line lengths, I want the print copy to be identical to the Kindle and ebook versions. Also, seeing it properly typeset is a great way to see errors or awkwardnesses you’ve got used to tuning out on your standard Word display. I wouldn’t recommend editing on page, though, unless you’re setting your own book interiors. An external designer won’t like all that faffing. (But you could change your font in a late editing stage and see what new horrors you spot.)
So. I finished my interior and zapped it off to the people who’d asked for advance copies. One of them came back: ‘That cover is badly wrong for this book. Really.’
I have to admit it was not what I needed to hear. Not after many months of on-off cogitation with no concepts that would work (the designer’s a friend, though he might not be now). By the time I got the final version we were out of ideas.
In case you’re wondering, it’s this:
When I tried it on my cover group, I liked some of the reactions. Nature, rebirth, 1970s sci fi (it is in the tradition of Ray Bradbury, so that was good). I also had aliens (no), apocalypse (no), body modification (thrice no!)
I thought that, bar a retune to quench the apocalypse, we were there.
Until my friend made his apologetic suggestion. And then proceeded to demonstrate, in a long email, that he understood my target readers better than I do. Darn, he was right.
This is what makes writing so curious – especially literary fiction. You think you’ve controlled everything the reader feels about this event and that character. You’ve set it up with minute care. You’ve made sure the themes are catching the right amount of light. You get your images and language humming together, your gut instincts are satisfied.
But it’s as if you’re making a machine, and you really don’t know what it does until you set it going inside the mind of a reader.
We’re used to getting feedback from critique partners and editors, but they’re so involved with the building of the book that they can’t judge it afresh. Certainly my lot had no more distance than I did, and in any case my overall thematic impression didn’t come together until the final edits. And although a designer would be able to give you the fresh perspective by reading the novel, they usually don’t have time to (except at the most prestigious end of traditional publishing). So now I’ve learned the value of keeping somebody back for this final stage, a reader who hasn’t seen the stumbling versions, who will test-drive the book and tell me what I’ve made.
At least this is the virtue of being indie. If we’re not tied into a list or a corporate look, we can try completely different identities for our books. That cover is one way to interpret the book for a particular market, maybe. But it’s not what I need to emphasise. Blitz it from your mind.
I’ll show you the new cover tomorrow. You will hoot when you see how drastically I nearly went wrong. Crumbs. Thank heavens for wise friends. (And if you’d like an advance review copy of Lifeform Three, email me on rozmorriswriter at gmail dotcom)
In the meantime, tell me: has someone stopped you making a big mistake with a book?
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Take a long look at this cover for Nail Your Novel, original flavour. In the next few days, it’s going to have a snazzy new outfit.
Proverbs notwithstanding, covers are perhaps our most potent marketing tool, so I thought I’d talk to various authors who’ve changed theirs with good results. My panel are literary authors Jessica Bell, Melissa Foster and Linda Gillard, chick-lit author Talli Roland, and travel writer and novelist Catherine Ryan Howard
Why did you change the cover of String Bridge?
I changed it twice. The first time was because my publisher closed and I had to put the book back on the market myself. The second, because it didn’t seem to attract attention, so I decided to go for a more commercial look.
How long had you had the old cover? Both for six months each.
Did it boost sales or interest?
The latest new cover did. The difference was phenomenal. The first free KDP promo I did with the second cover resulted in 2000 downloads. The second, with the latest cover, resulted in over 20,000 downloads. The latest cover is obviously more attractive to the mass consumer.
Were there any other results? Yes. More reviews!
Any tips for the changeover? Look at the covers of what’s hot on Amazon in the same genre as your book, and try to replicate the feel.
Why did you change? To rebrand my books. Chasing Amanda sold very well with the previous darker, more mysterious cover, but it occurred to me that while Chasing Amanda is also a novel that tugs at the heart of most parents—-and perhaps it was time to try a cleaner, fresher look, giving readers a visual understanding of that side of the story. It will be interesting to see if the audience changes with the imagery change.
How long had you had the previous cover? My first book (published in 2009) had the original cover for almost three years. My second had the original cover for about a year before it was changed.
