Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off #2: One Reader’s Initial Thoughts

I’m one of Fantasy-Faction’s readers for this year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO). And now that I’ve read the first chapters of all the books in our set, I thought I’d share my observations.

Fern Book by PureNaturePhotosFirst of all, I want to say up front that the standard is high. In itself, that doesn’t surprise me. I know a lot of authors: traditionally published, small press and self-published. All of them care deeply about their craft. I’ve been reading across all the publishing routes for years, and I know quite well that self-publishing is as professional a game as any other form of publishing.

Of course there are shoddy self-published books out there – there are shoddy books out there, full stop – but it was reasonable to assume that those fantasy authors who were involved enough in their genre to be aware of SPFBO would also have produced polished books. And on the whole, that is the case. Most of the books are good. Really, the main difficulty is going to be choosing between them.

Having said that, there a few points I noted while reading the sample of each book. I found these useful as lessons to take forward in my own writing career, and I hope you will too.

1. Many of the books take a little while to get going.

Some of them have a clunky prologue, start too slow or start too fast. For the purposes of this contest, if the book picked up beyond the opening and I liked it enough, I’ve given it the benefit of the doubt. But an agent or a casual reader would have no reason to offer that.

What I Learned:
Beginnings are really important. I know everyone always says they are. But they really are!

2. On the subject of openings…prologues.

We need to talk about prologues. I never really understood why so many people hated prologues until I started reading for this contest. In fact, I’ve always championed the prologue against its detractors. But as it turns out, the prologue is the most abused literary object out there.

Authors use them to drop in a bunch of worldbuilding that could have been revealed through the story. Or to explain what’s ahead. Or to flash forward so vaguely that it’s impossible to tell what’s going on. Basically, many prologues are unnecessary. And in each case, because I didn’t care about the characters yet, I didn’t care about any of the information being given to me, no matter how well written.

What I Learned:
Use prologues with caution. Trust your readers to learn about your world organically. Don’t switch them off before they even get into the main story.

3. When choosing between a lot of books that are good, the little details make the difference.

A few typos or an awkward POV change give the reader an excuse to discard the book – not because they’re mean, but because there are ten other good books that didn’t make those mistakes.

What I Learned:
The small stuff matters. Don’t give anyone a reason to stop reading.

4. The cover art varies in quality far more widely than the writing itself.

There are several books in this set whose covers would switch me off, as a reader, because they look amateur – and yet, the content is good, readable content. We’re not judging these books by their covers, but readers do.

What I Learned:
If you’re going to self-publish, it’s worth investing in good cover art that reflects the quality of the work itself.

5. There’s some amazing worldbuilding in these books. Sometimes a bit too much.

It’s really creative, unusual stuff. But one aspect I did notice was the tendency to build the big picture, but leave out the little details. Having read the openings of these books, I now have a pretty good impression of twenty different political systems and social structures. In many cases, I have much less idea what it’s like to actually live in them.

What I Learned:
Worldbuilding is more than just structure. The most gripping books are the ones that capture the senses and make the characters come alive. Build through the small details as well as the large.

The main lesson I took from this is that all of us can improve, wherever we are on our publishing journey. And that so often, whether you get picked up by a reader or an agent or a publisher is far less a matter of talent than a matter of taste.

As for the contest itself, I now have half a dozen books I liked enough to put to the top of my reading list, plus loads more I liked but simply didn’t grab me as much as my favourites. My fellow Fantasy-Faction readers are going through the same process, and no doubt their opinions will differ from mine. As I said, it’s going to be hard to pick a winner!

So authors, please know that if it takes us a while to reach our decision, it’s only because you’ve written so many good books.

Title image by PureNaturePhotos.


By A.F.E. Smith

loves Hobb, Abercrombie and Lawrence as much as the next fantasy fan, but is on a mission to look past the big-name giants of the genre and discover the equally brilliant books that far fewer people have heard of. (This mission may have been influenced by the fact that she’s an insignificant digital-first author in her own right, but if so, she’ll never admit it.) She has two young children, a full-time job as an editor, and runs on a combination of chocolate and wishful thinking. Her first book, DARKHAVEN, was released in 2015 by Harper Voyager. You can find her on Twitter as @afesmith.

2 thoughts on “Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off #2: One Reader’s Initial Thoughts”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.