Irish Fantasy Covers, Phallic Stones and Other Disasters

I’d have to confess that, to date, the Fionn covers have been pretty much a hit and miss affair (but mostly miss). When we first started publishing we decided to use photomanipulations (where the artist/designer plays around with existing stock photography to create a suitable cover) because of budget constraints. Unfortunately, it didn’t take us long to realize the downside of that approach – it’s actually quite hard to find photos that accurately represent Ireland in the first/second century (go figure!).

Because of the dominance of the Liath Luachra character throughout the first three books, we’d also come to the conclusion that it was important to have a young woman warrior on the cover (so it was clear the books were not entirely about Fionn). Again however, when we searched the available stock, what we mostly found were pics of young girls wielding flashy fantasy-style weapons, bizarre armor that just didn’t fit the realistic style of the books, and, of course, various elements of what looked closely like soft porn or something from one of the old Gor series (without the bondage):

SOMETHING (OR OTHER) OF GOR!

SLAVE GIRL OF GOR (she’s actually wearing clothes – they’re just very small!)

In the end, for the initial covers we settled on stock from Chirinstock (who were exceptionally generous in allowing us to use their photos).

Although the figures in their photos were very much dressed in a style used by Keira Knightly in the King Arthur movie (and there was an unrealistic amount of bare skin for an Irish winter), they were still streets ahead of anything else we could find at the time (although, in fairness, the variation in stock for fantasy covers has admittedly improved over the last year or two).

To give the covers an “ancient Irish” feel, we also provided the designer with some of our own stock, mostly standing stones, stone circles, dolmens and so on.

Of course what we didn’t realise until later was that when you mix scantily clad women with tall standing stones, what you can end up with is something … well, phallic.

Phallic Stones in Ireland

It was only last year when I was looking over the covers for the two most recent books in the series that the penny dropped.

HOLY CRAP!

Needless to say, the look went against pretty much everything the books stand for in terms of strong female characters.

Desperate to change the covers last year, we made three attempts to replace them but each time we tried we just seemed to hit a brick wall. The first cover designer we used simply didn’t work out (creative differences!) and provided something like a madwoman in a Harry Potter scarf. A second cover commission fell through. The third one we used didn’t really give the look we wanted (but fortunately was still good enough to use for a separate project we’re working on).

Frustrated with the various photomanipulation flops, we decided to seek out an illustrator for the next set of covers and I’m glad to say that’s worked out extremely well. Photostock limits you to what’s available in the various stock galleries (unless you have a very talented designer) whereas with illustrations you can actually start from a completely blank canvas – a huge bonus with mythology, historical or fantasy covers. Working with an illustrator was also particularly cool in that, at long last, we could provide some visual indication of what a ráth actually looked like (good luck finding workable ráth stockphotos!) and what Glenn Ceoch looked like. More importantly, it was also a lot of fun to help design the actual characters. With Liath Luachra for example, we were able to work out a facial style derived from a character from the “Vikings” television series as follows:

 

Given the subject matter, we still have a warrior woman on the front of at least two of the covers but now, at last , we can also add provide extra detail on some of the other key figures (Bodhmhall, Fiacail, Demne). Honestly! From a creative perspective, I’m kicking myself that we didn’t do this three or four years ago!

 

 

 

 

 

Fascinating Patterns from the SPFBO 2016 Competition

Honestly! Who’d be a fantasy book reviewer?

Day in, day out, reviewing endless narratives from a single literary genre, ducking the infinite queries from enthusiastic independent authors and then …Wham!

Just when you’ve established a workable regime, you’re suddenly enlisted in some bizarre, year-long competition, obliged to score thirty books you had no desire to read, books that are dragging you away from the ones you’d set your heart on.

But, I guess the view is very different from the other side of the mirror.

I came across Mark Lawrence’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) back in 2016, completely by chance. Because I like Mark’s books and I wanted to support what he was doing, I submitted two books on a bit of a whim (FIONN: DEFENCE OF RÁTH BLÁDHMA and LIATH LUACHRA: THE GREY ONE) and promptly forgot about it. Generally speaking, I’m not a fantasy writer so much as a writer of Irish mythological fiction. This contains substantial elements of fantasy so my books occasionally get lumped into the ‘fantasy’ category but it’s by no means a perfect fit. [Please note, Amazon – your categories need work!]

I intentionally refrain from spending too much time online so it was several days after the announcement was made before I found out that FIONN: DEFENCE OF RÁTH BLÁDHMA had been selected as a finalist and only then because a fan of the FIONN series alerted me (cheers, Gary!).

As a slightly abstract finalist however, it’s been quite interesting to watch the competition unfurl. At first, I’d occasionally drift over to Mark Lawrence’s website to see how/if things were progressing. Later of course, the twitter account I’d set up to facilitate our annual Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition was hijacked by fellow SPFBO authors (you know who you are, you bastards!) obliging me to spend many hours of unproductive activity gigging over my keyboard like an inbred teen.

