Self-Published Fantasy and the SPFBO
With the THIRD Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (#SPFBO) approaching its final stages, I thought I’d once again share some thoughts about the complexities of self-publishing and how Mark Lawrence’s SPFBO initiative is shaking up the genre.
Self-published authors get a lot of flak. Even armed with a bargepole, many readers won’t touch them. Such readers will assure you that indie books are ‘unprofessional’; that they’re inherently ‘inferior’ to the titles offered by traditional publishing houses, and are therefore ‘not proper books’.
Or maybe it’s not the books that are the problem. I mean, we’ve all come across the ubiquitous indie author who takes the ‘stuck record’ approach to self-promotion. You know the one, whose constant passive-aggressive ‘BUY MY BOOK’ posts soon become so irritating that we have no choice but to issue the offending author with a cease-and-desist before gouging out our own eyes and/or unfollowing them on social media. (A topic I spoke about briefly during my time on the Grim Tidings Podcast last year.)
Whatever the reason, indie books – particularly within SFF – have garnered a reputation for being second-rate, amateur and inconsistent . . . a reputation which is (for the most part) unfair and undeserved.
Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Michael J. Sullivan? Or Anthony Ryan? Both authors’ hugely popular fantasy debuts – The Crown Conspiracy and Blood Song, respectively – began life as (you guessed it!) self-published novels. Now, they’re practically household names. And let’s not forget Andy Weir’s The Martian, which caught the notice of a bunch of big shots in the Wood of Holly and has since been adapted into a multi-million dollar-grossing film.
Inspiring, without a doubt. But in terms of popular opinion, such accomplishments have done surprisingly little to change attitudes towards indie authors. Using Ryan or Sullivan as the benchmark for measuring ‘success’ suggests that the singular goal of self-publishing is to become one of the ‘lucky few’ who eventually get picked up by traditional houses; in other words, it reinforces the idea that self-publishing is merely the means to an end.
But do all indie authors want the same thing?
300 AUTHORS, 10 BLOGS, 1 WINNER: THE GREAT SELF-PUBLISHED FANTASY BLOG-OFF (SPFBO)
While every author is unique, many share similar goals. Most prominent amongst these is the desire to be noticed. In February 2015, author Mark Lawrence (you know, that thorn guy) took to his blog to ponder the problem of self-promotion, observing that:
“…as a new author, particularly a self-published one, it is desperately hard to be heard. It’s a signal-to-noise problem. Who knows how many Name of the Winds or [fill in your favourite] are lost to us because they just couldn’t be seen? None? A hundred?”
He was right; moreover, plenty of voices agreed with him, and before long well-respected bloggers were clamouring to help him find a frequency on which some of the more deserving voices could finally be heard. 273 writers responded to his call for self-published authors, and the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off officially began. The grand prize? Well, as Mark Lawrence himself says:
“There’s no other prize. The winner will get the publicity of being the winner, plus the bonus of being reviewed on the blogs of 10 highly respected fantasy bloggers.
“Frankly you can’t buy better publicity than that.”
He’s absolutely right, and plenty of the former finalists will agree.
THE END OF THE BEGINNING
Voila! The first step towards changing attitudes was complete. While the inaugural SPFBO didn’t exactly break down the barrier between indies and their potential readers, there’s no denying that it was a step in the right direction. The process gave a leg-up over the barrier for a handful of hidden gems, making them more visible while also filtering out less polished books. In the end, 273 books were whittled down to one winner, and the title went to The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids. The author, Michael McClung, even landed a publishing deal along the way (more on that later).
In an example of a different kind of success, close runner-up Ben Galley has since continued to advance a professional and prolific self-publishing career that began over seven years ago. Galley not only provides ‘Shelf Help’ sessions for aspiring indies, but also spends an inexhaustible amount of time writing fiction, promoting his work (I don’t think there was a single person on the internet who didn’t hear about it when his most recent release, Heart of Stone, was unleashed upon the world!) and building momentum for the release of his ninth novel, Chasing Graves.
SPFBO 2: 2016
Confession time: I had very little personal interest in the SPFBO when it began. I admired the concept and the mind behind it, of course, but initially dismissed the contest itself as a publicity ploy. Here, I thought, was a token gesture of indulgence, the same sort that spurs celebrities to adopt baby gorillas. And you know what? I’m ashamed of my former
cynicism snobbery (let’s call it what it is, folks); and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In March 2016 the SPFBO process began again. This time around, my own involvement as part of Fantasy-Faction’s judging team RADICALLY changed my perspective. The positivity, enthusiasm and professionalism of the entrants in our group swiftly banished any lingering reservations I may have had, as did the overall quality of the entries submitted.
