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Saturday, September 12, 2015

SPFBO Author Interview Part I (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

The SPFBO experience has been quite a rewarding one for me personally. I wanted to ask the authors about their experiences and so I sent a tweet requesting authors to participate. Quite a few replied positively and so here's part 1 of the SPFBO interview. My thanks to Alex, Blair, Chris, David, Dylan, Geoff, Jim, Jon, Matt, Matthew, Shaun & T. O.   for their time & participation. Read ahead to know more about the authors' thoughts on the SPFBO process (so far) and their title entries in question...

Q] Please tell us how your heard about this contest and what motivated you to enter it. Could you also tell us about your SPFBO entry title?

Dylan Moonfire: I first heard about this contest when Mark Lawrence posted it on Reddit, which is one of my stomping grounds. It was about a year after I published my first novel, Sand and Blood, and I was frustrated by the nearly non-existent sales and reviews. I figured it would be a good chance to garner at least one "high level" review and maybe increase the exposure of a book I spent years working on.

(I'm assuming you were literal about "entry title".)

The title, "Sand and Blood," was originally "Becoming a Man" but enough people said it was too bland. I had a public vote with a bunch of titles and this one that won and fit the content. It also tied into the sequels (Sand and Ash, Sand and Bone) nicely.

At the time, I didn't know many fantasy novels set in the desert, so I figured "Sand and Blood" would be somewhat unique. When Mark posted the word graph of titles, I realized I wasn't that unique. Plus, the day after I made the decision, another author published "Blood and Sand" and there is a well-known TV series with the name. Which didn't bode well for search engines either.

Matthew Colville: A user on reddit told me about it, suggesting I submit my first novel, Priest. So I did!

Priest is the first in a series (the second, Thief is out, and the third, Fighter is well underway) I call “Hardboiled Fantasy.” The main character is an older hero modeled after characters like Parker’s Spenser or Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. But he’s not a detective, he’s an agent of the church, driven by a deep moral impulse.

I wanted to write the ultimate “getting the team together” story, and so started with my first character, Heden, the titular priest, adding a new team member with each book. It’s got action and some humor and a lot of punchy dialog. It’s a quick read!

Matt Karlov: I heard about the SPFBO via Twitter and jumped at the chance to enter. It can be tough to get a self-published title noticed on the more popular review blogs, so for me it was an easy decision to get involved.

The Unbound Man is a fantasy set in a quasi-early-Renaissance world with printing presses, gunpowder, merchant houses, and sorcery. It won its group of five over at Bookworm Blues but missed out on becoming a finalist. In her review, Sarah said: "I couldn't put this book down. The world building and the details are absolutely stunning. I found the intricacy, the depth to the characters, and the mysterious and interweaving situations to be absolutely amazing."

GRM: It was actually Mark Lawrence that got in touch with me and asked me whether I was intending to enter this competition? I was wary at first - not because I am some famous self-pub'd author because I am most definitely one of the smallest fry in a very deep, but almost overpopulated ocean. My wariness came from shows like the X-factor and Britain's got talent (looking back now, it is the second place acts that do the better than the winners - so there is still hope!). Those folks who stand up and start singing, only for the judges and us, as watchers, to grimace or, even worse, laugh at them. Would that happen if I put mine up there, if I let others read it and judge it - and not just readers, but people who influence readers? Would by fledgling career be over before it truly got started? I suppose in that, I was just like every other writer out there.

The Stone Road is an Asian inspired story of two men, one on either side of conflict that has waged for thirty years. At last there is a chance for peace, but peace is the last thing some people want. It is told in alternating Point of View chapters and follows those two men though the conflict, their paths intersect and diverge. I kept the cast small so that the reader could, I hope, see the world through their eyes and be led through both sides of the war and subsequent conflicts. There is magic, conflict, betrayal, revenge, politics, twists and turns. And. more than that, the different setting is intriguing for readers (I hope... I do a lot of hoping).

James Cormier: I'm a Mark Lawrence fan. I follow him on Twitter and read his blog and heard about the contest there. As soon as I read about it, I thought it was a fantastic idea--and was sorry it wasn't happening a year later, after I had published the sword and sorcery novel I'm still working on (I'm actually calling it "swordpunk," but that's another story entirely). I had initially excluded myself from the contest, you see: Exile, my first novel, the one that's in the SPFBO, is a young adult post-apocalyptic novel. I heard "self published fantasy" and "Mark Lawrence" and at first self-edited myself out of the running, sure that none of the well-known fantasy bloggers involved would be interested in my little dystopian tale, until I reminded myself that fantasy included a lot more than just swords and wizards.

Exile is the first part of The Book of Ever, a planned trilogy that continues in Extinction and concludes with Exodus. It's YA in the sense that it features a young female protagonist and maintains a pretty firm PG-13 rating throughout (i.e., plenty of violence, not much sex). Set in an insular religious community hundreds of years after an apocalyptic event that devastated the world as we know it, it tells the story of Ever Oaks, a young woman raised in a very strict patriarchal society who is faced with the seemingly impossible task of leading her people to safety and salvation.

It's got overt religious elements in it, the idea being that these people survived for centuries where others did not because they stayed true to a very specific, black and white ideology that kept them motivated and whole. As they struggle for survival in an increasingly harsh world, however, the young people in particular begin to discover that their unwavering beliefs may actually have done more harm than good. I'm particularly eager to see what people will think of the sequel. The characters may not be headed in a direction anyone has foreseen.

