“How Books Find Me,” First Published on Shelf Pleasure

Max Langelott photo of Stuttgart library

Photo by Max Langelott on Unsplash

Note: The essay archived below was first published on the book-lovers’ website ShelfPleasure.com in 2012. The site is no longer active. I’m sharing it here as a writing sample.


If you were to look at my nightstand, my coffee table, and my Goodreads profile, you’d see about 400 books. About 390 of them came into my life through the usual means like recommendations and reviews. The rest found me through synchronicity, and those are the ones that I love the most, that I find myself buying, keeping, loaning out, and recommending to others.

Over the years, I’ve read endless articles about how people find books, but never a single one describing how books find people. This, I think, is a critical oversight, because the best books, the ones that make the biggest impact on us, don’t come to us through active seeking; they float into our lives at just the right time, the way a perfect wave will come to a surfer exactly when she’s ready to ride it.

Woodswoman memoir

My most recent serendipitous find was Woodswoman by Ann LaBastille. In true “meant-to-be” fashion, I didn’t stumble upon the book itself; rather, I found a newspaper obituary from the Los Angeles Times, taped to the end of a shelf in my favorite used bookstore. The obit was dated 2011 and featured a photograph of a gray-haired woman sitting in a canoe with her German shepherd. After a divorce in the 1970s, it said, LaBastille retreated to the Adirondacks of New York State, built herself a 12 x 12 foot log cabin on the undeveloped side of a remote lake, and remained there for decades, supporting herself as a conservationist consultant, writer, and photographer. In those many years, she’d written several well-regarded memoirs about her life in the woods.

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What Makes a Good Website About Page? (Hint: The Same Details That Make a Great Book Preface or Introduction)

man and woman discussing website content outside coffee shop

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If you’re creating a website for your business like the hipster fellow in the above photo, you may be wondering, “What should I include in my About page?” How personal should it get? How business-y should it sound?

Here’s how I answered this web content question on the social site Quora a few years ago. My answer still holds true. The last paragraph also applies for writing nonfiction book Prefaces and Intros.

Depending on your industry, a clearly written, friendly About page can be where media people will go to find out who you are—what you’re about—and what ideas you represent. What I’ve told my clients in the past is that while Home pages are often dominated by “the latest news” or a splashy interface displaying a new product or campaign, About pages are where new site visitors go after they’ve seen your sales pitch, when they want to get a sense of who’s selling to them.

Seth Godin published some rules for writing About pages on his blog. One of them was “Be human. Write like you talk and put your name on it. Tell a story, a true one, one that resonates.”

I agree. Compelling personal stories are eye-catching. They also function as the most immediate of all possible testimonials: your story about why you started your business, wrote your book, or founded your non-profit.

For many business endeavors, the story goes something like this: “I saw a need. Nobody was filling this need. So I jumped in and created something I’m proud of. I know it will help you, because it helped me. Please get in touch and let me know how you like my product. I welcome your feedback.”

How does this relate to nonfiction books?

Nonfiction books of the self-help or how-to variety are information products–emphasis on the word “products.” As such, their introductory material often covers the same ground as a website About page: you need readers to know quickly who’s selling them this information. What makes you, the author, the right person to teach me something over the course of a few days or weeks?

Here’s a handy analogy:

Website splash page = book back cover copy. The energetic words and occasional overselling (let’s be honest!) catch your eye when you’re browsing online or in the bookstore.

About page = book introduction and/or preface. Inside the book is the place you go to learn more about the author–their personal story, their background, and why they felt compelled to write this book.

Do you need help writing or editing an About page, professional bio, book preface, or statement about your business? I can help. Let’s talk!

What Is a Manuscript Critique?

manuscript critique services

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

You’ve written a book. You know it could benefit from feedback, but you’re not sure you need or want a full edit yet. Before you set aside the time and money for a thorough edit of every page, you’d like general feedback (ideally, for a smaller fee).

Enter the manuscript critique, also known as a manuscript analysis, edit letter, or editorial letter.

What Is a Manuscript Critique for a Nonfiction Book?

A manuscript critique is “big picture” feedback on your book, provided by an editor with expertise in storytelling, organization, and prose.

You won’t see a lot of Track Changes or red marks with this level of analysis; it’s not the nitty gritty page-by-page edit. Rather, your critique editor will read your book one or two times, then give you a thoughtful accounting of its major strengths and weaknesses. This report is called an edit letter.

Personally, I love creating edit letters for authors. I find critique to be a wonderful way for me and my authors to develop mutual rapport and trust before deciding if we want to work together in greater depth (and to what degree).

For example, in some cases a critique can lead to a more hands-on relationship than a developmental edit. Some authors may decide that they need a book doctor or ghostwriter to help them complete their books according to their visions. Time constraints and deadlines may also point to the need for more hands-on help.

The critique is a chance to explore possibilities. It allows the author and editor a low-risk opportunity to get to know each other and decide if this level of partnership benefits the project.

How Manuscript Critique Works

Here’s what my manuscript critique process looks like. I work mainly with nonfiction books: how-to, self-help, business books, and health books for general readers.

First, we agree to a flat fee based on the word count of the book. After receiving my deposit, the author emails, shares, or Drop Boxes the document to me and I begin work.

Second, I read the manuscript carefully, making a few select margin notes as I go (e.g., in Track Changes in Word, or comments in Google Docs).

Third, I write a 4 to 10 page edit letter that lists any major issues I find. For example, if I see major, consistent grammar issues, I will pick one or two examples to be representations of the issue, then I’ll show the author how to fix it. I divide the editor letter into 7 sections addressing different issues such as:

  • Structure: table of contents, organization of material, order of chapters, etc.
  • Voice: How is the quality of the prose? Is the way the author is talking to the reader appropriate and appealing? 
  • Mechanics: Is the author using grammar and punctuation properly?

Often, I include additional insights on other aspects like marketing hooks and feedback on sidebars, takeaways, case studies, or back matter (appendices, footnotes, etc.).

Every edit letter ends with a summary and next steps.

Finally, with this manuscript critique in hand, the author implements suggestions with which he or she agrees. The author always retains the right to accept or reject my suggestions.

Why should you get a manuscript critique or analysis for your nonfiction book?

The critique process can be immensely valuable for writers: you’re paying a highly-skilled beta reader to tell you how you stack up to other, similar books in your field or niche. This reader has an understanding of what’s out there on the market, and she knows how your book should look and sound if it’s going to be taken seriously.

But here’s the most important part: your critique editor is not your relative, spouse, child, or friend. She’s not your co-worker or colleague. She can be honest and objective in a way that others may not be.

Therein lies the chief value of a manuscript critique: actionable, unbiased feedback on what you’ve written. Editors want you to succeed on your own terms: to say what you intend to say in a style that your readers will want to read. Your manuscript critique will give you a detailed road map telling you how to get closer to achieving that goal.

Would you like a manuscript critique?

Get in touch today to discuss your project.