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Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off: A Look Back at SPFBO #5

Opened Book on White by Sinziana Susa (detail)

The 5th Annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO5) closed with a bang this year. The winner, M. L. Wang’s Sword of Kaigen, tied for the highest ever score and was the book chosen by this blog to win the competition. The second and third place finalists, Fortune’s Fool by Angela Boord and Blood of Heirs by Alicia Wanstall-Burke (which we’re proud to say was Fantasy-Faction’s finalist), were also joys to read, along with many other finalists and non-finalists in 2019.

Several of us from the SPFBO5 Fantasy-Faction judges put together our thoughts on how SPFBO5 went for us, what we learned, our favorite books that didn’t make the finals, and what advice we’d give authors entering SPFBO6.

Was this your first SPFBO? How was it? If you did it before, was it similar or did every year feel different?

Mariëlle Ooms-Voges: It was my very first! I really enjoyed doing this with the team, but due to things in real life I don’t feel like I was able to really do my best. I love that I’m joining again for 2020!

Julia Kitvaria Sarene: This was my third and a half SPFBO! For me it definitely felt a bit different, as it seems the community grows closer each year, and at least to me it also feels like the overall quality is going up each year! We always had fantastic books in the contest obviously, but I find more I like every year.

Kartik Narayanan: This is my first SPFBO and I look forward to being part of more.

G R Matthews: My fifth. FIFTH! I always enjoy finding the gems, but I know I have become a little less forgiving—hence me stepping back into the shadows after this one. The book has to grab me, straight away. What I’ve really enjoyed is the coming together of the community, and how that process has grown over the years. SPFBO1 was a pilot, a test, a little rough around the edges, and on the edge of the community. Now it is a central part of the fantasy book community and you can see the authors get together, talk, encourage and sympathise with each other. I hope that long continues!

A. M. Justice: It was my first time as a judge and first time reading a substantial proportion of the entries. I really enjoyed doing it, obviously, since I’m back for more in 2020!

Was there anything that especially surprised you about SPFBO5?

Mariëlle Ooms-Voges: The difference in quality!

Julia Kitvaria Sarene: I am very excited that not only did I personally love all the top three books so much, but to have three women at the top of the list! That definitely was a nice and unexpected surprise!

Lynn Kempner: Seeing three very talented women make the top slots was a lot of fun and was unexpected. The higher quality of entrants each successive year doesn’t make our job here easier. I’m continually amazed by the quality of debut novels as well. Especially finding out it’s a debut after you’ve already read the book and you just cannot believe it!

Kartik Narayanan: The biggest surprise has been the process. I never realised the amount of planning and effort it takes to conduct such a big book review competition.

G R Matthews: *now dressed as Gandalf (or Yoda)* Not a lot. I know there are good books, excellent books, amazing books in the land of the self-published. I also know there are some books that generously I will say are unreadable. I will add I was so happy to see so many books that took a non-Eurocentric setting and made it shine!

Why did you become a judge?

Mariëlle Ooms-Voges: I was asked and thought I’d give it a try. I was a bit wary because I’m not really good at writing reviews and I don’t always like to think about what I like or didn’t like about a book. But thanks to my fellow judges I felt welcome and appreciated even when I didn’t have anything insightful to say. 😉

Julia Kitvaria Sarene: I always enjoy finding new and lesser known fantasy gems. I read a lot in the genre, so the major names just aren’t offering enough exploration for me anymore. I also love to help spread the love for books that might not have been noticed otherwise. For me this is as much about putting the spotlight on amazing new voices as it is about finding new stories to love.

Lynn Kempner: The end of the second SPFBO galvanized my decision to create a blog of my own. It’s filled with self-published book reviews, a few traditionally published as well, but I’ve never lacked in finding major talent in the self-published industry to get excited about. Becoming part of judging teams for the past two SPFBO competitions has been both challenging and rewarding. The community around both the judges, authors, and readers is amazing.

Kartik Narayanan: I have been a book reviewer for a long time and one of the highlights has been reading SPFBO finalists of the year. The quality of the finalists’ as well as those that get honorable mentions made me eager to know more about the process by which these gems are unearthed. When the opportunity came up to be one of the judge’s, it was literally a dream come true.