T.O. Munro: I follow Mark Lawrence quite closely. I got to meet up with him in person at the 2014 Grim gathering in London. We talked, among other things, about the difficulties and opportunities a self-published author has in getting their work to show above or through the "noise" signal of so many other self-published works. So I felt I'd been there at the idea's conception and was well up for celebrating its birth with the launch of the SPFBO.

My title is Lady of the Helm, the first book in the (now complete) Bloodline trilogy. It has many elements of the traditional epic fantasy, after all that is what I was trying to write. So, sure it has a few elves a dragon and a big bad guy. At the same time there are deviations from the fantasy norm. There are four leading female characters, one of whom - a medusa - has been a surprisingly popular character. While there are the bad and the mad there are some decidedly grey characters. I am, in Mark Lawrence’s taxonomy of writers, a plotster so the story twists and turns quite a bit. There are big and small surprises, some are inevitably more obvious than others, but I dare anyone to predict them all!

David Benem: I'm a fan of Mark Lawrence and follow him on Twitter so I heard about it there. When the contest was announced I'd just made the decision to self-publish the book and thought it represented a fantastic opportunity both in terms of exposure and being introduced to bloggers and fellow authors.

My book, What Remains of Heroes, is a dark fantasy that leans to the heroic. There are some of the traditional elements (fallen heroes, corrupt politics, an old enemy lurking at the door) but also what I hope are some new twists. It is the first of a trilogy (of course!).

Alex Ziebart: I found the Blog-Off through a posting on reddit's /r/fantasy subreddit. Though I don't post a lot there, it's one of the places I check on a regular basis. I find a lot of new books through that subreddit and some of the discussions are a blast. Useful, too, in regards to discussions about worldbuilding or the business side of publishing, both traditional and self-publishing.

The book I entered into the contest is Blood and Masks. I like to describe it as a high fantasy setting with a story told with urban fantasy styling’s; reviews I've received from readers call it noir from time to time. Blood and Masks is the story of an apprentice demon hunter who gets wrapped up in a conspiracy with stakes far over his head.

J. P. Ashman: My attention was brought to SPFBO by Mark Lawrence. I'd begun following him on Twitter and befriended him on Facebook (he's nice like that), as well as reading his blog posts, one of which announced the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off. I had to be in it, it was that simple. My début novel, Black Cross – First book from the tales of the Black Powder Wars, had been released as an e-book in January this year and I was eager, and scared, to have it read and reviewed. First book in an epic fantasy series, Black Cross revolves around a questionable experiment, released by a powerful guild master. The aftermath of the disastrous experiment sets the ball rolling for infighting within the kingdom, as well as hinting at a larger threat. It's traditionally set in a medieval world, which I endeavour to make as gritty and real as possible without losing that fantasy feel.

It's long, and that's the way I like 'em. I've written it for self-publishing, not for an agent or publisher. I'm aware début authors are more successful when they submit smaller books, but that wasn't the story I wanted to tell. 'Perhaps I'll do that in the future' is what I told my editor the other day. Said editor is now working on ironing out kinks (as noticed by Sarah at, as part of the competition), although he's been working on it since shortly after I submitted the book to Mark Lawrence for SPFBO. The rules stated you couldn't re-submit, so the version Sarah had was the even longer first edition. Second edition is live on Amazon now, and has been for a while, with pace fixes and another edit, whilst my professional editor now works to polish it to its final brilliance ready for paperback release later this year. I'm currently writing the second book of the series, Black Guild, and am chugging along half way through the fist draft – when my ten week old daughter permits.

Shawn Wickersheim: A twitter friend and a fan of my writing, Lisa Richardson @lrich1024, heard about the contest and tweeted me the details. Since I'm always looking for new ways to get my books in front of new readers, I eagerly entered. My SPFBO entry was The Penitent Assassin. It is a fast-paced, epic fantasy novel starring the dark hero, Mallor, a man who is determined to avenge not only the genocide he survived but also the murder he didn't. His goddess offers to return him to life on the condition he becomes her assassin. He agrees.

Think I gave away too much? Don't worry, in this gritty fantasy novel where nothing is quite what it seems, you won't know what Mallor will do until the bitter end. While The Penitent Assassin is a stand-alone title, it is set in the same world as my other published books, The Rush of Betrayal: Deception (Book 1) and The Rush of Betrayal: Absolution (Book 2).

Christopher Ruz: A fellow fantasy author, S.A. Hunt, brought the SPFBO to my attention. We're huge fans of each others' work, and he urged me to enter Century of Sand. Having recently submitted CoS to the grueling Immerse or Die challenge, I thought it had a shot!

Century of Sand is a dark fantasy in the style of Moorcock and Wolfe that follows a father and daughter fleeing an oppressive regime. Richard, an old soldier, helped install a sociopathic magician on the throne decades before in what he hoped would be a glorious, peaceful revolution. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. Now he's now desperate to save his daughter Ana from the magician's clutches, and is dragging her across a wild, untamed desert in search of a legendary demon who might shelter him from the magician's wrath. I think it's pretty neat!

Blair MacGregor: Honestly, I don't remember how I heard of SPFBO. My guess is I saw it first on Twitter, or on Mark's blog. Sand of Bone is a desert fantasy that reviewers have described as brutal, dark but not quite grimdark, character-driven, realistic with military fantasy elements and, from SPFBO reviewer Bob Milne, "quite astounding." (Yeah, I like that one. :) ) Here's a link to the information page for Sand of Bone. The description is below:
Syrina – descendent of the gods, one of the Velshaan who rule the deserts and deltas, cast out by her bloodkin for daring to reject their intrigues.

