Mandy Harbin · writing advice

And You Thought You’d Never Need Algebra

I still remember my seventh grade algebra teacher. She was a little old lady with glasses (in reality, she was probably only around thirty-five) and always covered in chalk dust—which pretty much dates me to being as old as my algebra teacher probably really was. But I remember hearing kids complain, “But Ms. Little Old Lady with Glasses (not her real name), when will we ever use this?” I know you’ve heard it before, maybe even thought it yourself when you were in school. In fact, if you’re reading this blog, you were probably more likely to have been a little in love with book boyfriends before there was such a term and following your English teachers around as if they were the gatekeepers to a writing career. “I don’t need algebra…I want to be a writer…”

Oh how wrong we were.

calculatorI’m going to say a word here, and I want you to try not to cringe. Algorithm. Yes, I know your brain repels it. It’s only natural. We are writers, not mathematicians. The reality, my fellow writer friends, is we cannot get away from playing-the-numbers games.

Amazon uses algorithms to determine your rankings…store, category, author, bestselling, most relevant, and on and on and on. As a writer, I think, ummmmm, how hard is it to rank something? But an evil mathematician wants to throw variables and unknowns in there and make equations and shh…um stuff. It’s not as simple as it could be, and to make matters even worse, no one really knows the key to Amazon’s algorithms. They’re locked up as tight as the Coca-Cola recipe.

But it’s not just Amazon. What about when you want to do a blog tour? There are companies out there that set these up for you that have relationships with bloggers. How do you know these bloggers are worth your time? Or what if you skip hiring the company and set up the tour yourself…how do you know which ones to approach? Or what if you just want to advertise on a blog…how do you know you’re getting the most bang for your buck? More Algorithms. Unless you have a crystal ball, then use that, and share it with me. For now, I have to stick with the numbers.

Alexa Ranking (which technically is a division of Amazon, so we shouldn’t be too surprised here…they are kings of mind-numbing mathematics) and Google PageRank both use algorithms to rank websites (i.e. book blogs). Of course, they are not the same. With Alexa, the lower the number, the higher the ranking. With Google PageRank, the higher the number the higher the ranking. But you should familiarize yourself with what the ranks mean (not how they determine them…unless you want your brain to hurt). You wouldn’t want to spend twice as much to advertise on a site with half the ranking of another site, or do a blog post for someone who has two visitors a day when you can get booked somewhere on that day with thousands of visitors.

Thankfully, everything doesn’t boil down to just a number. We can throw our own variables in there to help us decide where to spend our marketing dollars and blog posting time. But the next time you read a book on marketing, don’t skip the sections on algorithms. It might trigger memories of calluses and eraser shavings during late-night homework sessions, but you can go read Hamlet when you’re done.


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