G R Matthews: Well, Mark Lawrence asked me to enter the very first SPFBO (way back when, just after the invention of the wheel) and I did. I received 8/10 for the book, but it didn’t progress and so, as Marc Aplin and Jennie Ivins were trying to do all the Fantasy-Faction reading and reviewing, I jumped in there too. My book was out of the competition, so I had no horse in the race. That year was a real learning curve, reading books quickly, forming opinions, and moving on—like my real job in some ways (but less pressure).

A. M. Justice: I participated in SPFBO4 and enjoyed the camaraderie and networking opportunities that came out of the competition, so I decided to continue participating as a judge.

What did you enjoy about judging?

Mariëlle Ooms-Voges: I really enjoyed reading the first round, simply reading the first 5% or so. A few really stood out and I added those to my TBR. It was a lot of fun to see what the other judges thought of the books. As always it is so surprising to see how two (or more) people can read the same book but have a completely different opinion of it.

Julia Kitvaria Sarene: The best part about this whole contest for me as a judge is the teamwork. I don’t do book clubs as I either read a book in a day, or it takes me ages, depending on my mood and personal life. So here, where it’s a set sample of books, but the overall time frame is rather long, and that I can just switch between books when one isn’t fitting my current mood is wonderful. I love to discuss the books with my teammates and see all the different opinions and views! Sometimes we agree almost completely, other times our scores couldn’t be more different. And that is a lot of fun!

Lynn Kempner: The sharing of feedback is the absolute best. Even when we felt overwhelmed, the support and friendship of our team let us share the burden of the task and the joy of discovering fantastic books.

Kartik Narayanan: Most of the books that make it into the initial reading list are of good quality and I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I discovered new authors I liked and started reading series I would never have heard of and had a fun time overall. In addition, seeing how the other judges’ rated books was a learning experience in itself.

G R Matthews: I liked finding the gems. There is a lot to be said for discussing the books, sharing our thoughts and evaluating our own opinions. The discussion, in the FF message group, is always friendly, and having others, with different upbringing and backgrounds, pick out aspects you didn’t see or notice (we are all blind in this regard to some degree) is really amazing. But, finding those gems and bringing them out into the sunlight for others to gasp and wonder at is the real pleasure of it. I know how hard it is for self-published authors to gain traction, and this competition helps with that (it really does)!

A. M. Justice: I enjoyed reading the entries and especially discussing them with the other judges on the Fantasy-Faction team. I hadn’t really had an opportunity to discuss books and literature with others in a long while, particularly in a group where we were all reading the same thing (more or less).

How much time and effort did it take for you?

Mariëlle Ooms-Voges: I put in quite some time in phase one but due to stuff happening in real life, I couldn’t keep that up.

Julia Kitvaria Sarene: First off, I’m a bit stupid, so I read the slush pile for two blogs, not just one, so that was 60 books to try… The first phase still is much less work as I read until I think “this is not for me”—and ideally, I never think that and get to the end. But not having to read it just makes it feel much less of a chore.

I can’t actually name any numbers, but I’d say about 90% of my actual reading the last 5 months was for SPFBO! Luckily, I do well with audiobooks, so I could keep up with my own TBR that way at least a bit.

Lynn Kempner: I hit it full on without reading anything but our books for the first two or three months. Then I took a break, read from my own TBR, went to a big Con, and picked up again refreshed and ready. I finished about 50% on most entries, and fully read at least a dozen in round one. As my second judging experience, I knew that hitting the finish line was all about pacing yourself to avoid burnout.

Kartik Narayanan: I read almost every book that was in the initial list as well all the books that came into the final list. The initial list took quite some time since the quality varied a bit, but I got through the finalists in about a week’s time. What worked for me is I read quite fast and it is my default pastime. So, it worked out for me very well. Plus, it helped me since I was away from home quite a lot during the time.

G R Matthews: I am the old hat (old man) at this. SPFBO5 was my, no surprise, 5th go round on the Ol’ SPFBO phase one merry-go-round. I also, after learning it on SPFBO1, took the advice Mark gave everyone (treat it like you’re an agent) to heart. I read the start of each book and if it looked like I wanted to read on, it hooked me, I did. If it didn’t, then I put it to the side very quickly.

