Festival Fever – #SWF19

IMG_4037I have long wanted to attend a writer’s conference, retreat, or festival, but scheduling conflicts and family obligations have always gotten in the way.  Little did I know there was already such an event in my own city!  In 2017, the Stockholm Writer’s Festival (SWF) was established as a non-profit organization to help writers hone their craft, provide them with the tools necessary to navigate the world of publishing, and foster a sense of community.  Catherine Petterson, SWF’s founder, describes it as a way for writers to find “their path to published.”  The event launched in 2018 and was a huge success, proving there was a need for a forum of this kind to educate, inspire, and network.

I was so excited when Catherine and her colleague, Sandra Carpenter, asked me to participate in SWF19 as a faculty member.  I had caught their attention through a mutual friend’s Facebook post about my Book Club Sneak Peek for Lagging Indicators.  They became curious about my move from traditional to indie publishing and wanted me to discuss why I had made the transition.  Not only had I never been to a writer’s gathering before–and it would be nerve-racking enough communicating with these savvy wordsmiths–I was now going to co-lead a panel about my indie experience with Jessica Lourey.  Luckily, I would have several months to think about what I wanted to say!

The unofficial start of SWF19 kicked off with an informal cocktail mingle for contributors and participants at a hotel near the festival location.  Nibbling on cheese and crackers, we chatted about our expat lives (if applicable) and writing interests.  I met so many nice people, many of whom are part of the Stockholm Writers Group.

I got up bright and early the next day to make it to Finlandshuset, the large and fully-equipped SWF19 venue.  It buzzed with the activity of introductions, registration, and a bubbling creative energy and anticipation.  I was a bit nervous since I was all by myself, but once I entered the packed Sibelius Room, I saw many familiar faces, including an old friend who had signed up for SWF because of my Instagram posts. The crowd was very diverse in terms of age and gender.  Many had completed manuscripts and were curious about next steps.  We were all at SWF for the same purpose and it was easy to connect.

Jane Friedman’s workshops were extremely illuminating.  Friedman is an expert on the publishing industry and on the reality for us writers in a rapidly changing landscape.  She broke down the Big 5 publishing houses; explained what a writer’s expectations from an agent should be; compared advances vs. royalties; advised on crafting query letters, non-fiction proposals, book blurbs, and backcover copy; addressed the topic of manageable book length (80,000-100,000 words); analyzed different forms of self-publishing (a service vs. DIY); and weighed in on artistic patronage in the modern age (Patreon).

Although I had made an informed decision when deciding to pursue the indie publishing route, Friedman’s presentation significantly increased my knowledge about the business and confirmed some of my theories.  For example, having a platform and built-in audience helps a prospect get noticed and bolsters the chances of a book deal.  Publishing houses offer very little support for most authors in marketing and promotions.  Rarely does a self-published work become traditionally published.  Friedman also spent time on the “business” of writing and the benefits of employing a business mindset to the post-publication process (marketing, promotions, events).  In spite of pressure to be well-versed on both the commercial and creative sides, Friedman stressed that the quality of the writing and story still matter!

Being surrounded by so many passionate writers was incredibly inspiring.  I applauded the winners of the First Pages Prizes and listened intently as they read the opening sentences of their work.  It took a lot of guts to share those lines with a room full of people!

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My nervousness grew as the day for my panel discussion approached.  Jessica Lourey is a teacher, prolific writer, and accomplished speaker; I was an amateur in comparison.  I wanted to make the session worthwhile for the participants and didn’t want them to feel disappointed.  My best defense against performance anxiety has always been intense preparation, so I skipped the Saturday night mingle and stayed home to polish and study my notes.

My first session on Sunday was a 3 x 10 minute speed dating exercise where 4-5 participants asked me specific questions about the mechanics of publishing independently.  I was very frank about cost, the importance of putting out the most professional product within one’s budget, and the advantages of utilizing an indie publishing service. I then did a breakout session with Lourey that attracted 30 people.  I started by reading from my index cards, but soon found the confidence to let the words flow naturally.  I described the highs of getting a traditional book deal for Uptown & Down in 2004, and then the lows of trying to find my way back into the publishing world after a ten-year hiatus.  I was very open about my disappointment and sense of powerlessness–until I decided to become an indie author.  My goal was to demystify and democratize the publishing process.  There are so many good stories waiting to see the light of day.  They shouldn’t die for lack of a traditional publishing deal.

What did I learn from my first writer’s festival?

SWF19 reinforced that I’m in the right profession. I loved being surrounded by other enthusiasts and was hungry to absorb as much information as I could.  I did have moments when I wondered: Are people in this room more talented and productive than I am?  Who will get a book deal or be the next big-name author?  Can I write another book?  Depending on the speaker, I alternated from a sense of empowerment (workshop on indie publishing) to discouragement (panel with literary agents).  On the practical side, I discovered the broad reach of platforms such as BookBub, Facebook ads, giveaways, and audio books.  The feedback from my indie publishing sessions was very positive.  I enjoyed pepping writers and giving out tips.  As a result, I experienced a burning motivation to focus on my next project.  I also sold a dozen more copies of Lagging Indicators which wasn’t too bad either!

I was very honored and grateful to be included as a faculty member at SWF19 and took pride in the appropriateness of such an event happening in Sweden, a country with a long literay tradition and the Nobel Prize in Literature.  I want to commend and thank the organizers and volunteers for the amazing job they did.  Most of all, SWF19 exposed me to a thriving writer community and I have no doubt we will continue to boost and support each other!