Meanwhile, back in reality, far away from the land of publishing, my alter-ego – mild-mannered concept designer and strategic analyst Brian O’Sullivan – couldn’t help but notice some interesting patterns that related to the particular dynamics of this unique competition. He’s done his best to summarise these below.

The diversity of reviewer tastes:

One characteristic that’s immediately obvious with the SPFBO is the diversity of reading tastes amongst the reviewers. One reviewer might absolutely LOVE a book, others might hate it. Others again might be all a bit …’meh’ about it.

That’s all completely natural of course and yet this characteristic wasn’t immediately obvious during the initial phase of the competition. At that point, the finalists and semi-finalists are still being chosen and the reviews produced tend to be mini-reviews so it’s hard to get a real feel for a reviewer’s taste. I became aware of the characteristic only because I had two books in the mix and the one which I’d thought the strongest contender (LIATH LUACHRA: THE GREY ONE) fell at the very first hurdle whereas FIONN: DEFENCE OF RÁTH BLÁDHMA ended up being the second book selected as a finalist. Both initial assessment/ reviews were carried out by different reviewers (Bookworm Blues and Bibliosanctum) so it was enough to get me thinking.

In the final phase of the SPFBO, once the three hundred contenders had been reduced to ten and the scores started to appear on Mark’s spreadsheet, the diversity of review blogger taste became far more visible. As the competition progressed, it was interesting to watch some books like THE GREY BASTARDS, PATH OF FLAMES and LARCOUT receive remarkably consistent scores whereas others like OUTPOST, PATERNUS or ASSASSIN’S CHARGE seemed to experience a much wider fluctuation, depending on the individual tastes of the reviewer. Interestingly, if you look at the score detail a bit more closely, you can actually see how some review blogs have quite a narrowly defined spectrum of what they like whereas others are far broader. Occasionally, this can be explained by the fact that some review blogs have a number of different SPFBO reviewers but this wasn’t always the case. Bring human, there’s also a genuine possibility of reviewers being influenced by the scores of their peers but, in fairness, any incidence of this appeared low (if at all).

For me, this wide range of tastes was one of the more interesting dynamics of the competition. Whereas for some reviewers you could see a slight trend of “every book but the one I chose wasn’t great”, for others there was really no way you could even hazard a guess as to what kind of score you were about to receive. This made the competition far more exciting.

A surprising openness to diversity

This characteristic really took me by surprise but in a sense it shouldn’t have as it’s probably a logical expansion of point (1).

As explained earlier, the books we publish (fiction and non-fiction) are based on Irish mythological fiction and focus strongly on historical accuracy and cultural authenticity (otherwise, the mythology makes little sense). Cultural authenticity was the whole reason I went down the self-publishing route in the first place. Generally speaking, my experience with mainstream publishers, distributors and reviewers in the English-speaking market is that they don’t allow much room for diversity of style or culture, preferring to stick to strict genre formulae that have proven themselves in the past. It was surprising therefore to see how the SPFBO reviewers handled things.

From the SPFBO FIONN reviews that have been published thus far, you can tell that the Gaelic names (characters and placenames) in the book created a degree of discomfort or challenge for the reviewers. For some this was minor and others complained a bit more, but in almost every case, to their credit, the SPFBO reviewers accepted them for what they were – an essential part of the story.

That genuinely surprised me. Having looked at the websites of the SPFBO review blogs, I’d got the impression they predominantly read and reviewed mainstream fantasy. As a result, I’d expected a similar mindset and that the language (and other Gaelic cultural aspects) would pose something of a barrier. Indeed all the advice I’d received from mainstream publishers to date (including Irish ones, sadly) was that it was critical to ‘anglicize’ Gaelic names for the market. The predominantly positive response from the SPFBO reviewers, however seems a pretty good indication of yet another reason why mainstream publishers are losing such a large proportion of the fantasy genre market to independent authors.

The SPFBO openness to diversity was not just limited to culture of course. Style also formed an interesting part of that. If you look at Jonathan French’s winning novel – THE GREY BASTARDS – you’ll see that the descriptions include ‘coarse’, ‘foul’, ‘filthy’ (one SPFBO reviewer even suggested it could “dial back the profanity/ sexuality”). My personnel favourite however, was from Pornokitch’s review:

“The Grey Bastards is filthy. In every way, really… from being coated to swamp mire to constant penis jokes. If there’s a way to be earthy, or just plain dirty, Bastards will find it. And then roll around for a while. This is part of the book’s steep learning curve: in the first few pages, we’re thrown in the deep end, with politics, sex, action and naked women shooting crossbows.

Despite all that, this book consistently scored ‘nines’ and – most amazingly – a ‘ten’, a first for the SPFBO.

