Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published

How to Get Your Book Published

It’s the most frequently asked question I receive: How do I get my book published?

This post is regularly updated to offer the most critical information for writers new to the publishing industry, and to provide a starting point for more fully exploring what it means to try and get meaningfully published.

This post focuses on traditional publishing.

In a traditional publishing arrangement, the publisher pays you for the right to publish your work for a specific period of time. Traditional publishers assume all costs and pay the author an advance and royalties.

How do you find or get a traditional publisher to work with you? You must persuade them to accept your work and offer you a contract. You can do this by pitching them via mail or at a conference, or by finding a literary agent.

If you’re wondering how much it “costs” to publish, then you’re not thinking of traditional publishing, but self-publishing. I have a separate post on how to self-publish.

A Brief Note for Young Writers

I receive emails daily from tween and teenage writers who wonder about age requirements for getting published. You don’t have to be any particular age to write and publish a book. When I worked at a traditional publishing house, I even signed an author who was still in high school, but his parents also had to sign his publishing contract because he was a minor. However, before you decide to jump into the publishing world, consider the following:

  • You get better at writing as you do more of it. Focus on your writing, not so much on publishing.
  • Look for a teacher or mentor who can guide you. Seek out other writers your own age and share work with each other. Start a writing group at your school if there isn’t one.
  • If you’re itching to get your writing out there, and want readers beyond your own circle, consider Wattpad. It’s a friendly community of writers and readers, with many people your own age.

5 Basic Steps to Getting a Book Published

Getting your book published is a step-by-step process of:

  1. Determining your genre or category of work.
  2. Assessing the commercial potential of your work.
  3. Researching the appropriate agents or publishers for your work.
  4. Reading submission guidelines of agents and/or publishers.
  5. Submitting your materials to agents and/or publishers.

1. Determine Your Work’s Genre or Category

First, are you writing fiction or nonfiction? Novelists (fiction writers) follow a different path to publication than nonfiction authors.

  • Novels and memoirs: Finish your manuscript before approaching editors/agents. You may be very excited about your story idea, or about having a partial manuscript, but it’s almost never a good idea to pitch your work to a publishing professional at such an early stage. Finish the work first—make it the best manuscript you possibly can. Seek out a writing critique group or mentor who can offer you constructive feedback, then revise your story. Be confident that you’re submitting your best work. One of the biggest mistakes new writers make is rushing to get published. In 99% of cases, there’s no reason to rush.
  • For most nonfiction: Rather than completing a manuscript, you should write a book proposal—like a business plan for your book—that will convince a publisher to contract and pay you to write the book. Find out more information on book proposals and how to write one. You need to methodically research the market for your idea before you begin to write the proposal. Find other titles that are competitive or comparable to your own; make sure that your book is unique, but also doesn’t break all the rules of the category it’s meant to succeed in.

Fiction genres

Some of the most common novel genres are: young adult, romance, erotica, women’s fiction, mystery, crime, thriller, and science fiction & fantasy. Work that doesn’t fall into a clear-cut genre is sometimes called “mainstream fiction.” Literary fiction encompasses the classics you were taught in English literature, as well as contemporary fiction (e.g., Jonathan Franzen, Margaret Atwood, or Hillary Mantel). But there’s a lot of disagreement as to what “literary fiction” is.

Here’s an excellent summary of novel genres.

Nonfiction categories

Some of the most popular nonfiction categories are business, self-help, health, and memoir. Within the publishing industry, nonfiction is often discussed as falling under two major, broad categories: prescriptive (how-to, informational, or educational) and narrative (memoir, narrative nonfiction, creative nonfiction). You can get a sense of what nonfiction categories exist by browsing Amazon’s categories (see lefthand navigation) or simply visiting a bookstore.

