I Ain’t Mad About It: The End of My SPFBO 5 Journey

This year I entered the fifth annual SPFBO, or Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. I didn’t really know what to expect, except that my book is completely unknown so the chance of getting any eyes on it was welcome. This isn’t the story of my unexpected rise to the heady heights of competition winner — I didn’t even make it out of Phase 1, though I did earn the title Semi-Finalist, which was nice.

But, as they say, winning isn’t everything, and I’ve gotten so much more from this competition than I ever expected.

SPFBO 2019: 300 Books, 10 Judges, 1 Winner
Official SPFO Banner from Mark Lawrence

There’s A Self-Publishing Community!

Honestly, one of the hardest parts of self-publishing has been that I don’t really know others doing the same. Apart from meeting writers who give me the usual ‘Oh! Self-Publishing! I might just do that if trad publishing doesn’t work out’ comments (excuse me while I roll my eyes into forever), I’ve been pretty isolated. I know the community is out there, I just … don’t know how to find it. Between being awkward, autistic, and having teeny tiny twitter following, my online reach is very small. I don’t really know how to approach people or start talking to them when they haven’t already engaged with me first — it feels rude or invasive and I just can’t bring myself to do it.

The SPFBO, though, has provided me with a list of 299 other authors to follow and a natural talking point. It’s easy to find people via the hashtag and though I’ve hardly transformed into a social media butterfly (still one of those fuzzy, poisonous social caterpillars) and my list of authors I’ve interacted with because of it is closer to 10 than 300, this still feels like a huge step forward. Here are a bunch of people going on the same journey as me, facing the same challenges, and who don’t devalue self-published books just for being self-published — in fact, they celebrate them. That’s awesome and I would be grateful to the competition for that alone.

book store
Image by Eli Digital Creative on Pixabay

And They’re Writing Cool Books!

I’ve been stunned to find so many awesome books in this competition. I suppose I’ve been internalising all the anti-self-pub talk I’ve heard over the years. I’ve been wary of choosing new books to read. But when there are so many reviews out there right now, it’s been easier than ever to find self-published books that pique my interest and deliver a great read. In fact, my favourite book this year, DN Bryn’s OUR BLOODY PEARL, is a book I only heard of because of the SPFBO and only picked up thanks to SPFBO judge Belle’s excellent review.

My list is now full of fantasy books that are skilfully written and beautifully artworked, and also push the boundaries of fantasy in so many ways. Maybe they offer queer or disabled rep I’ve found lacking in other spaces. Maybe they’re just telling new stories in new ways. All I know is I’ve found it refreshing and also really fun to choose my next self-pub read — all thanks to this competition and courtesy of the judges’ helpful reviews.

Our Bloody Pearl by DN Bryn
My favourite book of the competition (and the year). Check it out!

The Judges Are Super Nice!

After I published my book this year and discovered that most book review blogs have a ‘no self-published books’ policy, it would be fair to say I was disheartened. I expected the judges of this competition to be doing this for the clicks and not to care about the little-known books they are shredding.

While I haven’t read every post in the SPFBO, I’ve read some across most of the groups, and all from mine (the RockStarlit Team!) and I am delighted to say that I was very, very wrong. Even though the nature of a competition demands that the bloggers cut books and explain why, most of the judges have gone to great lengths to express that this is their subjective opinion and to point out what other readers might enjoy in a book that didn’t resonate with them. They didn’t have to do this, but they don’t want to hurt self-published authors (many of us at the beginning of our careers!) and they sympathise with our situations. That’s amazing. What’s more, they’ve been kind and courteous out and about on the web.

I’m delighted to now have several book bloggers to follow for reviews and recommendations and some new awesome and knowledgeable readers to follow on social media. This really ties in to finding the other self-pub authors: I feel like I’ve found more book community in this competition than I ever would have on my own, and I couldn’t be happier about it!

5 star review
Image by Shar Jo on Pixabay

I Learned A Lot.

My group was the RockStarlit Book Asylum group. 4 Experienced Book Bloggers, all huge fans of the fantasy genre, and all with very different tastes. In addition to their critiques (both on other books and my own), which are all things I will bear in mind with my future writing, this really hammered home something I’ve heard people say my whole life but never quite believed: quality is subjective. And no, I don’t mean the basics like proofreading, formatting, and a good cover.

Each of the judges had different opinions on … pretty much every book that came in. Or even if their ultimate decision was the same, their reasoning was often different. There were books that one judge would rave about that another had to put down immediately.

And the thing is … this wasn’t for the reasons I expected.

I’ll put it like this. I worked for a literary agent and then a literary scout evaluating manuscripts. I’m used to saying, ‘The characters fell a bit flat’ or ‘The plot felt too rushed’ or ‘the worldbuilding was lacking’ and thinking that’s an objective fact. People might disagree over a book, but the quality of characterisation, plot, and pacing are fixed.

Except that’s not true at all. When one reviewer says ‘I didn’t connect with the characters’ someone else might have found them incredibly deep and lifelike. When someone says ‘there wasn’t enough worldbuilding’ for someone else it was incredibly deep and satisfying. And I found this especially so because sometimes I disagreed with a judges assessment of a book, as well as the judges disagreeing with each other!

It was kind of a strange thing to learn, because as I said it’s something that’s oft-repeated and yet I never understood the depth to which it’s true.

What this means to me is that I’m going to savour the good reviews when I get them, try to learn from the bad reviews as well, but generally remember that there are limits to what I can plan for. All I can do is write the best book I can, get critique from as many experienced eyes as possible, and then put it out into the world. I really, genuinely can’t write a book that everyone loves — or even a book where everyone agrees it was well-written.

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Image by Free-Photos on Pixabay

I May Be Out of the Competition, But I’m Not Done With Publishing

I got further than I ever thought I would, I connected with a community I’d previously had no idea how to interact with, and I doubled by TBR with awesome self-pub fantasy titles. I’m somehow not disheartened by this loss; I’m encouraged. I’m determined to continue self-publishing, to see the world of TOMBTOWN through to the end of its story, and to keep trying and learning and failing along the way if need be.

I’m so grateful to everyone involved. For the interviews and short stories, for the reviews and kind words, and most of all for making me feel like A Real Author for maybe the first time since I published.

I’m in this for the long haul. I didn’t win, but I ain’t mad about it.

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