On three unusually hot days last month, published and aspiring writers, agents, and publishers came to Sweden for the Stockholm Writers Festival. After meeting online the last two years during the pandemic, it was great to get together in person.
When I first attended in 2019, I was undecided as to whether to self-publish my book, Odyssey of Love: A Memoir of Seeking and Finding, or pursue the traditional route. After meeting with agents and other writers, I decided on the former. (Read more here: https://stockholmwritersfestival.com/blog/meet-linda-jamsen). This year, I returned without a manuscript to publish or promote and instead, focused on meeting lots of other writers and learning about their creative projects. I also absorbed a lot of information on craft, marketing, and the publishing industry. Below are some highlights on backstory and Amazon algorithms, as well as helpful tips that I hope other writers will find useful.
I was especially eager to attend the session on the Art of Backstory, as my current writing project relies on the revealing of past events to provide the reader with a context for current events in the front story. The presenter, Jackie Cangro (above), emphasized that backstory should be used with much discretion or it will disrupt the reader and thwart the momentum building up in the front story.
Two popular types of backstory are flashbacks and reflection. Flashbacks create tension and conflict and often foreshadow what’s going to happen in upcoming chapters. Using a triggering memory allows the character to connect what’s happening in the present to an important event in the past. Having a character reflect on the past can help readers understand a character’s motivation, although it’s important that the writer strike the right balance between what a character needs the reader to know and what s/he wants to share.
Ms. Cangro stressed the importance of writers having a firm grasp on their protagonist’s goals and struggles, as backstory works best when it’s character-related, not plot-related.
Getting to Know more about the Amazon Algorithm
Next up was a session with Reedsy founder Ricardo Fayet (above), who is a wealth of information about Amazon and its mysterious algorithms (yes, there are more than one!). He stressed the importance of an author’s product page on Amazon, including an alluring book cover and a “super strong” hook in the first paragraph of the book description, which should differ from the book blurb. Include reviews and put editorial ones at the forefront. Make sure that the “Look Inside” feature works well on your page and that your book’s “Also Boughts” are in the same genre.
I was surprised to learn that aside from its Best Sellers list, Amazon maintains a Popularity List, which is hidden on its Kindle Store. This is a big driver of recommendations and used to rank books in search results. (The difference between these two lists is best illustrated in the photo above.) Also, conversion rates—the number of page visits that result in a sale—are more important than sales. Another surprise.
Mr. Fayet advised authors to perform exhaustive keyword searches and use categories and mega data to optimize their sales ranking. Aim for #1 in a smaller category and select relevant low-to-mid ones where you can rank in the top 5 at launch. For example, I listed my memoir in the Kindle Store under “Eastern European Travel,” rather than “Europe” or “Travel,” as the latter two are bigger, more competitive categories. He also suggested testing keywords through Amazon ads.
Although I would need to take many more seminars to better understand Amazon’s algorithms and how they affect book rank, I did leave the session with a better grip of the basics.
Other Tips from Industry Professionals:
- Don’t chase trends. Instead, write the book that you would like to read yourself.
- Don’t let your lack of knowledge on a specific subject keep you from writing about it. Research!
- Whether you are self-publishing or submitting your manuscript to an agent, it’s very important that it’s first reviewed by a developmental editor.
- Once your book is published, leave a copy of it everywhere, such as hotels and airports. You never know who will pick it up and suggest it to their friends.
- You may have to delete multiple drafts to get to the real start of your story.
- Rather than use personal or author accounts on social media, consider using your book title.
- Treat your writing time as sacred. Create a regular, comfortable space for this purpose.
- Lastly: Always believe in yourself!
After two long days of intensive listening and learning, it was time to return to the sweltering Stockholm sidewalks and then to the airport.
A big “Tack så mycket” to the organizers and participants of SWF22 for another terrific conference.