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Sunday, May 10, 2020

SPFBO 5: Conclusion & Some Thoughts (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Over ten days ago, the fifth edition of SPFBO came to a close and we got perhaps the most closely fought top three finish ever. It was a fascinating duel between fabulous titles and in the end we got the gold, silver and bronze finishes by Sword Of Kaigen (M. L. Wang), Fortune’s Fool (Angela Boord) and Blood Of Heirs (Alicia Wanstall-Burke).

As this edition ended and as I look back, I’m amazed to see how quickly these five editions have gone by. I often try to recall the heady days back when Mark Lawrence dreamed up this competition along with Sarah Chorn and reached out to us bloggers about it. Since those early days, the competition has flourished and become bigger and bigger.

It has seen many new faces enter both on the author and blogger fronts and we have been richer for it. So as we look forward to the next edition, I would like to share my thoughts as to why this competition is so special.

Firstly as clarified by Mark, it exists to shine a light on self-published works. In this economy and market, old and new authors will always have a hard time gaining a foothold and hence the SPFBO exists to help. Here’s the official mission statement:

"The SPFBO exists to shine a light on self-published fantasy. It exists to find excellent books that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. It exists to help readers select, from the enormous range of options, books that have a better chance of entertaining them than a random choice, thereby increasing reader faith in finding a quality self-published read."

This competition has a bit of randomness to it and that’s to prevent bloggers from selecting their friends or favourites. Mark and all of us work diligently to make sure that this competition stays free of any bias or favouritism.

As with any complex thing, there are aspects of this competition which are tricky to manage. However we try to evolve and keep it sensible. After 2016, there was a small change initiated which was called the Senlin Safety Net (SSN). So far there have been only 6 times wherein titles have been offered as SSN options by the judges and only one singular time - a title was picked up as a SSN. It came 2nd in the competition (Devin Madson’s We Ride The Storm in SPFBO 2018).

(An unsuspecting  and lovely Josiah Bancroft)

The SSN is a topic that’s a bit tricky but as a judge who’s been around since the start, I feel it’s a strong necessity. The basic theme of this completion is to choose the ten best books for the finals. So for judges, it can be a tricky thing to manage. Choosing a SSN title means overlooking the 30 titles in your lot. Is it fair to all the 30 authors, probably not?

But here’s where the objectivity comes in to play. If (and only if) one reads and gauges that none of the 30 titles in their lot are worthy of the finals, then it’s imperative to look at all the SSN titles on offer (if available) and choose a worthy title to put forward to the finals instead. Of course this is a tricky situation and the key is in avoiding any selection bias. One of the crucial factors for this is that a judge opting to go for the SSN title over their own lot HAS NO SAY about which titles might/will be offered as SSNs by the other judges.

Utilizing the Push principle rather than the pull as advocated by Mark Lawrence. We hope to avoid favouritism in this SSN scenario, while giving the best book the chance to reach the finals and thereby potentially reap more reviews and reader eyeballs. This way, no blogger judge can just simply choose a title from another group. It has to be offered by that judge on their own volition and as seen by the previous editions, the blogger judges only do it when a book is deemed worthy.

I think the SSN is a necessary and wonderful addition to this competition. We judges might not all agree about its vitality but it remains a crucial addition to this competition and should be nurtured as such.

Another aspect which I cherish is the diversity of the blogger judges. This includes single judges as well as groups. As a single judge for the first three editions, I have only praise and admiration for the judges who do it solely (including all editions). So take a bow Lynn, Sarah, Ria, Kitty, Nicole, Katherine, Jared and Bob 😃

There are a couple of things which aren’t codified in the rules but have invited discussion among the judges:

1) Whether previous winners should be allowed to re-enter the competition with their new titles

2) Whether to set a ratings limit for titles to be entered (for eg. Any title with a 5K+ Goodreads rating SHOULDN’T be allowed to enter)

Both of these conditions seem restrictive and a bit illogical from my perspective. So far in five editions (and 1500 entries), there has been just one winner who re-entered the competition and that title reached the finals (Never Die in SPFBO 2019). While there might have been some chatter about the book’s presence, more importantly and this is crucial all the judges IMHO treated it fairly and gave it their honest reviews (even if some of them might not have agreed with its inclusion in the competition). I believe this speaks to their integrity and I’m sure the author would be glad for it.

It all comes down to what I think is the advantage of winning SPFBO. There’s no cash prize offered or any special favour. The winner gets a lovely selfie stick and the honour of knowing that their title beat out 299 others according to ten blogger judges with varied interests. As far as ego boosters go, that’s a pretty solid one.

But as we all know fame is fleeting after all and one’s mental health isn’t a constant. Why should previous winners be any different? As the competition prospers, its popularity and reader visibility increases. Ergo the winner of the first edition definitely has not gotten the same reader eyeballs as say the third SPFBO winner who might not have gotten the equivalent Goodreads adds as the fifth (current) winner. Hence to equate an author’s win as their ultimate glory and to prevent them for further participation is not only silly but also self-defeating in terms of the SPFBO's official mission statement.

We want the best to participate in this contest so the finalists know their books have overcome worthy adversaries. All of the writers who enter this competition are professionals as such. Hence coming to the second point about a ratings cutoff for titles, I believe this is  irrelevant to the SPFBO. We want the best to participate but that doesn’t mean they (popular authors) will choose to enter (in fact in the past five editions, there have less than ten titles with a 5k-plus GR rating entered among 1500 entries).

With a 97 perfect cutoff rate, this competition is BRUTAL to say the least. I’m perennially in awe of authors who submit their books to be judged by strangers. In this regard, popular titles and authors have more to lose in such a scenario than say someone who’s relatively unknown. Yet both also have the same odds of success.

Some might argue that popular books and their authors have name recognition which might influence judges. By that very reasoning, they also have more to lose as judges might be judging them a bit more harshly than the relatively unknowns.

Lastly I would like to clarify what the point of the contest is... Here's what I think:
- It's NOT about the authors.
- It's NOT about the bloggers
- It's about shining a spotlight on books that readers might have overlooked or never heard about. It doesn't matter whether a book has a single Goodreads rating or 5K-plus because it can still reach more people by being in the contest.

I vehemently believe that every book should be judged on its own merit and not whether its author has won SPFBO or been a previous finalist or is a famous one (either traditionally published or self-published). Yes we can have rules about how frequently a previous winner or finalist can re-enter their new books (maybe with a cooling period of 2/3 years for a winner and a year for the finalist) but that's a discussion to be had.

These are some of the reasons why I believe we shouldn’t be thinking of limiting folks based on selective reasons of previous success or Goodreads popularity. These thoughts have been percolating in my brain for some time and maybe I'm the only one espousing them but I'm sure there will be much discussion to be had around this.

The self-publishing world is a tough and lonely one. The SPFBO is a lovely community and I for one would like to see it prosper more. So thank you to Mark Lawrence for its creation and management. My thanks to my fellow judges and blogger teams for their hard work and  vital commitment in helping run this competition. I can’t wait for SPFBO 6 and the hunt to unearth new gems to begin 😃

NOTE: Josiah Bancroft and SA picture courtesy of Nicole Hill and B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog. Selfie stick picture courtesy of Mark Lawrence.



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