Did the change boost sales or interest? It’s always hard to tell what has caused a bump in sales when you do more than one thing at once. When I recovered my books to self-publish, I also put more promotions into play to promote them. Given that, I’d say the combination helped.
Any other results? I believe branding is important and so are professional covers. Traditionally published authors rebrand every few years to breathe new life into old titles.
Any tips for the changeover? I’ve changed all my covers and there is little to no impact on sales during the change. The paperback will go off sale for those few days while it’s being approved. The Kindle book doesn’t miss a single day; it’s live while you change.
Any time a cover is upgraded, try a promotion that was done in the past, then compare the results.
Why did you change the cover of Untying The Knot?
I was about to bring out the paperback so decided to reassess. I wanted to make it reminiscent of House Of Silence, which is my big seller. I’ve always assumed it must be the cover that sells that book, so we went for a dramatic sky and interesting building.
Untying The Knot has had brilliant reviews, but doesn’t sell as well as some of my others. It had a Marmite cover – people loved it or hated it – but most of the feedback was negative, especially from people who’d read the book. They didn’t think it represented the tone or content. Untying The Knot looks at the destructive effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on a marriage, but there are elements of rom-com mixed in with the drama. It was difficult to come up with an image to suggest all that. My original cover was a surreal image of a bride fleeing with a suitcase across a rural landscape but readers thought it suggested chick lit. I realised you need to make sure the cover of a mixed-genre book doesn’t give out a mixed message. That confuses readers and doesn’t work in that crucial thumbnail in ebook stores.
How long had you had the previous cover? A long time. Since August 2011
Effect on sales etc It’s too early to tell, but the feedback on Facebook suggests people think the new cover is more suitable and more appealing.
Why did you change the cover of Backpacked?
Backpacked was my second travel memoir, and as the first (Mousetrapped) had been so successful, I wanted to keep the brand I’d inadvertently created: scrapbook image on the bottom, nice blue sky picture on the top, white band with title etc through the middle. I have a deep-rooted and somewhat worrying need for things to match, so doing it that way satisfied that requirement as well.
But Backpacked didn’t sell as well as I’d hoped, and when I started examining the cover – really examining it – it struck me that this design did nothing for this book (although it had worked for the first). It actually looked dowdy and dull. So I decided to entirely revamp the cover, focusing more on the content of this book instead of how much it did or didn’t match the previous one.
How long had you had the old cover? Almost a year. (I had to look that up and I was actually very surprised it took me that long to change it!)
Did changing the cover boost sales or interest? Absolutely. And it was immediate. Now, Backpacked is probably my best-reviewed book, and I think that’s because it’s reaching the right readers. By changing the cover I caught their attention, and identified the book as something they’d like to read. It’s been out now since 2011 but continues to sell a steady amount each month.
I would say, though, that a cover change does not automatically generate new interest or boost sales. I had a shortlived self-published novel whose cover I changed and although sales were boosted initially, it didn’t make any difference in the long run. A new cover will only work if it’s the cover the book should have had all along. Change alone doesn’t contribute much.
Any tips? Very important: unless it’s a new edition (i.e. you’ve changed the content considerably), do not create a new book. I know that technically, if you change the cover, you should create a new edition but the headache is not worth it. I went through a month-long migraine when I brought out a new edition of Mousetrapped in 2011, and boy did I learn my lesson!
It is so much easier to go to CreateSpace, Amazon KDP etc. and upload a new cover file than it is to make a whole new book with both editions available at the same time, which is very confusing. You might also affect your rankings and reviews. Simply swap the cover files and keep everything else the same.
Why did you change the cover of The Hating Game?
My publisher and I noticed my book was linked on Amazon with others of a different genre (mainly crime), so we suspected the cover wasn’t reaching the right audience. My novel was firmly chick lit, yet wasn’t being sold with other chick lit.
How long had you had the previous cover? We actually had two other covers before the current one. The first we’d had well before the launch of the book, and the second was live for a few weeks.
Result? When we finally hit on the right cover, the novel rocketed into the top 100 on Amazon within a week or so.