They thought exile to Salt Hold – surrounded by parched earth and outcast Blades who despise her – would end her defiance. But Salt is safer than the grand alcazar of home when she uncovers the secrets of commanding sand, fire, water, wind – the power mixed with ambition that nearly destroyed her bloodkin in generations past.

Pyrius was the desert’s most respected Blade Commander until the bloodkin sentenced him to Salt. But he finds a way to keep his Blade vows while still exacting revenge: serve the exiled Velshaan Syrina. When her bloodkin’s threats become actions, Pyrius sets a plan in motion that will either prevent the looming civil war simmering in the desert’s heat or see them all fed to the sands for sedition.

Because Syrina’s ability to touch the desert’s deepest elements is still fickle and raw – too weak to defeat her bloodkin, strong enough her bloodkin want her crushed. But the gods demand a soul in trade, and the fate of the living rests upon the redemption of the dead.

Q] What were your expectations going into it and now that the first round is nearly over, what are your thoughts?

DM: I didn't have many expectations going into it. I found life is a lot more enjoyable if I don't expect anything and therefore aren't disappointed. Overall, I hoped for a review or two and maybe some exposure to make it a "success." I did hope to be a winner, but doesn't almost everyone who enters a contest?

The first round has been an interesting experience in terror and anticipation. I had the reviewers on my RSS feed and every time I saw that I had new posts, my heart would beat a bit faster and I'd hesitate to click on it. Every time, I hoped it would be "you're a winner!" post (like The Fifth Element) but it hasn't happened yet.

One thing that came out of it was meeting up with a lot more authors on social networks (Twitter mainly). Some of that came from the "I'm reading X's book" or my effort to track all of the entries, but it was nice to expand my social network. I can attribute my six-year-old account finally reaching two hundred followers because of this contest.

MC: I figured someone would get my book, read a few chapters, and say “Pass.” That seems like the rule whenever any author submits anything to anyone. There are exceptions, but it seems the height of hubris to assume you will be one of them.

Even if you assume the work has value and is entertaining, I think it’s typical for a given reader to bounce off it for a million reasons. They weren’t in the right mood, it didn’t resemble their personal favorite subgenre, some phrase or word choice struck them the wrong way. Especially if the reader is someone whose job is to sift through a lot of amateur stuff. I think you have to assume “this is probably crap” before you even crack the book open because it’s statistically true, and because if you’re someone reading a lot of amateur stuff, your own experience tells you most of it is crap.

I think that’s the main reason the SFPBO works so much differently than submitting to an agent or editor. I was surprised to see many of the bloggers really reading each book! In retrospect it makes perfect sense. These bloggers love fantasy, and read a ton of it. They are purely looking for the next work that will engage them and there’s no limit there. If they find 20 entertaining books, they’ll read and review 20 entertaining books. Many fantasy readers consider it a kind of moral failing to give up on a book, even if they didn’t like it!

Agents and editors don’t have that problem, because they’re considering other things. First, is the work saleable? In other words, is there a market for it? Secondly, among those works that pass that test, they want to select the MOST saleable books. If they find 20 saleable books this month, they’re not going to publish 20 books next month. There’s a limit.

It’s the absence of that commercial eye that makes the SFPBO really interesting. I mean, look at all the reviews these people have written. Many of them are positive! Many bloggers deliberately read the entire book! Whereas an agent’s reader might spend 15 minutes with a book before giving a PASS/FAIL grade.

MK: I don't know if I had any real expectations. It was clear from Mark's posts that the entire contest was a volunteer effort, so mostly I was just grateful for the opportunity. My main hope was for a positive review, and as it happened The Unbound Man received a lovely review quite early in the contest. I can imagine that those who had a longer wait might have found it a little frustrating, but it was certainly a positive experience for me.

GRM: I didn't have much in the way of expectations, if I am honest. I certainly thought that winning was unlikely (typical British pessimism in play there), but I hoped for a good showing. I read the bloggers brief - treat the books like an agent, give it three chapters and see what you think (I'll come back to this later), so I didn't actually expect a review at all (unless I won, of course). When I entered, I asked Mark to ensure that Fantasy-Faction didn't get my book, which they didn't. It wasn't because I hate Fantasy-Faction, but I write for the site and it wouldn't have been fair.

Sarah Chorn, she of Bookwormblues fame, got my book. And then I found out I was in the first round of books she had chosen (Eeeek!) to read. I suppose there is nothing different, really, in a blogger reading a book and a reader (they are one and the same), but bloggers have reach and influence (though Sarah would be shocked to hear you say so).

As we all know, Sarah took to it with a gusto and enthusiasm that even Tigger would be hard pushed to follow. She read every book, at least at the start, and gave each a review (mini-review) and an award. I have to say I loved her comments about my book - I thought she gave it a good read and recorded her thoughts perfectly. She called it "very unique and very brave" - a comment that Mark Lawrence returned to when I did my r/fantasy Writer of the Day in August. Sarah gave The Stone Road 4 out 5 Stars, the same score as the eventual winner so there is no way I can be disappointed - I lost out by a whisker. Add to that, folks that have read book 2 (The Blue Mountain) say it is even better than the first.