The writing style of a number of other finalists (K. A Krantz’s LARCOUT and Dyrk Ashton’ PATERNUS, jump to mind) was also criticized on occasion by one or two reviewers (maximum). Again however, both of these books scored exceedingly well overall and remain comfortably nestled in the top five of the three hundred books considered, which speaks strongly about their quality.
For me, this situation with respect to diversity was best described by Bibliotropic (in one of the FIONN reviews) as follows:

“We don’t read fantasy novels to be confronted by the distressingly familiar — we read them, in part, to have our minds stretched a little bit.”

There’s been a lot of criticism in the fantasy/sci-fi (and other) publishing sectors over the last three to four years with respect to diversity. Overall, the SPFBO methodology of assessing books across ten different book reviewers seems a far more accurate and less biased process for looking at the general public’s taste with respect to fantasy literature.
If they have any nous, the mainstream publishers will be watching this carefully.

SPFBO Finalists receiving early (and positive) reviews have an advantage

The SPFBO competition is quite different from most other literary competitions in that it’s spread over an extended period (a year). In most cases, this works well for the participating authors (as they receive more exposure and visibility) and the participating fantasy review blogs (who see a corresponding increase in the number of visits to their sites).

The busiest, and most popular, period of the SPFBO definitely appears to be the initial phase of the competition. Over this period, at least 300 authors are online discussing the SPFBO, their own (and other authors’) books, exploring the various reviewer websites to get a sense of the reviewers to whose groups they’ve been assigned and ‘checking out’ of the competition (the other authors in their reviewer group). Numerous other bloggers and fantasy review sites are also interacting at this time, mini-reviews are released, some semi-finalists are identified, the identities of selected finalists trickle in and, of course, other participating authors are slowly but surely, eliminated.

The second phase of the competition seems a little more subdued in comparison. As the number of participating authors has been reduced from three hundred to ten, many of the eliminated authors have moved onto other things and the associated social media activity appears correspondingly diminished. There’s still quite a lot of interest in the initial reviews of the finalists however.
By the time more than half of the finalist reviews are in, there’s certainly a visible tapering off in activity with a drop off in Twitter and Facebook shares, blog comments and in discussions across most other social media outlets.

This all means that there’s a sliding scale with respect to timing of SPFBO Finalist selection, SPFBO reviews and the associated activity/visibility benefits for the authors. This was highly apparent this time around when the Pornokitsch review blog released a post identifying its finalist (Phil Tucker’s PATH OF FLAMES) and close contender (Josiah Bancroft’s SENLIN ASCENDS). Because this post identified the first finalist and provided the first in-depth review, the Pornokitsch post generated an enormous amount of interest and publicity for both Phil and Josiah (deservedly so, I’d have to add). Despite the fact that Josiah was eliminated from the competition, the positivity of the Pornokitsh review and the amount of interest it garnered (plus the quality of the book and a subsequent review from Mark Lawrence) meant SENLIN ASCENDS actually went on to perform exceptionally well in terms of sales and online reviews. Far better in fact than some of the actual finalists.

In some respects, this was also the case with FIONN: DEFENCE OF RATH BLADHMA as there was a flurry of sales and reviews following its initial selection (and like the Pornokitsch review, the Bookworm Blues reviewer struggled to choose between FIONN and Benedict Patrick’s excellent THEY MOSTLY COME OUT AT NIGHT). Due to very understandable circumstances, the reviews for both books were relatively short compared to those of the other blogs which no doubt had some effect.
I haven’t analysed whether the other finalist authors experienced similar dynamics with their initial selection but given the timing issues, I suspect the associated benefits diminished for the later finalists. I suspect this is also the case with the actual reviews themselves. Finalists who received a lot of reviews at the start of the second phase would have obtained far greater benefit than those who received the majority of their reviews in the latter part (for example F.T. McKinstry’s OUTPOST, S.K.S. Perry’s THE MOONLIGHT WAR and to a lesser degree K.A. Stewart’s THE MUSIC BOX GIRL).

The diversity of the fantasy blog reviewers creates different scales of response/benefit

When you consider the SPFBO review blogs, it quickly becomes apparent that they vary broadly in terms of size, from one man/woman bands (such as Bookworm Blues and Bibliotropic) to larger, more collective-style blogs (such as Fantasy Faction or Fantasy Literature). Over the course of the competition, I certainly got the sense that the smaller blogs suffered more from the strain of the increased review workload (the larger blogs could, at least, share the load amongst a larger number of reviewers). Given that, you would have expected the larger sites to complete their reviews first. Ironically, that didn’t seem to be the case. At the time of writing this post, many of the SPFBO reviews from two to three of the larger sites have yet to be posted (although the scores have). This isn’t a criticism – I’m sure there are perfectly good reason why – I just found it quite amusing.