Any tips for the changeover? Explain the reasons, to avoid confusion. Although we only changed the ebook cover; by the time the book was in print, we’d found a cover that worked. Make sure the new cover addresses the genre you’re targeting, too.
Paranormal thriller author MARY MADDOX has an interesting tale of how she changed the cover of her novel Talion because she’d originally used a photo she loved – but readers told her (some rather rudely) that it was too abstract.
Do readers get confused?
One of the questions I was most interested in was whether readers become confused. The general consensus was no. The Kindle store warns you if you try to buy a book you’ve already downloaded. And although you can buy paperbacks more than once, no one reported a dreaded disgruntled review for that reason. Jessica Bell says publication dates are clearly labelled, so readers can tell it’s the same book. And Catherine Ryan Howard points out that readers are already used to covers changing in traditional publishing. ‘A book will have one design for the hardback and another for the paperback, and bestseller authors with extensive backlists get cover redesigns regularly. If the title, sub-title and blurb stay the same, how could anyone make such a mistake?’
Cover designer Jane Dixon-Smith has two useful tips to add. ‘If you’re designing a cover for a sequel, make sure it matches in terms of quality and style Second, it’s important to change a cover if it’s an improvement to your image and the assurance of your quality and brand.’
You’ll have to wait a day or two while the new cover of Nail Your Novel worms its way through the works at CreateSpace et al. But don’t go too far because I’ll be back with an unveiling post AND a very special competition…
In the meantime, let’s talk about changing covers. Have you changed any of yours? Are you thinking about it? Are you happy with your covers, and why? Do you have any other questions you’d like to discuss?
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They talk about an exciting two-way process where they discuss images and typographical treatments. But you can’t direct a designer unless you know what your cover should say. And that’s my problem with Life Form Three, which I’ve decided I’ll publish later this year. Perhaps it’s yours too, especially if you have a novel you’re told is too original and doesn’t fit a genre. This is how I’ve solved it.
I decided to do market research. And it’s turned out to be incredibly helpful.
What I did
I picked an emblematic scene from the book and roughed out a cover to illustrate it. I sent it to friends, who I figured might like the book but in different ways. I included a few hyper-critical writers too, because I knew they would give me the truth.
I also found I got more honest critical comment when I asked friends to show the cover to their spouses and report back. If the spouse didn’t have to worry about hurting my feelings, they were far more brutal.
I didn’t ask: ‘do you like this cover’. A ‘yes’ or ‘no’ doesn’t tell you anything. Instead my questions were: What is this book about? What does it say to you? (They’ll tell you anyway whether they like it.)
Do they already know anything about Life Form Three? No – and that’s the point. They are interpreters telling me what I’ve just said in a language I don’t yet speak. I thanked them for their feedback and explained that I wasn’t going to tell them whether their responses were on the right track or not in case I needed to use them again.
I repeated the experiment with another rough cover in a very different style, and gathered another bunch of useful responses. I added more guinea pigs who hadn’t seen the previous version.
What did it cost?
Nothing, except time researching images (which was considerable – so start well in advance). The pictures for the first cover were roughs from photo libraries, which they’ll let you download free to make dummy designs. The second cover was a detail from a painting I knew I could license. I can’t show you either of them here because I don’t have the reproduction rights. (Also, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea – my jurors have been sworn to secrecy!)
Did it work?
Totally. I was very surprised by some of the responses – and that showed how much I needed their feedback. And this brings me to another point. Don’t do a test if the results won’t influence what you do next. With both trial covers, I thought I was onto a good concept. When I tested them, I discovered flaws I couldn’t have thought of.
But after these two exercises, I have clarity. Even though neither cover was right, I know what the real thing should say and I can brief a designer. (And my guinea pigs are still in suspense…)
What kind of brief do you need to provide? A designer won’t have time to read your book. Send a synopsis that captures not just the events but gives a flavour of the storytelling style. Also list the target audience including age group, imagery and themes that might be of special significance or scenes that could carry the spirit of the whole work. Also explain why you chose the title, as the art should enhance it or create intriguing tension. And let the designer know if you want to leave room for blurb quotes and loglines.