The whole thing has also been a great way to find other indie/self-pubb'd authors and their books. In that regard, it has been a fantastic experience and I have made some new friends, new contacts and found some new voices that I look forward to hearing more of. Oh, and it has been a confidence builder too - having a blogger, especially a respected one (Mark chose the bloggers he respects and that's a damn good measure by anyone's yardstick), like your book and give it a good review is great affirmation.

JC: My expectations for how well my own book would do weren't terribly high, mostly because of what I perceived at the time as potential conflicts of taste--even after I decided that it was definitely fantasy, and that it therefore was eligible to be part of the contest, I still worried that the fact that it was in no way traditional epic fantasy (which seemed to be the bread and butter of most everyone involved) might hold it back. That aside, I was confident that anyone who read it with an open mind would enjoy the experience, and I'm very pleased with how well it's been received, particularly for my first novel.

I've been absolutely thrilled to see how well it's done: it's one of Fantasy Faction's top three in the first round. Even if it doesn't move forward, I'll always have the thrill of knowing that my novel got a good review on one of the biggest fantasy sites on the web.

T.O.M.: I don’t know if I had any expectations before going in to it beyond the fact that someone was going to read my book and hopefully write some positive things about it. There was no prior experience or event to base any expectations on. Looking back now we can see that there has inevitably been a variety of approaches from the bloggers and those initial responses started to shape expectations from those of us waiting in the wings. Though expectations is perhaps the wrong word, hopes would describe it better. I was always aware that this was an experiment with volunteer bloggers and I hoped for a Sarah Chorn approach where everybody got something, a comment, a tagline a moment in the light. I could hope, but I did not expect.

However, that was the high hope. The more moderate wish was that there would be some systematic and fair process that the book would be subjected to. There was also the hope that there would be some “news.” The silence from some bloggers was hardest to bear. Again, one can’t criticise a volunteer, but when I google my own book it’s involvement in the SPFBO simply doesn’t feature.

DB: I wasn't sure what to expect aside from seeing some self-published books getting reviewed by respected bloggers. The experience, though, has been much better than that. A sense of community was developed, and many of the bloggers took more interest in the project that I had hoped.

AZ: Like a lot of creative people, I'm simultaneously proud of the work I produce and have convinced myself it is sewage. I'm not sure I had any expectations other than I really didn't think my book would make the cut. It didn't, so I met my expectations. I mean, I do think the book is good or else I wouldn't have released it into the wild, but I had no expectation of coming out on top in a competition with over 250 other novels. That's rough even before you consider individual reviewers' personal tastes and preferences. I didn't think I'd win. I didn't. I don't need to wallow in my sorrows. I'm good.

JPA: Entering SPFBO I told myself I'd be happy receiving a little exposure and a mini review which I could share and add to my Goodreads blog. My greatest fear was that Sarah wouldn't finish it and it'd be stamped 'DNF', especially due to the size of the novel – she has so much on, I honestly don't know how she does it all.

Now the first round is over, I'm genuinely stunned to have received not only a 4/5 from Sarah, but to have won her fifth and final round, which put me through to her own group final. I had feared a DNF, remember? So a 4/5 – from the woman who gave Mark Lawrence's amazing Prince of Thorns a 3/5 (which he admitted to GR Matthews and I, at Fantasy Faction's Grim Gathering this year) – knocked me off my feet. I may have lost out to Ben Galley, which was well deserved, but I couldn't have hoped for more. The best bit for me, reinforced by a congratulations and lovely comment from Marc Aplin of Fantasy Faction, was that my only let down had been the early pace (now fixed in the live second edition) and the edit in general.

I'd been naive when I released it, but that swiftly changed and I have since teamed up with professional editor, Jeff Gardiner. I've learnt a lot working with him and can honestly say that when the paperback drops later this year, along with the third kindle edition, the comments Sarah rightly made about editing will have been dealt with in full. The fact that my setting, world building, magic system and the complexity, for which she gave me an award, weren't to blame for my loss of that fifth star, is incredible to me. I honestly couldn't have asked for more.

SW: Being a competitive guy, naturally I wanted to win, but I also understood the subjective nature of such contests so I knew that if my reviewer didn't like my writing style, my story, heck, even my cover art, I wouldn't make it past the first round. Of course, I was pleased when I made Fantasy Book Review's short list of five. Pulling a quote from their blog about how they came up with their short-list:

"In summary, the books that made the short-list had 2 things in common: 1) They were written with a fair degree of skill, care and attention to detail. 2) The story, locations and characters were both engaging and well-written."

What author doesn't like to hear that?

Of the other books on the short-list, David Benem's "What Remains of Heroes" caught my eye. I read and enjoyed it very much. David read and enjoyed The Penitent Assassin. If not for SPFBO, I don't know if I would have discovered David's work, or he mine.

When Fantasy Book Review announced their round one winner, I was happy for David and pleased with their short review of The Penitent Assassin. To quote their thoughts on my book:

"We found that the darkness that lurked at the edges of this book added greatly to its appeal. The narrative constantly raised questions that we wanted answering, such as ‘who are the dark replicants?’ and ‘who is/was Mallor?’ Full of unexpected happenings, twists and turns this is a very good book with great anti-hero that Gemmell fans will enjoy."

Their excellent review helped take the sting out of being eliminated from the SPFBO contest.

CR: I never assumed I'd win, but CoS has been received pretty well in the past and I thought I had a chance of passing the first round. That said, there were some AMAZING entries alongside CoS that prove self-published fantasy is a force to be reckoned with, and I was honored to have been shortlisted by Fantasy Book Critic alongside Under A Colder Sun. Still, I'm hoping to see a mini-review of CoS emerge at some point, if only so I can learn what Mihir thought of my work and how I can improve in future.

