The Double-Edged Sword of the SPFBO
This is a success story.
It was with high hopes that I entered my fantasy novel, The Ventifact Colossus, into Mark Lawrence’s 2017 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. (If you know what that is, skip the next two paragraphs.)
The SPFBO is a contest wherein self-published fantasy authors submit their books for review to one of ten volunteer bloggers. Three hundred books are accepted into the contest, and each of ten bloggers reads thirty novels. (Yes, it’s a huge commitment on the bloggers’ part, and the contest takes many months to complete.)
Each blogger eventually chooses their favorite, which results in ten finalists. Then the bloggers read each of the other finalists, arriving at last at a single winner. (This year it was Rob Hayes’ excellent piratical yarn Where Loyalties Lie.)
I did not enter expecting to win.
I did not enter expecting to be a finalist, though I thought that was in the realm of remote possibility. My book is well edited, thoroughly proofed, has a professional cover, and had already received good reviews from the bloggers I’d convinced to give it a chance.
There are many excellent self-published fantasy novels out there, but due in part to the lack of gatekeeping in the self-pub world, there are even more which , to put it kindly, should have received more attention in the editing phase of their creation. That’s one of the beauties of the SPFBO – it sorts the finest wheat from the towering heaps of chaff. My own book, as judged by a handful of neutral parties, is at least restaurant-grade wheat. It certainly isn’t chaff riddled with weevils or anything like that. I thought it had a shot.
So, what did I expect? Looking at the previous SPFBO’s, I saw that a majority of bloggers provided thoughtful, medium-length reviews of their books, even the ones they didn’t advance. (Several employed multiple readers so that each book would receive more personal attention.) They also typically selected semi-finalists, usually between three and six of their thirty books, before deciding on a favorite. My hope, therefore, was that at least I would get a professional critique from an established blogger, and possibly a mention as a semi-finalist. With luck, a small amount of extra name recognition might glom onto my book—and self-published authors are always eager to find bootstraps to pull. Perhaps best of all, I’d become part of a community of self-published fantasy authors, wherein I could both provide and receive support, encouragement, and thoughtful feedback.
So what happened?
- I was randomly assigned to one of the few solo bloggers, who announced he’d only read about 20% of each book before selecting semi-finalists. (Note: that’s not a criticism of the blogger. 20% of 30 books is still a ton of volunteer reading, and I’m grateful he took the time. I mention this only to put his methods into comparative context with some of the other bloggers, who had more time/bandwidth/inclination to give more of their books a full read.)
- I was not chosen as a semi-finalist, which was obviously a disappointment.
- The blogger did provide a brief description of my book, along with the 25 other first-round washouts from his group…
- …which he ended with “for fans of [fairly well known author].” Well, that seemed promising! I went out and bought the best-regarded book by [author] to see what I was being compared with, and—huh. There was one core similarity, so I understand why someone might make that superficial comparison, but in terms of tone, of feel, and (by extension) target audience, the books were nearly opposite. It was like someone recommending The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe “for fans of Lev Grossman” because they both feature portals to magical worlds with talking animals.
In a thoughtful post on r/fantasy by Mark Lawrence, creator of the contest and an extremely talented writer himself, he warned that in some ways the SPFBO was simply a net full of gaps, another set of holes through which a worthy book could plummet into obscurity. I think he was looking straight at me when he wrote that. My book had slipped through that net without even slowing.
When the dust had settled, I found myself at my lowest point in years as a writer. I had come away from the contest with worse than nothing. Not only had I failed to gain even a rudimentary critique I could have used to improve my craft, my book was now immortalized as a failure, a self-published novel that couldn’t even rise above the lowest strata of error-filled amateurish dross*. Instead of making myself part of the conversation, I had become a potential punch-line instead. And anyone who navigated their way to my blogger’s little paragraph, read “for fans of [author],” and picked it up on that basis, would only be disappointed when they realized our books were nothing alike in the ways that matter most.
Entering the SPFBO had been a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I could have sat down and waited to bleed out.
This is a success story.
As I said, the SPFBO is a way to connect with a wonderful community of authors and bloggers no matter how one ultimately fares in the competition. If you’ll pardon me stretching Mr. Lawrence’s metaphor: I may have fallen through the net, but beneath that, to my delight, was a trampoline.
I joined the various Facebook groups that sprung up around the competition. I followed authors and bloggers on Twitter. I was moved to reach out to some authors I admired and tell them how much I liked their books. I discovered yet more new bloggers and reviewers, which led me not only to making connections and getting reviews, but also to reading about books and writers who had escaped my radar to that point. I became more heavily involved in the Reddit fantasy board, and had my day in the sun as their “Author of the Day.” I’ve signed up for Esmerelda-Weatherwax’s amazing “TBRindr” service with excellent results.
And yet more came of it. A random Twitter interaction (with someone I followed due to the SPFBO) led circuitously to a gracious invitation to join the amazing group of authors, editors, and reviewers at The Fantasy Hive. Through this ever-expanding web of connections, I had the great fortune to be a beta reader for an outstanding upcoming self-published book. (I won’t name it specifically, but let’s just say its author rhymes with “Snyrk Snashton” and its title sounds like “Blaternus.”) I now follow the writing careers of some truly wonderful people, cheering them on, reading their books, and thanking my lucky stars. My TBR list has grown fat with self-published books I can’t wait to read. In the meantime my own books, including The Ventifact Colossus that popped like a balloon on the pin of the SPFBO, have garnered a handful more reviews, more sales, more fans. Modest success, it turns out, can be a side-effect of engagement, of involvement.
I am still among the smallest of fries, make no mistake. But leveling up to “small fry” from “no fry” is a big deal for the little guy. And being part of a thriving community is, for me, creatively invigorating.
The SPFBO is an incredible boon to the self-publishing community. The bloggers donate rafts of time and analysis to the cause, and I am extremely thankful to all of them, including my own unfortunate mismatch. Because of how it showcases talent, it makes readers more likely to take a chance on a book from the ranks of the self-published, once seen as the malodorous slums of the publishing world. Even authors not entered in the contest have reason for gratitude.
Yes, for me the SPFBO was a double-edged sword, but it was still a sword. I could have despaired at how I got nicked, but it still had only one grip, and I could swing it where I wanted. Thank you, Mr. Lawrence, for providing the opportunity. Someday, when I’m a medium fry, I’ll look back fondly on this moment when I fell through your net but bounced high from your trampoline.
*p.s. I realize now that, looked at through a crooked lens, this post might imply I think that most of the 250+ books that didn’t make the semifinals are ”amateurish dross.” That is certainly not the case; I believe there’s a correlation between the self-awareness and confidence needed to enter the contest, and a higher-than-average mark of quality. But the dross is, alas, out there, and for the books eliminated in the first round of judging by some bloggers, no additional information was added that might separate them.