Do it early
I’m not going to publish Life Form Three until at least autumn, but I need the cover in advance because that will set the tone for everything else. The blurb and any publicity materials will be created to make sense of it. So it’s essential that the book’s outside is faithful to the inside.
Footnote: how the other half lives
Funnily enough, as I’ve been moving mountains for the right cover, a traditionally published friend is having a very different experience. I know indies are probably past the stage where we have to stress that our production processes are up to professional standards, but this left me reeling.
Out of the blue my author friend was sent a cover by the art director. He hadn’t been consulted about it. It would be worth getting his input too, as he’s been a bestselling children’s author for more than a decade and knows what covers have sold well to his readership. He tells me that when he signed the contract he emailed the art director and offered to send briefing notes, but was curtly told: ‘We don’t need your notes. We know what we’re doing’.
So did they? No. The cover they designed was catastrophically inappropriate. They didn’t ask about the the age group, so they made it look too juvenile. While the book’s competitors have slick images that look like computer games, this cover featured big typography (ie it was cheaper than proper art) and thumbnail graphics. Even the font gave the wrong messages – it suggested the setting was the wild west, whereas the book is set in ancient Persia. Now the author is locked in a dispiriting argument with the publisher about a cover he knows will be a disaster.
You know what? I’m glad I have control of my cover.
How have you decided what to put on the cover of your novel? How have you made sure it sends the right signals? Have you changed a cover so that it could find its true audience?
(I haven’t finished with covers yet. I may need jurors for Life Form Three Version 3. If you’d like to be one of the secret clan, email me or sign up to my newsletter)
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I had an email the other day from a writer who wanted to hire me to critique his novel, and said he’d already had it proof-read and copy edited at considerable expense. He wasn’t pleased when I pointed out that his money had probably been wasted.
Most professional critiques will raise enough points for a major rewrite, so you need to be prepared for that. Paying to get your manuscript copy-edited and proofed before this is not terribly sensible.
But if you’ve never been through the publishing process before, how do you know when to hire what help?
Here’s a critical path.
1. Write, revise etc. Send to beta-readers. Do you need to have the manuscript proof-read for them? No. Just try to make it as clear of errors as you can. There may be a lot of changes to come. When they give you feedback, revise as necessary.
2. When the book is the best you can make it, hire a professional editor.
3. When you get the report back, allow plenty of time for an in-depth rewrite. You may not need this, of course, but too many first-time writers tell me they’ve allowed just two weeks to whack through points raised in my notes. But what if I said a couple of characters needed to be spliced together, a sub-plot needed to be strengthened, your novel’s middle had a sludgy bit where nothing happened, the relationship between a pair of characters needed more complexity, your dialogue needed more spice? Any one of those points would probably take you more than a few weeks to sort but these are typical problem areas. Even seasoned novelists might find a critique throws up a fundamental problem – and so they know to allow plenty of time for this phase.
Why couldn’t these problems be spotted by beta readers? Obviously it depends who your beta readers are, but they tend not to have the book doctor’s eye. They’ll react like laypeople and fans of the genre. They’re extremely good for highlighting places they’re confused, losing interest, don’t believe what’s happening and characters they like and don’t like. But not for the real diagnosis and surgery.
4 Once you’ve rewritten – and preferably run the new version past some more readers, you’re ready for copy-editing.
What’s copy-editing? It’s checking the niggly details. Does Fenella always have blue eyes? Have you got a consistent style for spellings and hyphenation? Are the facts straight, as far as facts are relevant? Does the timeline work? Do any characters accidentally disappear? Are passages repeated from the inevitable cutting and pasting that went on in all the editing phases? As you can see, there will be a lot more changes from this stage. So sort all these questions out and only then…
5 …. proof-read or hire someone to do this. Proof-reading is for the final text, when you are ready to publish.
Another big mistake authors make is to get their cover designed too early. Yes, it’s so exciting to have a cover; believe me, I know. It means you’re Really Going To Publish It. But your cover must reflect the emotional promise of the book.
With some genres that will be easy because the story elements won’t change, but if your thematic emphasis might, you might not be fit to discuss covers until you’ve done your post-critique rewrite.