2. Assess Your Work’s Commercial Potential

There are different levels of commercial viability: some books are “big” books suitable for Big Five traditional publishers (e.g., Penguin, HarperCollins), while others are “quiet” books, suitable for mid-size and small presses. The most important thing to remember is that not every book is cut out to be published by a New York house, or represented by an agent, but most writers have a difficult time being honest with themselves about their work’s potential. Here are some rules of thumb about what types of books are suitable for a Big Five traditional publisher:

  • Genre or commercial fiction: romance, erotica, mystery, crime, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, young adult
  • Nonfiction books that would get shelved in your average Barnes & Noble or indie bookstore—which requires a strong hook or concept and author platform. Usually a New York publisher won’t sign a nonfiction book unless they anticipate selling 10,000–20,000 copies minimum.

Works that can be a tough sell—again, if you’re looking at traditional publishers:

  • Books that exceed 120,000 words, depending on genre
  • Poetry, short story, or essay collections–unless you’re a known quantity, or have a platform
  • Nonfiction books by authors without expertise, authority, or visibility to the target audience
  • Memoirs with common story lines—such as the death of a loved one, mental illness, caring for aging parents—but no unique angle into the story (you haven’t sufficiently distinguished your experience—no hook)
  • Literary and experimental fiction

To better understand what sells, buy a subscription to PublishersMarketplace.com, and study the deals that get announced. It’s a quick education in what commercial publishing looks like.

If your work doesn’t look like a good candidate for a New York house, don’t despair. There are many mid-size houses, independent publishers, small presses, university presses, regional presses, and digital-only publishers who might be thrilled to have your work. You just need to find them. (See Step 3.)

The Question of Quality

If you write fiction or memoir, the writing quality usually matters above all else if you want to be traditionally published. Read in your genre, practice your craft, and polish your work. Repeat this cycle endlessly. It’s not likely your first attempt will get published. Your writing gets better with practice and time. You mature and develop.

If you write nonfiction, the marketability of your idea (and your platform) often matter as much as the writing, if not more so. The quality of the writing may only need to be serviceable, depending on the category we’re talking about. (Certainly there are higher demands for narrative nonfiction than prescriptive.)

Deciding If You Need an Agent

In today’s market, probably 80 percent of books that the New York publishing houses acquire are sold to them by agents. Agents are experts in the publishing industry. They have inside contacts with specific editors and know better than writers what editor or publisher would be most likely to buy a particular work.

Perhaps most important, agents negotiate the best deal for you, ensure you are paid accurately and fairly, and run interference when necessary between you and the publisher. The best agents are career advisers and managers.

Traditionally, agents get paid only when they sell your work, and receive a 15% commission on everything you get paid (your advance and royalties). Avoid agents who charge fees.

So … do you need an agent?

It depends on what you’re selling. If you want to be published by one of the major New York houses (e.g., Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, etc), probably.

If you’re writing for a niche market (e.g., vintage automobiles), or have an academic or literary work, then you might not need one. Agents are motivated to represent clients based on the size of the advance they think they can get. If your project doesn’t command a sizable advance (at least 5 figures), then you may not be worth an agent’s time, and you’ll have to sell the project on your own.

For a fuller discussion of literary agents, click here.

3. Research Publishers and Agents Appropriate for Your Work

Once you know what you’re selling, it’s time to research which publishers or agents accept the type of work you’ve written. Again, be aware that most New York publishers do not accept unagented submissions—so this list includes where to find both publishers and agents. This is not an exhaustive list of where you can find listings, but a curated list assuming you want to focus on the highest-quality sources.

  • WritersMarket.com. Thousands of listings can be found here—it’s by far the best place to research book publishers. You’ll have to pay a modest monthly fee to access their database. You can also purchase the print edition, which comes with free access to the online database.
  • PublishersMarketplace.com. This is the best place to research literary agents; not only do many have member pages here, but you can search the publishing deals database by genre, category, and/or keyword to pinpoint the best agents for your work. Subscription required.
  • AgentQuery.com. About 1,000 agent listings and an excellent community/resource for any writer going through the query process. Free.
  • QueryTracker.net. About 200 publisher listings and 1,000 agent listings. Basic service is free.
  • Duotrope.com. Geared toward the literary market; very useful if you’re shopping around poetry, short stories, essays, or literary novels. Subscription required.