BMG: Can I talk about intentions instead? :)

The personal-focused intention was to gain a little visibility. A reader's decision to purchase a book is a cumulative one based on more than a single mention or review, so I didn't for a moment think any level of notice in SPFBO would result in a blast of sales. But every little mention adds up, and I considered my novel strong enough to compete on its merits. But I had other intentions as well.

I blogged about my decision to participate in the SPFBO, as well as my thoughts on the value and impact of reviews. A few of the points apply to this question, but one in particular sticks out.

Y'see, readers are already discovering and talking about self-published writers. Indie and small press writers are a growing segment of our industry, and even the most skeptical of industry consultants is taking notice. So while the motivation behind SPFBO was to give a little visibility to self-publishing writers, my own hope was a bit of the reverse: to give reviewers holding staunch "no self-published writers need apply" stances an opportunity to loosen their grip long enough to see what readers have discovered.

I remember when a professional in the genre news industry asked about some guy named Hugh Howey. At the time, Hugh was outselling the majority of genre writers as a self-published outsider. Because the industry pro had written off anything connected with self-publishing, the pro was left wondering about what thousands of readers already knew. Truly, from a business perspective, it isn't advantageous to ignore what readers are discovering.

Besides, considering the ongoing conversations about diversity in publishing--and the success diverse writers have found in self-publishing--it's a self-defeating contradiction to rail against the former while dissing the latter. (Yep, I've a blog post on that, too.)

So hell yes, I wanted Sand Of Bone to do well. But I wanted more. I wanted change.

Q] We have had many bloggers talk about their experiences in reviewing and choosing titles. What were your thoughts about the bloggers decisions?

DM: Overall, I got the feeling that the reviewers were overwhelmed at first and continued until the end. 25-28 books each is a significant amount of reading to get through. The reviews felt a bit rushed as the deadlines reviewed, but they were still pretty good.

Bookworm Blues was awesome in that mentioned every book they got which was fantastic for helping authors. It was, no doubt, an obscene amount of work and I really appreciate what they've done. Any post, any review, or even a mention helps authors and I think that the effort they put in was fantastic.

MC: My book went to Marc Alpin at Fantasy Faction, so I’m going to focus on his approach.

I was surprised at his methodology, it’s literally the exact opposite of what an editor or agent would do. Instead of one reader spending fifteen minutes with the book before deciding whether to pass it on to the next stage, Marc, or his readers, apparently read every book. That’s 27 books! Goddamn!

Any books he failed, he then handed off to one of his reviewers to double check; “Did I miss something? Is this actually a good book and I didn’t see it?” Does that not seem extraordinary to you? Because it does to me! This is someone far more concerned with “did we find the best” than “Is this something we can market?”

It implies a huge sea change in the way readers find books. If blogs like Fantasy Faction become the way readers find new fantasy, then they’re going to find a lot more really good fantasy because Alpin scientifically (as scientifically as possible) sifts through EVERYTHING.

MK: Reviews and contests are inevitably subjective, and I think it's impossible for authors to critique them. If the groups of 25 had been distributed differently, we might have ended up with a completely different set of finalists. Perhaps The Unbound Man might have been one of them, or perhaps it might have been cut without so much as a mention. As an author, the sooner you come to terms with the luck factor, the better your chances of retaining your sanity!

As it turned out, I was more fortunate than most. There were some titles with a particular flavour (such as YA or romance) that ended up being assigned to bloggers whose tastes lay elsewhere. I'm sure that must have been disappointing for the authors involved, but I think they probably appreciated the way those bloggers noted the fact in their reviews and pointed out that people with different tastes might enjoy those books more.

I don't mean to imply that a good review is only about luck, of course. Quality is real, and reviewers have a better eye for it than most. No doubt the second stage of the contest, where different bloggers assess the same set of books, will showcase both factors: variations due to taste, and trends that reflect underlying quality.

GRM: Never argue with a review of your book - I think that is the prevailing advice, and one I certainly intend to follow forever. Everything is subjective in writing (well, maybe not everything and I'll probably come back to that later on), and opinions are just that, opinions not facts. I think Sarah, and a few others, approached the process differently than the brief. They read everything and reviewed everything - that's 25 to 27 books, a massive commitment and one that wasn't expected of them. You can't fault them there. And those that did it different ways, well they just followed the rules.

As a writer, I can sympathise with the others authors who didn't get theirs reviewed - a review is exposure, it is a chance to poke one's head above the noise of other books, above the crowd, a chance to wave and say, 'here I am, read me, you'll enjoy it.' I think if I had been in that position I would have been disappointed, but that is life in indie publishing. You take the chances and opportunities that arise - then you just hope. Some will work out, some will slip on the metaphorical banana skin of marketing and you'll fall hard on your ar... back.

Reading every bloggers contributions, it is clear that a good cover goes a long way. I'm sure that is nothing new to a lot of people, but having it confirmed in print so many times, by many voices, makes it hard to ignore (not that you should want to).

On a bright note, I did have one of the other bloggers ask for a copy of The Stone Road. So I sent them that, and the sequel - every chance, every opportunity, dodge the banana skins and hope.