Don’t get your cover designed until you’ve made a final decision about the title. The title is part of the visual design, and a designer will position pictures, textures and so on so that they fit with the shape and size of the words. The images might have been chosen to go with the words too. If you change the title, chaos beckons (and probably more expense).
Once you’ve made the decision to self-publish and do it properly, it’s easy to panic about things being rough. But don’t rush to complete too quickly. Use my schedule to make sure you’re not putting the cart before the horse.
Do you have any advice to add? What mistakes do you see writers making when they hire professional help? Have you had to learn the hard way yourself?
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
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I’ve had an email from writer/poet Philippa Rees , who is weighing up whether to use CS or LS for her book. Dave and I have published with both for a number of years, so here’s what we’d say from personal experience…
Philippa: My book is a poetic history of scientific thought. It’s a dip-in-and-return work, most likely to be read in print (although I will put it out as an ebook too). I have seen some VERY amateurish CS-designed books, fairly dire, and some acceptable ones.
Eek, I take it you’re referring to the covers?
CS offers templates for covers and urges you to use them, but I recommend you don’t. For one thing, they’re familiar enough that they yell ‘CreateSpace!’ to anyone who’s been on the CS site. Not that there’s any stigma, but you want your cover to yell about your book, not the company whose rather recognisable template you used.
You don’t have to use CS templates. You can upload a PDF, created by any package you want, either by yourself or a designer, so long as you leave space for their barcode and calculate the correct spine width from your page count. They give you an easy help page to get this all right – and indeed they have excellent help resources in the CS Community.
Although covers may look easy, if you don’t have experience, please, please use a designer. Your book is intended to be taken seriously and it needs a cover to do your words justice. The wrong design, even if it looks nice to you, might send the wrong message to readers. If you’re prioritising what to budget for this is a one-time investment that will do your book endless good.
So far, I’ve designed my own covers, but if I found I was out of my depth (which is extremely likely with my next novel) here’s where I’d look.
- 99 Designs – a design site that lets you host a competition to find the ideal designer for your book. Post your requirements and budget and professional designers will pitch for it. You only pay if you commission a suggestion.
- Smashwords has a list of cover designers that other Smashwords authors have used and would recommend, both for ebooks and for print – email email@example.com and ask for ‘Mark’s list’ (that’s Mark Coker,the very approachable inventor of Smashwords).
- The Book Designer – fantastic site by design veteran Joel Friedlander. He holds monthly book design competitions, so you can browse and find a designer whose work hits your sweet spot. He also writes some of the help entries on the CS site, though he’s not affiliated with them. He’s just a generous-spirited, knowledgeable guy.
When talking to a designer, make sure they know the book will be print on demand. POD processes sometimes don’t crop a book straight, or line up the spine precisely – so you need a design to forgive that kind of error.
Interior design CS also provides a Word template for the interior. Dave tried it, and while it was quick to use and saves you worrying about page sizes and margins, it has glitches. For instance, it insisted on an ‘acknowledgements’ page and when he tried to delete it everything else went haywire. But again, you can upload your interior on a PDF – and that way you have complete control.
Dave and I create our book covers and interiors on Serif PagePlus – much cheaper than the top-end packages like Adobe InDesign, and more versatile than Word. Here’s my post on formatting the interior of My Memories of a Future Life. It’s fiddly, but if it gives you an attack of the vapours, freelance designers can do it for you.
Europe, Australia etc
Philippa: I understand Amazon is difficult about stocking books put out by LS, yet LS may be better for distribution to Europe and Australia.
We’ve frequently found our Amazon listings for LS books are quoted as out of stock or ‘available in six weeks’, for no reason. When queried, Amazon reply that they get the data from the supplier. The supplier said the book was available. In fact, when you do order, the books arrive as fast as any other book. But buyers don’t know this. The same used to happen when I published Nail Your Novel with Lulu.
Pause a moment to growl and stomp.
Initially, LS gets books to the European Amazon sites more quickly. When you approve for press, the cover artwork goes up within a week. With CS, books go to Amazon.com immediately but expanded distribution to the UK site and further takes a good two weeks, sometimes more.