From the perspective of the participating authors, the size and of the reviewing blog probably has some importance. It seems logical that the larger (or more established) review blogs have a greater follower count than the smaller (less-established) sites. This also means that any reviews from those sites (and associated benefits of visibility etc.) spread far wider than the reviews from the smaller sites. To a degree, this effect is balanced by the linking of all the reviews to the centralised SPFBO home site but it’s almost certain that some variance of benefit remains.

Conclusion:
The above are just some of the interesting characteristics that I’ve personally observed over the course of the SPFBO competition research but given the limited amount of analysis I carried out, that’s all they really are: observations.

All competitions have their own particular features, their strengths and their shortcomings. Given that the SPFBO is facilitated by volunteers who do it for passion rather than for pecuniary or other benefit, I don’t think any of us participating authors have too much reason for complaint.
Personally, despite my initial lack of expectations, I ended up obtaining immense enjoyment from the experience (more as a result of the online friends and relationships I’ve established than from any increased sales or visibility – although these too have been beneficial).

I recently carried out a scoping exercise to assess the possibility of facilitating a SPFBO event here in Wellington and although the results indicated it wasn’t really a feasible option as yet, I did identify hints that the SPFBO competition was on the cusp of a step-change in terms of influence. I’m not really interested in the political pros and cons of the “indie versus traditional” publishing discussion but what’s clear to me is that events such the SPFBO have irreversibly transformed the publishing sector. Independent or self-publishing is (and probably has been for a while) the mainstream publishing sector.

I’ll close off with thanks to Mark Lawrence (read the Red Queen), Sarah Chorn and all the participating reviewers of the SPFBO 2016.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh

That a thousand good things might come to you.

Brian O’Sullivan

PS: If I’ve got anything wrong, omitted or misinterpreted anything, feel free to correct me in the comments.

What Comes Next: Update On Production

As you’re probably aware, Fionn: The Adversary , the third book in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series was released at the end of February (if you’re not aware you must be deaf and blind as I’ve been shouting about it from the rooftops for months while waving a bright red flag!).

Following that publication and various other projects, I decided to take some time off and do absolutely no writing for a month or two. I was still working of course. There were still numerous articles to write, my sections for the Celtic Mythology Collection 2017 (released last week) to complete and then of course the editing and the actual publication process. Although this preoccupied me on an administrative level, creatively it freed up some headspace to think about the next book. Having completed another in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series, I was keen to try something slightly different.

Subsequently, I’ve decided to work on two books this year (three really, if I count the next Celtic Mythology Collection but that’s not for several months yet). The first one (which I’ve already scoped out) is going to be a second Liath Luachra novel. Some of you might be a little surprised at that, given that I discounted that possibility last year (I’m nothing if not fickle!).

I originally wrote the first individual Liath Luachra novel (Liath Luachra: The Grey One) as a prequel to the Fionn mac Cumhaill series, one I had intended to be accompanied by a second book called ‘Bodhmhall: The Black Hag’. Both were meant to provide context and background to the two main protagonists in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series and essentially serve as an entry into that series.

As it was, Liath Luachra: The Grey One ended up being far darker than I’d originally envisaged and I felt it just wasn’t suitable as a prequel. The lack of response (reviews and sales) to the book following its publication also convinced me to put it aside, something I announced in one of the earlier newsletters. Many of the elements I’d intended to put in ‘Bodhmhall: The Black Hag’, meanwhile, ended up in Fionn: The Adversary.

Following the SPFBO 2016 competition however, there’s been quite an unexpected surge of interest in Liath Luachra with several people writing to ask for more stories on this particular character. As a result, I’ve decided to give Liath Luachra her own mini-series (of three books). This series will include Liath Luachra: The Grey One and the remaining two books will follow on directly from the events in that novel.

The second Liath Luachra book (the one I’ve started) has the working title Liath Luachra: Sons of the Land. Gaelic speakers amongst you will know that ‘Sons of the Land’ is a direct translation of the word ‘Mactíre’ – the Irish word for ‘wolf’ and wolves of course will play an important part in this story. I’ll tell more about that in the next newsletter.

But that’s the Liath Luachra book.

The second book I’ll be working on this year is a non-fiction work that requires a substantial piece of research – something I’ll be carrying out through the remainder of the year. At this stage, I’ll say no more about it apart from the fact that I’ve previously written about it in other newsletters as Project Tobar. Tobar is the Irish for ‘well’ (the one with the water in it, not the “well, well, well!”).

In between times, I’ll also be working on the plot lines for the next Fionn book (FIONN: The Salmon of Secret Wisdom). This has some significant plot twists in it and it will require quite a bit of thinking to get the effect I want while aligning it with the established Fenian Cycle. Some of it will also overlap with the new Liath Luachra series.

I feel exhausted already!