4. Read the Submission Guidelines and Prepare Your Materials

Every agent and publisher has unique requirements for submitting your materials. The most common materials you’ll be asked for:

  • Query letter. This is a 1-page pitch letter that gives a brief description of your work. (More on this below.)
  • Novel synopsis. This is a brief summary (usually no more than 1-2 pages) of your story, from beginning to end. It must reveal the ending. Here’s how to write one.
  • Nonfiction book proposal. These are complex documents, usually 20-30 pages in length, if not double that. For more explanation, see my comprehensive post. 
  • Novel proposal. This usually refers to your query letter, a synopsis, and perhaps the first chapter. There is not an industry standard definition of what a “novel proposal” is.
  • Sample chapters. When sending sample chapters from your novel or memoir, start from the beginning of the manuscript. (Don’t select a middle chapter, even if you think it’s your best.) For nonfiction, usually any chapter is acceptable.

The All-Important Query Letter

The query letter is the time-honored tool for writers seeking publication. It’s essentially a sales letter that attempts to persuade an editor or agent to request a full manuscript or proposal.

5. Submit Your Materials

Almost no agent or editor accepts full manuscripts on first contact. This is what “No unsolicited materials” means when you read submission guidelines. However, almost every agent or publisher will accept a one-page query letter unless their guidelines state otherwise. (If they do not accept queries, that means they are a completely closed market.)

After you send out queries, you’ll get a mix of responses, including:

  • No response at all, which is usually a rejection.
  • A request for a partial manuscript and possibly a synopsis.
  • A request for the full manuscript.

If you receive no requests for the manuscript or book proposal, then there might be something wrong with your query. If you succeed in getting your material requested, but then get rejected, there may be a weakness in the manuscript or proposal.

How Long Should You Keep Querying?

Some authors are rejected hundreds of times (over a period of years) before they finally get an acceptance. If you put years of time and effort into a project, don’t abandon it too quickly. Look at the rejection slips for patterns about what’s not working. Rejections can be lessons to improve your writing.

Ultimately, though, some manuscripts have to be put in the drawer because there is no market, or there isn’t a way to revise the work successfully. Most authors don’t sell their first manuscript, but their second or third (or fourth!).

Protecting the Rights to Your Work

You have nothing to fear in submitting your query or manuscript to an agent or publisher. If you’re worried about protecting your ideas, well, you’re out of luck—ideas can’t be protected under copyright, and no publisher or agent will sign a nondisclosure agreement or agree to talk with a paranoid writer who doesn’t trust them. (Just being blunt here.)

If you’re worried about protecting your copyright, then I have good news: your work, under law, is protected from the moment you put it in tangible form. You can find out more about protecting your rights here.

Do you have to “know someone” to get your work read or considered?

No, but referrals, connections or communities can certainly help! See the related question below about conferences.

The Self-Publishing Option

Typically, writers who get frustrated by the endless process of submission and rejection often look to self-publishing for satisfaction. Why waste countless months or years trying to please this or that picky agent/editor when you can easily get your book available on Kindle (or as print-on-demand) at almost no cost to you?

Such options may afford you the ability to hold your book in your hands, but it rarely leads to your physical book reaching bookstore shelves—which ends up surprising authors who’ve been led to believe otherwise.

Self-publishing requires significant and persistent effort into marketing and promotion, not to mention an entrepreneurial mindset. It usually takes a few books out on the market before you can really gain momentum, and most first-time authors don’t like to hear that—they’re not that committed to writing without an immediate payoff or some greater validation.

Finally, most self-published authors find that selling their book is just as hard—if not harder than—finding a publisher or agent.

That said, independent authors are fiercely passionate about their work and their process, and some are much happier and satisfied going it alone. But those who succeed and profit often devote years of their life, if not their entire lives, to marketing and promoting their work. In short: It’s a ton of work, like starting a small business (if you do it right).

So, you can self-publish, but it all depends on your goals and what will satisfy you. To learn more: Start Here: How to Self-Publish Your Book.