Some writers make CS editions to sell on Amazon, and LS editions for other channels. I’m not sure about the logic of that because once the book is up it’s up.
You make more profit per copy on LS than you do on CS, but LS charges setup fees – GBP£42 to set up each title, and a handsome hourly fee to give you proof copies. If you want to make changes on LS books that can get you into more expense and if there’s something wrong with your files they’ll charge you while they fret about it. As their PDF requirements are a lot more strict than CS, you could find yourself spending a lot of time and cash if you’re new to this.
CS don’t have any hidden charges. Proof copies don’t cost any more than ordinary copies. However, CS quotes long shipping times (6 weeks) in the hope you’ll stump up for express shipping – especially if you’re eager to get your proof. Ignore those quotes and get the cheap option – it’s never taken anything like 6 weeks for me to receive a proof copy.
Advance review copies
Philippa: I plan to print pre-publication copies to get (and then add) endorsements for the final edition.
As I said, proofs cost you dear on LS. So I’d set up a rough ARC edition either on CS or Lulu, where proofs are cheaper. Then if you’re still keen on LS, save your proofing budget for the final, sparkling copy. If you want to stick with CS, changes are easy – upload a new PDF, wait a day or two and check the proof either on line or order a copy.
Don’t try to do without a hard proof copy entirely. Margins in the printed book may not look as you expect. Cropping can make cover proportions look totally different. Colours can look sludgy or gaudy in the flesh, even if the PDF looked luscious.
Use Amazon Marketplace
Do you know Amazon Marketplace? Individuals can sell anything that’s on the Amazon database. A lot of people use it to resell secondhand books, but authors often use them to offload surplus contractual copies and online shops also sell that way. I have a stock of my CS books and put them on Amazon Marketplace to fill supply gaps, for instance -
- - for limbo days when my print copies are unavailable because I’ve updated the cover or interior.
- - for distributing my books to people who are outside the usual Amazon areas; if people contact me saying they can’t get my book, I direct them to Marketplace or sell them a copy directly using Paypal.
Philippa: What about the tax issue for a non US writer publishing with CS?
As with Kindle, CS deducts 30% from your earnings unless you send an exemption form, for which you need a US tax code. Here’s how you get it. I’d advise you sort the paperwork before you start selling, as CS can’t refund you the tax. You have to apply to the IRS, which by all accounts is like shutting your eyes and wishing really hard.
Phillipa: What’s CS service like?
I’ve been pleased so far. Their support team are quick to answer questions, and patient with what must be moronic queries. Mind you, I haven’t had any real problems, which is usually the acid test. Dave had mighty problems with a graphic novel he was producing with LS, and found their UK help people were clueless and obstructive. But that was a full-colour book with high-resolution graphics. With straightforward text we’ve had no problems.
Is the Amazon connection with CS a genuine benefit?
Undoubtedly. As we’ve seen, it seems to be ‘easier’ to keep a CS title in stock.
I find my CS titles regularly get promoted in ‘three-for-two’ offers (see pic) – especially Nail Your Novel. It gets offered with other top-selling writing titles – priceless promotion that you couldn’t buy. This never happened – ever – when my print edition of Nail Your Novel was on Lulu.
Philippa: My book is probably the most unmarketable book ever written. I believe it will have a market but it will be up to me to find it. Do you know of anyone who has signed up for CS ‘marketing’ help?
I don’t, and I’d like to hear from people who have. But I would be wary of standard packages, especially for unusual works such as yours. Expert help is always worth paying for, but it has to be the right expert.
What works for one book won’t work for another – as I know from the vastly different experiences of marketing an offbeat novel starting from a writing advice platform! To be honest, I’m still guessing – I’m soaking up lessons from novelists who have marketed successfully but the less easily you fit a widely read genre, the fewer equivalents you have. Bide your time, understand who your audience is, and find out how similar writers have reached theirs. If an expert for marketing your book is out there, one day you’ll trip over them.
And – good luck!
Any further questions? Share them in the comments! And comment if you have any further answers, or particularly if you want to set something straight
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