A. M. Justice: All in all, I found the time commitment to be pretty manageable, especially on a team where we had plenty of judges to sift through the slush pile. The way we approach the initial 30—without even attempting to read them all in their entirety—made things a lot easier.

What did you learn from SPFBO5?

Mariëlle Ooms-Voges: I set the bar too high and put too much pressure on myself! Something to keep in mind for next year’s reading.

Julia Kitvaria Sarene: DNFing (Did Not Finish). No really, I needed to learn that. My first year I tried to read on with anything that was even barely decent. Because, as I said, I do love to help out indie authors! But that simply was way too much, and I burned myself out and struggled to get any reading done at all for quite a long while after. Now I start the book blank and read on as far as I actually enjoy it, and no longer. (Of course, that doesn’t mean just one paragraph, as a lot of stories take a bit to get going! My absolute favourite this year only hooked me on page 41!)

Lynn Kempner: I agree with Julia on this one. It was so difficult to learn to DNF something that was not working for me. I read enough to figure out why, and be able to constructively critique it, and moved on.

Kartik Narayanan: I tend to be quite forgiving with authors, especially new ones—I give their book plenty of chances to showcase something unique, be it the writing, plot, character, action, humour—anything in fact. This is not a scalable process when dealing with 30+ books and I probably will end up having more DNFs next year.

G R Matthews: Looking at the comments above, from my other judges, my work is done! DNFing might sound harsh, but we are to act like agents—it is the only way to survive the rush of the first phase (everyone has work, family, writes themselves, and does this voluntarily). As a judge, develop a thick skin too, just as authors do. In SPFBO2, I think, I read a book and left a short review on FF that basically said I thought the book had been badly translated into English because that’s how all the mixed up tenses and sentences seemed—the author got in touch to tell me in no uncertain terms it was all intentional. I felt a little guilty back then that I had criticised this author’s labour of love—looking back, I was right. Thick skin!

And, I’ve learned the quality of self-published books just keeps getting higher and higher. Those that reach the finals or get a fine score from a judge are good books. I know not all will go on to success *wipes a tear away* but I always score against traditionally published books, and 8/10 and 9/10 is a damn fine score from us!

A. M. Justice: I learned from watching G R Matthews lead the team. I hope I can do as well in 2020.

Name a book you enjoyed that didn’t make it to the finals.

Mariëlle Ooms-Voges: I really enjoyed Guns of Liberty by Jaime Mauchline, there are pirates on airships! What more do I need to say…pirates and airships! Also, very strong female characters and fast pace.

Lynn Kempner: I also loved Guns of Liberty, and it scored into our semi-finalists. So much so, I wrote the full review for Fantasy-Faction. A fantastic adventure with strong female leads, fully fleshed out ensemble cast and a fantastic setting. It’s well written with attention grabbing action and plot. The cover is gorgeous and exactly represents the action inside. It was definitely my cuppa, cause pirates in airships!

Kartik Narayanan: I will go with Quill by A. C. Cobble. It has a lot of flaws (which I mentioned in my review) but the overall package really appealed to me—steampunk Britain, the occult, and a whodunnit.

G R Matthews: I definitely think the right one of our batch made it to the finals. Of the rest, probably Guns of Liberty had the most interesting opening and setting.

A. M. Justice: From our SPFBO5 batch, I really enjoyed C. L. Schneider’s Flash Point, which was our third-place title. I loved the urban fantasy detective story with hints that the series could move into epic fantasy territory plus…dragons! Another title from our batch I enjoyed very much was Catalyst Moon: Incursion by Lauren L. Garcia, which was well written, had a cool “forbidden” magic system, and had a very nicely done romance at its core. Unfortunately, the book’s conclusion left too many unanswered questions, which is why it didn’t rank higher in our batch. I am, however, very interested in continuing both series to see how things turn out.

What would you tell authors who are considering entering SPFBO6?

Mariëlle Ooms-Voges: Don’t enter a book unless you’re sure it’s the best you can do! Have it read by others whose judgement you trust. Have it checked for typos. If your story is awesome, I’ll still be put off by typos and bad formatting. I don’t mean to be unfriendly, but this is just how it works for me.