In fact, several bloggers were so impressed by their batch of books that Lawrence hosted a cover contest during the early stages of the competition. Looks aren’t everything, but they do speak volumes about the amount of pride an indie author has in his or her own work. Though we know it’s shallow, most of us do judge a book by its cover. When our first glance shows us an attractive design and professional layout it makes the world of difference. Sure, it’s what’s inside that really counts . . . but let’s face it: nobody would voluntarily show up for a job interview without first combing their hair and stepping into something smart. First impressions are crucial. (Want to know how to do it right? Check out the cover reveals for The Emerald Blade and The Midnight Dunes by Steven Kelliher, Paternus by Dyrk Ashton, and Mother of Heretics by T. A. Miles.)
But even if you do everything right, what happens when somebody else shows up? Somebody who’s also done everything right?
Back in July 2016, Jared Shurin at Pornokitsch was torn between two books whilst trying to choose his finalist. He eventually leaned towards The Path of Flames by Phil Tucker (which went on to snag second place in the final round), but spoke so highly of entries that Mark Lawrence himself was inspired to read the eventual runner-up. In fact, Lawrence was so impressed by the book that he now goes out of his way to make sure others recognise the author’s talent.
The author in question is Josiah Bancroft. The book is Senlin Ascends. Chances are that many of you have already heard of it; it now has 1200+ ratings over on Goodreads, with The Wertzone describing Senlin Ascends as “SFF’s first genuinely evocative work of self-published literature” and suggesting that it “may mark a serious turning-point in the field.”
Lawrence’s baby gorilla has grown swiftly indeed, and now ascends the tower a la King Kong in New York. Bring on the bi-planes!
Though none have become quite as well-known as Mr. Bancroft (yet!) there are plenty who’ve caught the attention of the right people. Last year’s winner, Jonathan French, has already signed a traditional publishing deal for his winning novel, The Grey Bastards, and its sequel The True Bastards. Impressive, eh?
Moreover, there’s a veritable horde of other indies (many of whom have also been SPFBO entrants at one time or another) who are also fighting for pre-eminence on many a reading list. Authors such as Brian O’Sullivan, T. L. Greylock, Megan Haskell, Ruth Nestvold, Benedict Patrick, Daniel Potter, Michael R. Miller, David Benem, Blair MacGregor, D. M. Hamilton, Kel Kade, Davis Ashura, Travis Peck, Rob J. Hayes, T. A. Miles, Timandra Whitecastle, David Estes, A. C. Cobble . . . talented folks one and all, who might not have reached the final but have earned a place on the SFF community’s radar nonetheless.
If these guys are so good (you might be wondering) then why are they self-published at all?
‘CAN’T GET PUBLISHED’
A while ago on r/Fantasy I started a thread about this topic, which sparked a host of detailed and thoughtful responses from readers. The main issue of debate was around the barriers faced by indie authors, with most commenters agreeing that quality and discoverability are two major ones. Some suggested that the ‘good’ self-published books stand out by virtue of the author having invested in professional cover design, formatting and editing. But others argued that there are too many poor-quality products for sale on the internet to even bother looking. Why, they asked, should readers waste their time sifting for talent amongst those who ‘couldn’t even get published’?
Put it another way: if an author is struggling to find a publisher, does that mean their work is crap?
A lot of people will say ‘yes!’ (and in many cases, they’re probably right). Realistically, though, traditional publishing houses turn down manuscripts for all sorts of reasons. We’ve all heard how books like Carrie, Harry Potter, Dune, Dubliners, and even The Diary of Anne Frank received multiple rejections before finally finding success. Examples like these – along with Blood Song et al. – are proof that what G.R. Matthews refers to as the ‘snob factor’ is, in many cases, unjustified.
Clearly, not all books that ‘can’t get published’ are objectively inferior. But here’s what some folks are still struggling to understand: ‘going indie’ is more and more frequently becoming a first choice rather than a last resort.
Believe it or not, plenty of writers balk at the thought of handing over their intellectual property to someone else. Michael McClung (author of The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids and winner of the inaugural SPFBO) has had a rocky relationship with traditional publishing houses in the past; he’s spoken about the drawbacks of switching from indie to traditional, observing that the benefit of reaching a wider audience can come at the cost of frustrating and unforeseen delays. Traditional publishing, he says, can be incredibly stressful for an author who is not prepared to cede control over the entire process to somebody else. (McClung has since parted ways with his publisher, and intends to re-publish his Amra Thetys series once the rights have reverted back to him. Ditto for author Rob J. Hayes; luckily, his new circumstances once again made him eligible to enter the SPFBO!)