Posting Your Work Online

Many writers wonder if they’ll ruin their chances at traditional publication if they self-publish an ebook, use Wattpad, or put chapters on their website. In brief, no, you are not ruining your chances. Read more about this issue here.

What You Need to Understand About the Publishing Industry

  • Publishing is a business, just like Hollywood or Broadway. Publishers, editors, and agents support authors or projects that will make money and provide a good return on investment. It used to be that this return on investment could happen over a period of years or several books. Now, it needs to happen with one book and in less than one year.
  • Professionalism and politeness go a long way toward covering up any amateur mistakes you might make along the way.
  • Unless you live under a lucky star, you will get rejected again and again and again. The query and submission process takes enormous dedication and persistence. We’re talking about years of work. Novelists and memoirists often face the biggest battle—there’s enormous competition.
  • Never call an agent or editor to query or ask questions (or just chat) if you are not a client or author. Never query by telephone—and I wouldn’t do it even if the guidelines recommend it. You’ll mess it up.
  • Agents and editors do not want you (a non-client or author) to visit them at their offices. Do not plan a visit to New York and go knocking on doors, and don’t ask an agent/editor for a lunch or coffee appointment if you don’t have a relationship already. If you’d like to interact with an agent or editor, attend a writers conference.
  • When working with a traditional publisher, you have to give up a lot of power and control. The publisher gets to decide the cover, the title, the design, the format, the price, etc. You have to go through rounds of revisions and will likely have to change things you don’t want to change. But you must approach the process like a professional, not a high-maintenance artiste.
  • You’ll be far more attractive to a publisher if they believe you’ll be an active marketer and promoter of your book. If you come to the table with media savvy or an established platform (audience or readership), you’ll have an easier time getting that first deal.
  • For nonfiction authors: Don’t go looking for a publishing deal because you need the authority or platform that a book can give you. Rather, you must already have the platform and authority, and thus be qualified to write a book. YOU bring the audience to the publisher, not the reverse.

Why You Should Attend Writing Conferences

Your education and insight into the industry will advance exponentially. You’ll gain an understanding that’s often impossible from just reading about it. You will meet agents and editors, and start to see them as real people. If you have an appointment or consultation with a publishing professional, it will shorten your path to publication. You can get the reasons, immediately, that an agent or editor may not be responding favorably to your work.

Many writers are familiar with the reasons to attend conferences, but not all understand how to get more out of them. Here are 3 ways you can get the most out of your experience.

  • Select a conference where you can meet with a specific author, editor or agent who is absolutely ideal for your work (after lengthy and intensive research). Get a critique session or an appointment—but only if you feel like you’ve taken your work as far as you possibly can on your own. This is important.
  • During any formal appointments or critiques, plan to talk about 10-20% of the time. Before meeting, develop a specific list of questions that, if you had the answers, you would know specifically what your next steps are (for your project or your career) when you leave. Do not attend any appointment expecting to be offered a deal or representation. Go for the learning experience and the opportunity to have a professional consultation. That’s what it is.
  • Closely study the backgrounds/bios of every speaker, agent, and editor who is attending. Be knowledgeable for any chance conversations you have; having this knowledge will also spark questions you could ask during panels or social hours. Don’t be the person who asks the obvious question you could’ve figured out by paying attention to the program. Delve deeper. Make your questions count.

When to Hire Professional Help

Should you hire a freelance editor to help improve your manuscript before submitting? There’s no one right answer for everyone, but I discuss considerations and guidelines here.