JC: I was very impressed by how seriously all of the bloggers involved took the contest. As a self-published author, you still run into a lot of skepticism and negativity about the idea of self-publishing (though that seems to be less and less the case every day), particularly when it comes to getting your work reviewed by reputable critics. Mark Lawrence wedged his boot in the door for us and gave us a great opportunity, and for that I'll be ever thankful, but once the door was open it was still up to the writers to prove their worth to the reviewers, and the reviewers absolutely gave us more than a fair shake.

I've been following the contest very enthusiastically, and the professionalism with which all of the websites involved handled the submissions was just stellar. There was never any sense of deprecation or bias that I saw: the bloggers gave each work a fighting chance and then wrote about their honest opinions. I thought the level of interest you all displayed was actually above and beyond--many of the bloggers reviewed as many of the books as they could, even though they weren't required to, and always made a point to highlight the positive even when the overall review of a particular book was negative.

While I haven't yet had the chance to read much of the competition, I definitely get the sense that the contest has been effective in finding some great novels.

TOM: I always appreciated those that gave reasons and any individual comment was precious. There is always a worry that maybe your book just won’t be to the blogger’s taste. Mine is traditional epic fantasy – a lot of amazon reviews like it and the slightly twisted take I’ve pursued. But if your blogger happens to be Tolkien-ed out on big bad guys and the need to save the world (and let’s be honest you bloggers must have read more than your fair share of them) then even JRR himself might struggle to rise above the flotsam of floating tropes.

So with that in mind knowing why a book made it through one sieve or the next was always a bonus. As I write this I still have no idea how my book has done. I am like schrodinger’s cat in a superposition of states, but I don’t hold out high hopes for when the box is finally opened!

DB: It seemed to me the bloggers went about the decision-making process precisely as they were asked, going through the books as an agent would. Indeed, many were even more indulgent than that, giving a lot of books a chance through several chapters or more, with some of the bloggers reviewing most of the books in their respective "slush piles."

The majority of the bloggers "short-listed" titles, which I thought was a great idea. It drew eyeballs to books the bloggers felt were in contention. Preference in fantasy is a subjective thing, so it was nice to see a lot of the bloggers bring attention to more than just a single book.

I was deeply honored to be chosen as the finalist by Fantasy Book Review. I read several of the titles in my group and there were some very good books. Now I'll certainly be loading my Kindle up with the other finalists and many of the runners-up, and I look forward to reading them. This contest has certainly added to my reading list!

JPA: In all honesty, it's up to each blogger how they do it. They're all top people as far as I'm concerned for taking part in the first place; for giving self published authors a chance, a platform and a voice.

In hindsight, where we all have perfect vision, I feel that for next year – I hope there's to be a SPFBO 2016 – all the bloggers involved could put their heads together, brainstorm, and come up with a plan on how to tackle it all, so there's at least some similarity in the way the ten groups are reviewed/chosen.

I couldn't be happier with Sarah's method. We, all of us in her group, got a mini review and a mini award, a positive point of sorts. That was hugely encouraging to everyone, even those whose books weren't finished, I'm sure. They at least saw a silver lining and knew what to build on – something rejection letters from agents or publishers aren't famous for!

Some bloggers who gave DNF's didn't say why (not in detail, anyway), making it hard for those authors to know where they failed or what to work on. Following on from that, whether author or reader, if you're following a competition I'm pretty sure, like me, you want to know why someone was knocked out, not just that they were.

I work in management (*yawn* - bear with me), where we're taught to give a 'feedback sandwich' which involves: Praise where praise is due, constructive criticism or a heads up to where something is really failing, and then finish on a round-up of the pro's, of the positives, of the reason that person shouldn't give up. I like it, both when offering it and receiving it. It's used because it works and it'd be nice to see it used in the competition next time round, and in reviews in general.

SW: I've read two of the final ten chosen so far and have given them both five star reviews. A couple others have caught my eye and I intend to read them as well. One I started, but it didn't hold my attention. Nothing particularly wrong with the book, it just didn't grab me. It seems the bloggers shared that same experience.

Shuffle these same 270 books around and assign them to different bloggers and perhaps some of the final ten might appear again, but perhaps not. It's a hard truth to face, but sometimes "luck" plays a role in these types of contests. For example, you may have the greatest YA urban fantasy novel around, but if your randomly chosen blogger dislikes YA urban fantasy novels, they may not even finish it.

CR: Choosing a single winner from a spread of so many novels must have been brutal, and I don't envy them the task. A number of bloggers reported having to do quick skims of the openings of several novels in order to build their shortlist, which goes to show how much pressure they were already under. Major respect to everyone who volunteered their time!

BMG: Erm, giving specific thoughts on specific decisions... That's really not the place of someone impacted by those decisions. While I believe in analyzing my reviews for marketing purposes (and I'll be doing a follow-up post on that soon!), I don't believe in judging them.

So what I can say is this: I took the time to read samples of the majority of SPFBO submitted novels. Some were not available for sale at the time, some showed promise that a little editing could bring out, and a handful turned into purchases. Based on what I read, some of the reviewers' decisions make perfect sense, and some make me wonder if we read the same book. Books set aside by one reviewer very well might have been advanced another round by a different reviewer. In other words, the results are exactly what I expected them to be. Such is the nature of opinions!

Q] Following up on that, what would be your advice to the bloggers for their communication & reviewing process (say for SPFBO in 2016 & beyond)?

DM: I thought some reviewers didn't communicate status very well. I felt that Fantasy-Faction was the least communicative (at least they didn't have anything linkable that I could find) which was probably frustrating for the authors who were assigned to them. I'm sure they did a good job; I just didn't have a lot of insight. Overall, I liked the steady pace of reviews plus the observations made. Elitists Book Reviews (the ones who got me) had some excellent discussions about covers and Internet presence (which I appreciate a lot more). Even Marc Aplin's post was useful.