Perhaps these setbacks are the reason why so many authors cite a determination to retain control over one’s own work (and agenda) as a motivation for choosing self-publishing. For some, this is a purely artistic choice; for others, it comes down to practicality or expedience. Regardless of merit, every author’s reasons are unique, be it J.P. Ashman’s commitment to producing a full-length epic or T.O. Munro’s freedom to set his own deadlines in keeping with a busy day job.
Then there are the ‘hybrids’. Some authors travel both paths at various times to suit their changing needs. An example of this might be an author whose novels are trad-pubbed, but whose short stories require a different platform or be lost to obscurity. Or perhaps someone whose books have been trad-pubbed in some countries but not in others.
And this approach supports authors who, for whatever reason, have been let down by traditional publishing. Michael R. Fletcher’s first Manifest Delusions novel, Beyond Redemption, was bought and published by Harper Voyager in 2015. The book was a critical success, but a commercial disappointment. When HV declined to publish the sequel, The Mirror’s Truth, Fletcher decided to switch to indie. Just having the option to self-publish can also be a lifeline for writers who’ve been failed by their publisher due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Courtney Schafer was able to use Kickstarter to help her write, edit and self-publish the conclusion to her much-loved Shattered Sigil trilogy, The Labyrinth of Flame, after Night Shade Books went bankrupt. Likewise, author Joel Minty is considering self-publishing after falling victim to the collapse of Realmwalker Publishing Group – just days before his debut, Purge of Ashes, was set to be released.
Like so many others, these authors turned to self-publishing out of necessity; a necessity born of the determination to deliver to their readers what they promised.
THE ‘GREAT DIVIDE’
But readers shouldn’t presume that every self-published author has already tried – or even desired! – to be traditionally published. Just like everything else in life, the pros and cons of each approach are entirely subjective depending on the author’s individual goals and definitions of ‘success’. Moreover, the reflexive dichotomy of traditional ‘versus’ self is both divisive and demeaning. To borrow the words of author Blair MacGregor:
“Dichotomy is easy. But conversation isn’t all that challenging, either. The longer we permit “versus” to dominate, the greater the disservice we do to talented writers.”
MacGregor goes on to suggest that people seem less interested in talking about self-publishing than they are in debating its worth.
MacGregor’s contemporaries have also drawn attention to this issue. T. L. Greylock, author of The Song of the Ash Tree, has expressed frustration that some authors condemn others’ publishing choices, which only perpetuates the stigma associated with self-publishing. “We’re all in the same boat, really,” says Greylock. “We all love to tell stories and I think we should be more appreciative of each other and the fact that writing is hard, but we do it anyway.”
Likewise, Timandra Whitecastle – whose debut novel Touch of Iron aims to redefine ‘strong’ female characters, particularly within the grimdark subgenre – has expressed similar views about the frustrations caused by those who insist upon such a divide. When making the decision about which approach to take, says Whitecastle, she found little value in objectively comparing the two, and focused instead on which methods would best facilitate her creative desire to “break the mold.”
DISMISS THE DICHOTOMY; BREAK THE MOLD
This is where the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off comes in. The SPFBO breaks down these barriers by encouraging readers to treat self-published books just like they would any other kind. Book looks interesting? Check it out. Like the sample? Buy the book. Enjoy the book? Tell your mates; leave a review. After all, the SPFBO aims to recognise and reward talented, hardworking authors with honest feedback and well-deserved exposure. As I mentioned earlier, the greatest prize on offer here is increased discoverability . . . a prize which thousands of less-known writers covet dearly.
The nature of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off means that a great many entries will fall at the very first hurdle, cast aside after just a few pages. Each entry in round one has a 1 in 30 chance of making it through to the final ten, and in a contest largely hinging on judges’ personal tastes, it’s anyone’s game. And the competition is getting tougher as standards continue to rise and more and more authors set their sights on the SPFBO. Indie authors are working harder and longer, pushing themselves to the absolute limits of capability, and it is they – along with those who follow, support and promote initiatives like the SPFBO and the recently established #ShoreIndie contest – who help keep this genre fresh and dynamic. Everybody wins!
Finally, any indie authors still choosing to operate under a half-arsed mentality of, ‘eh, I’ll just publish it through Amazon’, will inevitably get pushed to the bottom of the pile as those who are serious about making things work will continue to hike to the top – cheered on by readers, peers and other like-minded artists within this incredibly supportive community.
A version of this article appeared on Fantasy-Faction on May 13, 2017.