Reasons You Might Fail to Get Published

  • You rush to submit your work before it’s ready. This is particularly true of writers who are dizzy with excitement after having just completed their very first book-length manuscript. But if you’ve just spent months (or years!) writing a manuscript, why rush it to an agent or editor, and why rush it to just ANY agent or editor? And why rush it if you’re new to the publishing business?
  • It’s tough to achieve objectivity. When you finish a significant manuscript or proposal that took a long time to complete, you need time away and distance to assess it without feeling attached. And especially if you’re trying to identify, from a market or commercial standpoint, why your work is appealing to agents or editors, a great amount of distance is required. This is my theory on why so many queries and proposals fail. The work itself may be outstanding, but the writer hasn’t achieved the necessary distance to either evaluate or communicate the commercial merit of her own work.
  • It’s tough to make progress without a mentor. A good critique partner can be invaluable to your growth as a writer. When you don’t have the time or willingness to take enough steps back from your work, or see its flaws, others can offer a really hard push.
  • It’s easy to take validation from family and friends as a sign you ought to write and publish. Has your family encouraged you? Have your friends told you that you’re a brilliant writer? Do your children love your stories? While you need support, you also need to ignore what these people are telling you. They’re not publishing professionals. You need to write because you can’t do anything else. Because you would suffer if you didn’t. Your motivation to write has to come from within. Don’t write (only) because you were given validation or permission by someone close to you. What you really need (require) is your own inner conviction.

Publishing 101Also consider: What is your motivation for trying to get published? A little self-reflection might be in order before you chase after an agent or publisher. Read my post 3 Questions Every Creative Person Must Ask.

Mostly what this game boils down to is patience. If you don’t have it, you will get frustrated and give up.

If you’d like an in-depth guide on getting published:

 


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Jane Friedman
Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
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4 years 10 days ago

You mention the marketing aspect involved in self-publishing and the expectation of the same with a traditional publisher. What do you see as the difference between marketing a self-pub and a traditionally published book? In reading other people’s thoughts, the author’s involvement appears to be key in either situation.

Caroline Townsend
8 months 1 day ago

Dear Jane, I am a young author, (not yet published), at the age of 13. Amazing, so I’ve been told, but I don’t really think so. I aspire to be published this year, if possible. I’m afraid that publishers or editors might overlook my work, or not give it a second look because of my age. I’ve heard many doubts, such as “You’re too young,” and I understand that I am a minor, and I cannot self publish. (Am I correct..?) But this information has helped me quite a lot, and I have a few questions… I don’t know if… Read more »

NAP
4 years 10 days ago

Great info, Jane!

Anonymous
4 years 9 days ago

Thanks, Jane. I passed your link to a few likely folks who need to know what reality looks like. One point I’d like to make is that publishing houses rarely offer book editing and normally not for new authors at all. That is to be accomplished on the author’s own dime prior to submitting. The in-house editor is more like the manuscript’s champion, not the partner in publication. It is also true that the book doctors and editors sometime make more $$ from a book than the author! 

January 23, 2012. Publishing your book « J. R. Lingerfelt's Blog
4 years 9 days ago

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Patricia Gligor
4 years 9 days ago

Great post, Jane!
There are two things I’d like to mention on the subject.
First, finding a critique group of like minded writers is invaluable because, as you wrote, “it’s tough to achieve objectivity” about your own writing.
Secondly, small press publishers bridge the gap between the large publishing houses who require you to have an agent and the other option: self-publishing.

4 years 9 days ago

Hey Jane, bookmarking this doesn’t seem enough. I’ve said this before about your articles and I’ll say it again for this post: I just want to make wallpaper out of it and use it. What you offer here is thorough, detailed and informative insight and it feels like it’s coming from a friend. The advice is genuine and objective. Thank you.

Rosie Pova

4 years 9 days ago

Hey Jane, let me ask you this. Is it true that a great query letter can sell a mediocre manuscript and a bad query can kill a good one?

Cgblake55
4 years 8 days ago

Jane,
Outstanding post. This really covers everything an aspiriring writer needs to know. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and insights.

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4 years 1 day ago

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4 years 10 hours ago

Excellent piece, Jane.  You  have ended on what (through years and years of work) I consider the most important advice of all — patience.

Antoinettelaforce
3 years 11 months ago

Thank you, Jane Friedman !… Much appreciated !… 

Carissa101
3 years 11 months ago

Im writing a book and im very young  how can i get it published at a young age?

