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.

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.