Self-Publishing, SPFBO, and Us – SPFBO 6 Judges Roundup
While the SPFBO dust briefly settles let’s take a moment to look back (but not in anger of course)
For those who say “What’s SPFBO?” (or even how do you pronounce it?) The TL:DR is it’s a competition featuring 300 self published fantasy books, 10 blogger judging teams and one winner. More info can be found here
Like the apocryphal painting of the Forth Road Bridge – SPFBO is a near continuous process as the competition cycle settles into a 5 month first phase, a 6 month second phase and a one month turn around in the month of May. Which does not mean that May is in any way a quiet hiatus. We will be introducing you to our SPFBO7 team of judges but first let’s hear from the SPFBO6 team.
Self-publishing, SPFBO and me – by T.O. Munro
My involvement in Mark Lawrence’s annual SPFBO contest dates back to the very first competition launched in 2015. In fact, possibly even earlier for I dimly recall being involved in a conversation with Mark and other self-published authors in a pub after one of Fantasy-Faction’s earlier Grim Gatherings. We were bemoaning the white noise of so many self-published works hitting the kindle shelves every year and the difficulty for any one novel/author to make themselves seen above that continuous baseline of publications. I like to think the seed of SPFBO was sown in that conversation and others like it.
As a self-published author I had enjoyed some success with my 2013 debut, Lady of The Helm launched without any fanfare but buoyed up by some positive early reviews that must have kept it high in the amazon algorithms for a few heady months. I quickly learned the value of positive reviews and the crushing paralysis of negative reviews. On a personal level that made me resolve to, not simply rate, but also to review on Goodreads every book I read since then – in the hope perhaps of some karmic reciprocation. It’s a promise I have managed to keep with just a few unlucky exceptions. So I value reviews and I value reviewing.
I have been a contestant in SPFBO1 and SPFBO3 and a judge for some of SPFBO4 and all of SPFBO5 and SPFBO6. It is worth stating that the rules and obligations Mark puts forward for SPFBO are skeletal – read them (link above). They represent a floor level of commitment that actually requires Blogs to write very few reviews, but most Blogs go well beyond that basic commitment because of their belief in the books and the process. It wasn’t always so.
In that first year no one had a clear idea of what we might expect from the blogs. G.R. Matthews (Geoff) and I, having worked together and started our self-publishing odyssey at about the same time, both entered SPFBO1 with our respective self-published debuts and high hopes. I will admit I skimmed through the books sharing my batch and felt quietly (arrogantly) confident. I will also admit I was jealous of Geoff who seemed to have fallen on his feet with Sarah Chorn’s Bookworm Blues Blog. Sarah, in her elimination posts, gave a little mini-review of each book she ruled out, along with a score out of 5 and an epigram award in the tradition of high school yearbooks. Geoff’s The Stone Road got 4/5 and the award for “Most Unique World” The Great Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off | First Five Book (Mini) Reviews – Bookworm Blues While Geoff did not go through as Sarah’s finalist he got a bit of a filip and some quotable comments.
My own SPFBO1 blogger was ominously silent. It is possible that there was some underestimation of the workload involved in SPFBO set against the routine challenges of life and study. However, there were no comments at all on Lady of the Helm, or even any evidence that the blogger had looked at it. One other book in the batch got an early review and selection as the finalist but that first SPFBO experience for me and most of the books in my batch was a disappointing one of silence and invisibility.
However, SPFBO is an imperfect tool as is seen by the fact that Senlin Ascends, one of SPFBO’s success stories, did not even make the final that year. However, its profile was raised just enough to catch (or be manoeuvred into) the attention of other voices and soar to well-deserved success.
I had no book ready for SPFBO2 but watched from the sidelines as friends got involved in judging and it became more normal for every book to have at least something said about it. A community was growing around it, for example with friends enthusiastically pushing me to read Dyrk Ashton’s Paternus, an anarchic romp through every mythology known to man scattering the conventions of writing in its wake, on it’s way to third place while Jonathan French’s outrageously brilliant The Grey Bastards rode a hog into first place.