AB
3 years 11 months ago

Thanks for the great info. I don’t want to be too cynical, but how can I best protect my work if a mentor or trusted advisor tries to rip off my ideas?

3 years 11 months ago

[…] Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published by Jane Friedman […]

3 years 11 months ago

[…] Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published by Jane Friedman — Great questions to ask yourself about the best way for you to be published. Focus is on the traditional route. […]

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Valerie Nieman
3 years 10 months ago

A great summary! I’m sending the link to my students.

skfigler
3 years 10 months ago

I found this thorough and enlightening post two months after publication, but better late…  It reinforces my decision to drop my pursuit of traditional publishing in favor of self-pub primarily because I reject being at their mercy on virtually everything.  (Experience: three non-fiction books.)  Also, how about this for a stalled-on-the-tracks-with-with-trains-coming-from-both-directions dilemma?:  One of the big 6 publishers said she loved the characters but couldn’t believe the conflict, while another said she loved the conflict but the characters were not real enough.  I’m happy to have a viable alternative to the old way.

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3 years 10 months ago

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Bdscott67
3 years 9 months ago

Thanks, I really appreciate this.  I am in the process of writing a book, and I have found your info. to be extremely helpful.

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Shearlygiftedbygod
3 years 9 months ago

The advice you gave Jane was great. I am a 31 yr old single parent. No college experience just a hair stylist and writing is a great hobby of mine. I have hand written my first book which is front and back I must day sadly but its a start.its not your tradional love story nor is it blood and murder but its really great. Just need it read by someonr who knows something! Laughing at myself… thanks Jane

How to turn your blog into a book | WP Assistant
3 years 9 months ago

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Zipperhead2011
3 years 8 months ago

This may be a dumb question, but can I expect to spend a large amount of money trying to get published? Not counting gas for tripps, etc. I mean, should I be expecting to pay anyone up front for anything? This is very important as I am on a very fixed income but writing is my life and have decided to give it a go. Very beginning stages here.Where can I find a list of agents or writers conferences? 

Slj812000
3 years 8 months ago

Jane, your information is wonderful. Thank you for sharing it! I do have a question for you. Beyond going to writing conferences to find peer groups, mentors and critiquers, where else may these be found? You mention that using family and friends may not be the best option because they may inadvertently cause a kind of ‘big-head’ syndrome. Where might I find objective mentors/critiquers if I do not have the ability to attend conferences?

Leah0971
3 years 8 months ago

I have a question. I’m young almost 13. Would I still be able to go to writing conferences to help me with my possible book?

Leah0971
3 years 8 months ago

Also, this may not be the smartest question, but even if the book isn’t finished would it help to get a head start on the publish and finding a trustworthy agent

Leah0971
3 years 8 months ago

sorry for another question but when in the process of the book is it a good idea to get a professional editor?

Ben9615
3 years 8 months ago

Do you, personally, think that a book about children with special abilities would do well?

Abelair57
3 years 7 months ago

Jane,
Thanks for such an informative post. I am a first-time novel writer and am getting so confused by the plethora of information via the web on book publishing. It’s almost enough to make me think of giving up ever getting published! But I have stories to tell, and I know enough to expect rejection. Still, most of these posts seem to discourage new writers. Any views or ideas that may be encouraging to me?  

Ashley
3 years 7 months ago

jane, your words were helpful for me..but i write all kinds of stories..the problem is i dont really know what i should consider them as..like nonfiction,fiction,novel. some would say im dumb for not knowing but most my stories are true..just changed names. but to me most novels sound like a mistery or nonfiction or fiction put together.

Heather Warren
3 years 7 months ago

Your post has encouraged me. I am a writer, its what I do. Ive always gone to writing when times are tough, or even good in my life and I feel that I am good at it. I have been told my friends and family that I am good; however, i’ve always had praise from english teachers as well. I am finally turning my writing into a book instead of short stories and poems. I am ready for rejection and ready to be patient. You have defenitly given me a lot of information and I plan to do more research… Read more »

How to turn your blog into a bookSoner Görpeli
3 years 7 months ago

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