MC: So far, from Fantasy Faction, there’s been no communication that I’m aware of. Priest made the first cut of nine books from 27, and then made the second cut of three books. As of this writing, as far as I am aware, Priest still has a shot!

I know the other two books still in the running (James Cormier’s Exile, and James Islington’s The Shadow of What Was Lost) were both reviewed on the site, one of them before the contest began! So I know what FF thought of those two books. No idea what they think of Priest. No idea what Marc or any of his readers thought about any of the books that didn’t make the cut. So I guess that’s my feedback. If you read the whole book, let us know what you thought. Maybe the work didn’t warrant a full review, that’s cool. But there had to be some reaction. It seems like many blogs did exactly this and it was really interesting reading the reviews, seeing what the reviewers responded to, what turned them off. It’s a useful tool for a writer.

MK: I thought the approach taken by Sarah and one or two others of writing mini-reviews for every title was great. Ideally, I'd love to see every reviewer take that approach in future, although I recognise that might be unrealistic given the workload involved. Beyond that, I'd say the best thing each blog can do is make clear at the beginning what its approach will be and what the contest authors should expect (as indeed many of them did). But again, I think it's important for all of us authors to remember that the whole contest is a volunteer effort and not load up the bloggers with too many expectations.

GRM: Ah, sheesh, Mihir, how am I supposed to answer that? I suppose that, maybe like a few others, I straddle the fence here. I entered a book into the SPFBO and I ended up reading entries for Fantasy-Faction. Sarah reviewed all of the entries, mine included, that she received and we, at FF, did not. I will say that Marc has read all of the entries and I've read 12 of them. I know other contributors have read a similar number. We've all fed our thoughts back to Marc, think of him like a friendly spider at the centre of web. To extend that, think of Mark L as a bigger spider in the centre of a bigger web. Some bloggers gave out little to no information as Round 1 progressed, others gave lots. I am glad I was in a group that got lots. But it is tough - let me try and explain (with both my hats on, writer and reader, author and blogger (small spider in a larger web)). I know that the winner was well deserved and that it was a close run thing - lots and lot of discussion taking place.

However, there were some of those I read that were never going to win - and that is horrible thing to say. If bloggers had to review all the books, and review them properly, I would imagine there would be some difficulty. Reviewing good books is easy. You can wax lyrical about all the great characters, the plot, the settings, the world building, the technicality of the prose, the allusions, metaphors, sub-plots and so on. Drop in a few 'if onlys' and your done. Reviewing a bad book, if you truly don't care what the author thinks, or about their feelings, their struggles and all the hard work they've put in, then that review is quite easy too. Most of us are not that way inclined, and no author entered their book into the competition to crucified by a reviewer.

I quite liked Sarah's respectful way of coping with those books, the DNFs. In each one she found a positive, an award the author could take some pride in and, who knows, another blogger might have loved those books. Tough line to walk, being totally honest, but respectful.

JC: Keep doing what you're doing! I've enjoyed reading it all. I truly hope this is something that will be continued on an annual basis--I definitely think the interest is there.

I'd love to see each of the bloggers do a wrap-up post answering some of these questions themselves. I'm sure most are already planning to do so. It'll be interesting to see what everyone really thinks about it--did you enjoy it? Hate it? Was it worth it? If you were skeptical about self-published fiction to begin with, did the SPFBO change your opinion or cement it?

TOM: News and updates! Tell us your thoughts, anything, talk about the books. We poor self-published authors lurk in the dark so much the promise of the light of a bloggers attention and then darkness can be hard to bear.

Have a system, be explicit about how it is fair and share it early. I have no argument with those who didn’t read every word of every book. By all means treat it like you’re an agent giving these books a chapter or two to grab you; that is more attention than most self-published books get from a publisher.

And the systems don’t have to be the same across all bloggers. Sure we’d hope all our books were read cover to cover but that’s not going to possible. Variety in books, variety in blogs. I’m happy provided that, within a mix of each blogger’s two dozen or so, we all had an equal chance be the one to make it to the final.

Also, maybe run it like X-factor in that people can re-enter except for those who made it to the finals in this round.

DB: I think the process went quite well for the first time around. As a contestant I would have loved more Twitter updates throughout, though I realize the bloggers have plenty of other worthwhile things to devote their time to.

AZ: Like I said, I generally respect what the bloggers and reviewers are doing here. For transparency's sake, I run a blog with around thirty freelancers as my day job. It's work regardless of whether you're a blogger for money or for fun. Yes, fun can be work. It's time-consuming. I'm sure every single person who submitted their book to this contest would say (or think) they'd have liked more communication throughout the contest. I didn't make the cut to get a review, but as the author, I'm still always interested in what people thought of my book. Public commentary, private commentary, it's all good. However, running a media outlet as my day job, I know that kind of communication can be a huge time investment on top of the time already being invested in this project. When more communication means less work getting done, communication becomes a problem rather than a solution.

In a perfect world, ongoing progress updates would be awesome. Even if there's no direct communication between bloggers and authors, checking off books as they're read or having a place to track progress would be rad.

JPA: This is what I like to hear, a positive mention of a SPFBO 2016. Yes please! I'd say the same as above. Get together, somehow, and draw up simple guidelines you all agree on so each group is consistently managed. When that's set out, at least the new entries know what's to come and the bloggers know what's expected of them.