By SPFBO3 I had a qualifying novel (first in a new series) to enter and was really pleased to find myself in the BookWorm Blues batch – sure at least of getting some feedback. As authors, like proud parents, we are all more aware of our progeny’s virtues than its flaws. For example at what point does a languid pace become slow! But Sarah found nice things to say about The Medusa’s Daughter and 3.5/5 stars along with award for “The Most Intimate” – though not a semi-finalist spot. #SPFBO 2017 | Round Two Mini Reviews – Bookworm Blues
Paradoxically my next (partial-judging) involvement came with SPFBO4 when the Fantasy-Hive was approached to help out with finalist judging because one blogger (Bookworm blues) was struggling to review the last five finalists. Which serves to emphasise what a commitment most bloggers make to SPFBO – as well as what a community of fantasy aficionados there is around SPFBO. Beyond my sad first SPFBO experience there seems to be a unanimous determination to give every book a decent look, to always go beyond the minimum requirements that Mark sets in his rules. And it is time consuming for people who have jobs, families, lives, studies and are making that commitment entirely free. I mean come on, go out there and try and find another contest that is “free to enter” particularly one with this level and profile of feedback! Anyway, as a sole substitute judge I enjoyed my read through my selection of SPFBO4 finalists and was more than up for the Hive to participate as a full blog in SPFBO5.
Unlike BookwormBlues – with Sarah as a sole blogger – The Hive went into SPFBO determined to follow a team approach, building on the experience some of our reviewers had had in previous years on the Fantasy-Faction team. In SPFBO, teams have always varied in their approach. For example, some divided their batch up so each team member did a complete read of a sub-batch of 5, 6 or 10 books from which they nominated a contender/semi-finalist. The team then picked the blog’s finalist from those contenders. At the Hive we wanted the selection stages to be different, so the initial sift was for all the team to read the first 10-20% of a book and see if it grabbed their attention enough to want to read on. From that process we got 5 or 6 semi-finalists that got a full read from everyone. However, we still had something to say about the books we had eliminated and how far they had grabbed us, while unfortunately being not quite grabby enough.
One thing that I think has developed in SPFBO, even though Mark’s rules haven’t changed, is that more attention and more review feedback is given on every book. There are team based bloggers now, where I understand every judge does a full read of every book in the batch and gives a full review of it – which is a phenomenal commitment of time.
However, in SPFBO6 the Hive has stuck to our approach which gives us something different to say each time we comment on a book; how the start engaged our enthusiasm vs how well it lived up to that initial promise on a full read.
We also emphasise the team approach with a format for our full reviews that has developed out of a communal/team read style that we had piloted for the Hive-reads features in the blogsite’s first year. The prompts structure a book club style ‘conversation’ which we feel adds variety to the rich tapestry of SPFBO and shows how within the team we can still disagree and agree to do so. That does mean we make criticisms, but of the book and the writing, not the author. My own writing has developed and I’ve had my share of negative reviews, sometimes I can appreciate the criticism has highlighted a flaw I should have seen, other times maybe it’s simply been an indication of a mismatch between the reader and the book. In the last couple of years I’ve done a creative writing MA and a fair amount of beta reading for friends, which does involve a lot of reading and critiquing. As giver and receiver of feedback I’ve learned a lot but always prize ‘courteous honesty’ above* ‘sycophantic praise.’ (*OK well at least as much as sycophantic praise).
We will continue to refine our process as we go forward, but the great strength of SPFBO lies in the variety of approaches and the commitments of the teams of bloggers. The weight of that commitment is significant and can be seen in the turnover of bloggers and team members within each blog. Involvement in SPFBO means setting aside other reading and blogging activities, and I am not sure how many more SPFBOs I have in me, but I am here for SPFBO7 at least.
Julia’s two little cents about SPFBO! I have been involved in SPFBO for 4 years now. My first two I spend with Fantasy Faction, and the other two I split my reading between Fantasy Faction and The Fantasy Hive.
I really enjoyed the contest from the get go, and loved the community and the teamwork that goes into it! Both blogs I work with have a very active chat and discussions around the books, which adds so much to the experience. I have found many gems and even some favourite authors of mine in the slush piles of 30 books.
As much fun and excitement as it brings, it also is quite a big task. In my teams we try for every judge to try all the books, and there will always be books that just aren’t your cup of tea. This whole reading malarkey is highly subjective after all, and I was always horrible at “forced reading”. So while I happily breeze through a book I love in a couple of days, even just 50 pages of something that doesn’t work for me takes me days on end. I can’t really make my brain focus and find myself jumping up and doing housework, or really anything else if the book doesn’t grip me. So in order to get through not just one stack of 30, but at times even two of them, I didn’t allow myself to read my books, until I had finished X amount of SPFBO books. It worked, as in I got my reading done, but it takes ages, and I have a gigantic backlog of books I actually want to read from those 4 years! My e-reader is groaning, the shelves are creaking, and if it wasn’t for audio books, I would be totally out of the loop on current titles!