Julia Kitvara Sarene: Go about this professionally! If it’s not ready yet, enter it the next year. Don’t do yourself a disfavour and have your book cut because of things that could easily have been fixed. Don’t put forward an awfully formatted book. Make sure it’s not riddled with typos. It has to have a strong start! Give it the best shot you possibly can instead of rushing it to make the deadline. We try 30 books per blog; even with a good start, that is bad odds and there’s much luck involved. And being cut doesn’t have to mean it is a bad book—art is subjective after all!

Lynn Kempner: Use alpha and beta readers who are brutally honest with you and listen well to that input. As hard as putting your baby out there is, you need to make sure it is as good as it can be before it gets to the judges. Polish your entry and be open to honest critiques! If you can, have your cover done by a professional and your editing and formatting as well. The bar is set quite high. Above all, remember your book is randomly put into judging batches. You may get everything right, but your book might end up with the wrong audience. It’s a hugely subjective matter of taste.

Kartik Narayanan: There needs to be something in the book that stands out. It can be the plot, characters, writing style, pacing, action, etc. This may seem like common sense, but I have read too many generic books that I think the message needs to be repeated. Don’t be afraid to experiment—being bland is a sure-fire way of being ignored in the competition.

G R Matthews: I am sure I wrote a whole blog post, years ago, full of advice. However, I’ll summarise: enter and hope. And before all that, write a damn good book that you’ve sweated over, cried over, had read by beta readers, and polished to be the best you can. It doesn’t have to be perfect (no book is—even traditionally published books have typos and mistakes in them. No, it is true, they do!). Get involved with the community—and “don’t be a dick” (standard internet rule, but Steve McHugh quotes it often and rightly so).

A. M. Justice: I can answer this question from both a contestant’s and a judge’s perspective. As a contestant, I put a lot of emotional eggs into my SPFBO basket, and it was devastating when my book did not capture even a semi-finalist slot, as I thought it had a very good chance of making the finals. The loss knocked me back a bit, and it took a while to recover emotionally and artistically. So, my advice to future contestants is to keep this and any other competitions in perspective: remember that however your book is received, it’s not the be-all and end-all of your writing career. Doing well in the competition isn’t a golden ticket for everyone (and plenty of people who don’t advance in the competition still have successful writing careers!), and win or lose, your art and your career still depend primarily on you.

As a judge, I would advise authors to remember that reading and our experience of art is a very subjective experience, and the judges approach every book with an open mind but also with their own personal preferences. And as others have noted before me, judges tend to be more critical of the SPFBO entries than they would if they were reading the book casually. We don’t apply this critical eye to be mean, but because we have a lot of books to evaluate and focusing on the flaws as well as the gems is a key way of defining why we like one book better than another. Most importantly, don’t take negative comments personally and remember the judges aren’t judging you but the novel in front of them.

What are you looking forward to seeing in SPFBO6?

Mariëlle Ooms-Voges: Original and surprising new books and authors!

Julia Kitvaria Sarene: Finding even more great books and new authors to discover! And even more chatter around the contest, which means I get to talk books even more.

Lynn Kempner: More surprises, more talented authors that are creating gems. The extensive reading of and talking about books is something I think I’ll do until I die. Judging in the competition is truly a bibliophile’s dream come true, despite the heavy commitment required. It’s truly a labor of love.

Kartik Narayanan: Same as everyone else—great books.

A. M. Justice: More great indie fantasy!

G R Matthews: Cheesecake! Because I can’t just repeat what everyone else said even though I agree!

– – –

And that sums up our thoughts on SPFBO5. The 2019-2020 season was a great one for self-published fantasy, and I can’t wait to see what the 2020 entries have in store for us.

A huge, huge thank you to the entire SPFBO5 judging team: Mariëlle Ooms-Voges, Julia Kitvaria Sarene, Lynn Kempner, Kartik Narayanan, David Zampa, Jessica Juby, A M Justice, and our superlative leader, G R Matthews. We also want to give a huge thank you to Fantasy-Faction’s editor, Jennie Ivins, for posting our reviews and making them beautiful.

The team we have lined up for 2020 includes an exciting mix of rookies and veterans. We’ll do an official announcement as SPFBO6 gets going in June.

Title image by Sinziana Susa.


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