I’m three years into my involvement with SPFBO—the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off fantasy novel competition founded by author Mark Lawrence—and it’s been a rollercoaster. Lows, highs, twists, turns, and loop-de-loops that have all too often left me with a sick stomach and an aching head. Now, as my third go-round comes to a close and the car rolls up alongside the disembarking platform, I’m gearing up for my next turn.


Because I love it.

The camaraderie with fellow judges, discussing what we loved (and hated) about books is fun. In these days of spoiler alerts, when every public discussion of books and films must be “spoiler free” or somebody yells at you, it’s a joy to be able to join a private chat group share thoughts on what you liked and disliked without having to be careful not to spoil it.

It’s also a joy to discover books that are really special, something I’ve done every year I’ve been involved in the contest (first year as a competitor; next two as a judge for Fantasy Faction). Some of my favorites:

SPFBO4 (2018)

Between the Shade and the Shadow—a terrific coming of age story about a young sprite (a sort of dark elf, in this telling) and her wolf companion

Crown of Stones: Magic Price—an awesome epic fantasy adventure about a powerful magic user in a world where his people are enslaved

The Blighted City—a wonderfully philosophical and often profound science fantasy disguised as a dungeon crawl through a zombie filled land

SPFBO5 (2019)

Blood of Heirs—another terrific coming of age story, this one featuring a prince and a chieftan’s daughter on separate (but related) journeys of self-discovery

Fortune’s Fool—a stunning, sweeping tale about a one-armed woman looking for revenge in a secondary world patterned after Renaissance Italy

Sword of Kaigen—a masterpiece of emotion and action that is now one of my favorite novels of all time

SPFBO6 (2020)

Tales of the Thief City—a fantastically thoughtful and thought-provoking narrative that draws on the tropes of noir detective fiction to explore the meaning of reality

Black Stone Heart—a wild grimdark descent into darkness, leavened with a lot of heart and humor

The Lost War—another classic dungeon crawl wrapped around a story about the power of misinformation (and my personal favorite from this year)

But Wait, Didn’t You Say the Contest Was Painful?

Yes, but first, let’s run over the rules briefly. SPFBO is a free-to-enter contest that opens for entries in June of each year. The first 300 self-published fantasy novels to be submitted are divided up between 10 fantasy book review blogs, each of which picks one book out of their batch of 30 to move on to the finals. There is no entry fee. There is no prize money. All the work involved—by the authors, the organizers, and the judges—is done on a volunteer basis. And for the most part, this is really fun.

Now let’s talk about those painful aspects. It’s on my mind because of a Twitter tempest (in a teapot—we’re talking relatively small numbers of tweets here) prompted in part by one of Fantasy Faction’s SPFBO6 reviews (ie, one of the reviews I wrote/compiled from the comments of my teammates). The author himself was very gracious about our remarks, but other people informed me that this review, plus some written by other SPFBO blogs, stirred up a lot of anger and resentment. A few of the offended individuals tweeted about “mean” reviews, and thus began the latest Twitter kerfuffle to roil the book world.

As a reminder, I’ve been on both sides of this competition. In SPFBO4, A Wizard’s Forge didn’t do as well as I hoped or thought it would. In fact, I was certain it would get at least a semi-finalist nod, and it was devastating when that didn’t happen. When you’re expecting to do well and you don’t, that’s a blow.

Thus, I can only imagine what it feels like for authors who make it to the finals. You’re riding high on the crest of affirmation! Your book beat out 29 other books in its SPFBO batch to make it to the top 10! Woo hoo!

And then reviews start to come in from the other blogs.

Maybe they liked your book, but not as much as the blogger who put it forward into the finals. Or maybe they disliked your book and gave it a low score. And because it’s a competition that is all about reviewing self-published books, the blog must justify the score, so they explain why they scored it low.

My fellow judges and I have talked quite a bit about how this happens every year. There’s always a book or two that makes it to the finals but doesn’t jive with the other blogs. In SPFBO5 it was a book called Spark City. I personally enjoyed this story and found it compelling as both an old fashioned epic fantasy adventure-romance and as an exploration of sexism through the eyes of a macho protagonist. Most of the other SPFBO judges, however, including the majority of my team, saw only the sexism and couldn’t get past it. But this is the nature of the competition: the judges’ opinions are subjective, and we don’t always agree.

This year, judges certainly have not agreed about which books are the “best.” As of this writing (one week before the final scores are due), there is no run-away winner, but nor is there a clear loser. All in all, the spread of scores is pretty wide, and the average scores are relatively high compared to other years. The books that have been poorly reviewed by some blogs have received praise from others, so the current tempest in a teapot has been somewhat baffling.

Although I sympathize with how much a bad review hurts (oh boy do I sympathize!), I also believe that as authors we cannot expect to receive only praise for our work, and if one enters a competition like the SPFBO wherein the books actually get reviewed (many contests simply award prizes, and if your book doesn’t make that cut, you get nothing), you have to be prepared for low as well as high marks. SPFBO6 semifinalist Allegra Pescatore (Where Shadows Lie, another SPFBO entry I loved), said it really well:

As authors, it is our responsibility to not enter competitions or ask for reviews if we can’t take negative feedback.

To be clear, none of the finalists themselves have complained publicly—it’s observers from the sidelines who have stirred up the drama prompting this post. I’m glad the authors themselves understand that bad reviews come with the territory of a competition, and it must be heartening to have supporters who are beating the war drums on their behalf.

Yet it’s worth reminding everyone that the judges in the SPFBO do not have the option to review only the finalists we like. It is our duty to “nitpick grammar choices” as one SPFBO tempest Tweeter complained. It’s our job to point out themes we thought were handled poorly or storytelling or narrative structures that were confusing or faulty in some way. If we find a main character disagreeable or difficult to like or empathize with, we must say so and do our best to explain why. And finally, if we cannot finish a book because we disliked it that much, we must say that as well. This isn’t being mean; it’s fairly reviewing a book entered in a competition to find the best self-publishing has to offer.

It may be cold comfort to the authors, but there are also, always, behind the scenes disagreements among the judges, both within and between blogs. One of these disputes caused me a lot of personal agita, but I have been around long enough to know that when people work together on a common endeavor, there are always internecine struggles. It’s human nature, and we just have to employ whatever coping strategy we need to maintain composure and civility while we carry on.

Bottom Line: Why Do I Do It?

Despite all the controversy and drama that surrounds the contest every year, there’s something very special and uniquely enjoyable about SPFBO. That’s what keeps drawing me back to the front of the line for another ride. Glutton for punishment? Maybe. But I can deal, if the reward is to discover the next great indie fantasy. With real rollercoasters, I’ve learned to it really helps to relax and just enjoy the ride, and that’s what I’ll keep doing with SPFBO.

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