I already said I would take a break from SPFBO next time around, as I just burned myself out a bit over the last 4 years. Now it is actually coming to a close, I feel like I can’t just go full cold turkey all at once. I’d miss the frequent chats and updates so much, so you might see me at the sidelines, or joining in on a few books, as a honorary judge.
After all I need to shout the good books from every rooftop, and share the love for hidden gems! There is so much talent to be found in the self publishing world, and I feel I might miss out on too much if I was a pure viewer, after as many years of being right in the middle of it all!
Unfortunately my experience with SPFBO 6 has been an awful one this time around. 2020/21 has been hard (for all of us), I mean I think it needs to be noted that we did all of this through a pandemic, through a time filled with anxiety and for some of us personal losses. Yet my fellow judges and I still put all our time and 100% energy into it, and believe me being a reviewer and judge does take a lot of our time, and to then see unpleasantness towards us, to see myself and my Hive friends chided, all for essentially giving our honest opinions, well the whole competition left me stressed and recently crying tears over it.
I really love reading & reviewing but I’m glad to no longer be a judge.
Having said that, two of my biggest highlights from the competition was firstly having fun buddy reading with Beth, and secondly discovering Code of the Communer by Kai Greenwood. This was a book with zero reviews on Goodreads before the competition, which was an absolute travesty because it’s such a fantastic read. We at The Fantasy Hive have helped boost that book on social media, and at the end of the day I feel that’s what the spirit of this competition should be about – discovering and celebrating those unknown hidden gems.
There’ll always be SPFBO drama is fast becoming a well-used phrased unfortunately.
Reading through Theo’s account of the contest from the start, and recalling Laura’s enthusiasm for it as we started SPFBO5 together, it seems to me that the contest has grown and evolved into something quite different from its origins. It seems to me there’s a growing wedge between some of those who carry the nostalgia of the simplicity of the start, and hold the desire to “celebrate self-publishing” above the notion of a “contest”, and those of us who have joined later who still want to “celebrate self-publishing”, but see SPFBO first and foremost as a contest and associate the notion of a “contest” with honesty and fairness.
Like Nils, the more recent “drama” utterly side-swept me, and I struggled with the attempted reassurances, as I felt my integrity had come under attack.
Yes, this is a hobby.
Yes, I choose to read these books, and review them. So maybe, others may feel I take this more seriously than necessary.
But personally, my integrity is one of the most important aspects of my reviewing. Without it, why should anyone believe what I write? Why should anyone give a book a chance on my word alone?
I say this with no small measure of pride then, that the absolute highlight of this contest has been, for me, those comments of readers adding our reviewed books to their TBRs. “I’ve just bought this book after reading this review” is what kept my chin up. What helped my perspective and grounded me. This was my reassurance. That yes, despite the whispers and subtweets and he said she said, we’re doing a bloody good job so fuck you.
SPFBO can be an incredibly joyous thing, and yet an arduous struggle. The desire to “celebrate self-publishing”, to give a much-needed boost and platform to these authors, to discover hidden gems, clashes painfully against the bitter truth of simply not enjoying a book. Fantasy is such a broad genre, reading such a subjective occupation, that of course we’re not all going to like the same things. It doesn’t mean that story hasn’t been worked on any less hard than any other. It doesn’t mean that author hasn’t poured as much of themselves and devoted as much of themselves as any other. And that knowledge lies heavy on you when you have to rank and score and compare and pick and choose and only one may win.
But the joy in amongst all that, for me, was my team. Being able to chat to my friends about these books, whether celebrating a book I was loving, working out possible twists and theories, or lamenting if I was finding something difficult, made those not my cup of tea books that little bit more palatable. Knowing that, even if I didn’t like the book, someone else on the team did, made me feel less like a pedantic monster.
Coming to the end of SPFBO6 has left me tired. During times when I’ve so desperately needed a comfort read, and haven’t always been able to indulge that, I’m feeling that burn-out need for a break like Julia and Nils. I’ll be relieved to hand the reins over for SPFBO7; I’m very excited by our new team, and I’ll be looking forward to following them, but I shan’t be sorry to pass on this one.
And with that we take our leave of the Hive’s SPFBO6 team, but are reassured to know that they will be keeping a keen and supportive eye on the new team as it limbers up for phase one. In particular the technical and graphical wizardry that made the Fantasy-Hive’s SPFBO6 so smooth and eye-catching will continue, along with advice and support and space to exclaim. In fact, the only thing the old team won’t be doing so much of is reading the books and – as you can see – SPFBO is about a community as well as a competition and 300 exciting fresh books.