Let's face it, this competition, to my knowledge, is the first of its kind for self published authors. The bloggers involved will be known for it just as much, likely more so, than the majority of the authors involved. It's pushing up your readers/followers as well as ours. Strive to improve the competition, like the authors should be striving to improve their entries.

Personally I liked how Sarah at did it, but then I would, wouldn't I?

SW: This would likely make the contest too labor intensive, but here are a few thoughts:

1) To reduce the "luck" factor, have the entries assigned to bloggers who actually like/read/review those specific fantasy sub-genres.

2) Since this contest was intended to help promote self-published fantasy authors, perhaps having a uniform reviewing policy for either all books, or at least "honorable mentions" and "finalists" would be helpful. Some bloggers wrote complete and lengthy reviews, others not so much or not at all.

3) Add another round. Round 1: Cut the initial 250+ down to the top 50 (top 5 from each 10 bloggers) and offer a score and a short review of at least their chosen top 5 (some bloggers went so far as to comment/review on each of their given titles - that would be up to each blogger).

Round 2: Each blogger is assigned and reads five other titles from the top 50 and offers a score and review.

Round 3: The top 10 overall scored novels after 2 rounds are read/reviewed by all bloggers with #1 'winner' chosen and scored/reviewed/promoted on all blogging sites/Mark Lawrence’s site/twitter/Goodreads etc. This would allow more books to be scored and reviewed on multiple blogging sites.

CR: The long silences were painful, but that's life as an author - you just put your head down and keep writing. It feels like each blogger was given a little too much to handle in a relative short space of time, so I don't blame them for not keeping us constantly up to date! I'd definitely recommend doing a quick scan of the first 20-50 pages of each novel early to form a shortlist and give themselves some mental space. A one paragraph review for each book wouldn't hurt either - there are a lot of indie authors out there hoping for some professional feedback, and even a couple lines would go a lone way.

BMG: Ah, this one I can answer since it's about process rather than opinion, and I'm going to give broad answers rather than SPFBO-specific ones. If you don't mind. :)

A) Remember that being "fair" means being fair to yourself as well. Your sole obligation to a writer is to be a decent human being. Continuing to read books that don't meet your standards and/or utterly fail to engage you wastes everyone's time--including the writer! There is nothing unfair about honestly stating a book simply isn't to your taste.

B) Maintain your demonstrated standards of civility and professionalism. I once heard a reviewer gleefully tell a roomful of writers they'd better be prepared to have their work torn apart if it was sent to him and he didn't like it. That's an attitude of ego, not professionalism.

How wonderful it was to see SPFBO reviewers choose differently! Even the more negative reviewers were honest without being nasty or flip. That speaks well of them as people as well as reviewers.

C) Review books. Not trade-published books or self-published books or small press books. Just BOOKS. After all, that's the only thing most readers are reading.

D) Subscribe to the SFWA New Release Newsletter so you'll know about the broad diversity of books members are putting out. It'll give you a heads-up on work you might not otherwise hear about. And, as a reader, I love seeing a spectrum of books reviewed. It's much more interesting than everyone reviewing the same books. :)

E) Answer the SFWA survey for reviewers. I sent one out some time ago to all SPFBO reviewers, but received only one reply. So if you're a reviewer interested in connecting with a variety of works, please answer the survey questions or request another one be sent to you if you need it. We'd very much like to institute a program that serves reviewers' preferences.

NOTE: Part II to be posted next week.


Ted Cross said...

I didn't see the tweet about this or I'd have gladly taken part. Like most said, I appreciated Sarah's approach, and I was really happy that she liked my book. It was sad to be so close in rating to the winner of my group and not win, but I actually expected that. Why? Because a lot of readers these days--and fairly so, I might add--don't want to read any more traditional Tolkienesque fantasy. They've decided they have read enough of that. Fair enough. I wanted to get mine out of my system, and that's what I did with my first novel. I think it's good, but I knew it had little chance to get to the final. Now that I've done my D&D-style story I can concentrate on more original storylines.

G R Matthews said...

Read it from start to finish - really interesting to see what everyone thought of the process.

Marc said...

It was most important to me that all the books were read and fairly judged. Matthew made some kind comments about my methodology above. I wasn't overly communicative during the initial process, because I plan to write a few posts after the process has finished that offers advice to next year's entrants (should Mark do it again). I also didn't want to befriend any of the entrants, because I knew that would make things difficult / change my perceptions of a book going into it.

The books that were sent to us that we didn't put through - it seemed unfair to comment on too much anyway. What could we say beyond 'we do not like your book' or 'we liked it, but I do not think it is good enough to go through'. You have to remember that these books have already been published, so we can't offer editing advice - this isn't what this process was all about. The authors have already judged their work to be publishable and, therefore, for us to start critiquing them or offering style advice feels really condescending.

Additionally, we are looking to offer promotion to the books that we feel deserve more attention - i.e. why I thought we should review the top three and focus our efforts on spreading the word on those titles. I know that two of the authors have since said they've seen a decent result from us doing this in terms of sales, I haven't spoken to the third author, but I'd hope the same is true for them too.

I've written a post commenting on the process from my point of view (to be published), I also published a number of Self Publishing related posts during the time, and will do another post offering advice to future entrants, but, again, you should remember I can't offer style advice, etc - the books should already be in their finished state... so the kind of advice I can offer is pretty limited.


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