Self-published authors & the SPFBO: revitalising SFF


Self-published authors get a lot of flak.

Even armed with a bargepole, many readers won’t touch them. These readers will assure you that indie books are unprofessional; that they’re inherently inferior and therefore not ‘proper’ books.

Yarnsworld #1 and #2 by Benedict Patrick

… and yet some self-published authors produce work that’s MORE professional-looking than the stuff you find in bookstores! (Image: the Yarnsworld series by Benedict Patrick)

Admittedly, it’s not too hard to find examples of substandard writing amongst the masses and masses of self-published works. Perhaps readers have simply had their fill of lazy prose and sloppy formatting and are wary of encountering more.

Or maybe it’s not the books that are the problem. We’ve all come across the ubiquitous indie author who takes the ‘stuck record’ approach to self-promotion. You know the one, whose constant passive-aggressive ‘BUY MY BOOK’ posts soon become so irritating that we have no choice but to issue the offending author with a cease-and-desist before gouging out our own eyes and/or unfollowing them on social media.

Whatever the reason, indie books – particularly within SFF – have garnered a reputation for being second-rate, amateur and inconsistent . . . a reputation which is (for the most part) unfair and undeserved.

‘Success stories’

Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Michael J. Sullivan? Or Anthony Ryan? Both authors’ hugely popular fantasy debuts – The Crown Conspiracy and Blood Song, respectively – began life as (you guessed it!) self-published novels. Now, they’re practically household names.

Ryan, Sullivan

Anthony Ryan and Michael J. Sullivan both began as self-published authors before finding mainstream success

Inspiring, without a doubt. But in terms of popular opinion, such accomplishments have done surprisingly little to change attitudes towards indie authors. Using Ryan or Sullivan as the benchmark for measuring ‘success’ suggests that the singular goal of self-publishing is to become one of the ‘lucky few’ who eventually get picked up by traditional houses; in other words, it reinforces the idea that self-publishing is merely the means to an end.

But do all indie authors want the same thing?

300 authors, 10 blogs, 1 winner:

the great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off

(SPFBO)

While every author is unique, many share similar goals. Most prominent amongst these is the desire to be noticed.

SPFBO2 Banner by Matt Howerter

design by Matt Howerter

In February 2015, author Mark Lawrence (The Broken Empire, The Red Queen’s War) took to his blog to ponder the problem of self-promotion, observing that:

“…as a new author, particularly a self-published one, it is desperately hard to be heard. It’s a signal-to-noise problem. Who knows how many Name of the Winds or [fill in your favourite] are lost to us because they just couldn’t be seen? None? A hundred?”

He was right; moreover, plenty of voices agreed with him, and before long well-respected bloggers were clamouring to help him find a frequency on which some of the more deserving voices could finally be heard.

273 writers responded to the call for self-published authors. That’s 273 writers who submitted manuscripts to the contest. These were promptly split between ten participating bloggers, who spent the next six months wading through their ‘slush pile’ in the manner of a literary agent. Samples that failed to shine were soon cast aside, and eventually each blog was left with only one.

The SPFBO Final Ten (2015)

#SPFBO 2015: the final ten

Round Two kicked off as soon as the final ten were announced. Each blogger proceeded to read and review all finalists in full, eventually assigning each novel a rating out of 10. As you might already have guessed, the entry with the highest score at the end was declared the winner.

And the grand prize? Well, as Mark Lawrence announced at the start:

“There’s no other prize. The winner will get the publicity of being the winner, plus the bonus of being reviewed on the blogs of 10 highly respected fantasy bloggers.

“Frankly you can’t buy better publicity than that.”

The end of the beginning

Voila! The first step towards changing attitudes was complete. While the inaugural SPFBO didn’t exactly break down the barrier between indies and their potential readers, there’s no denying that it was a step in the right direction. The process gave a leg-up over the barrier for a handful of hidden gems, making them more visible while also filtering out less polished books.

In the end, 273 books were whittled down to one winner, and the title went to The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids. The author, Michael McClung, landed a publishing deal with Ragnarok along the way, and is now preparing for ‘Rok’s impending release of the fourth Amra Thetys book, The Thief Who Wasn’t There.

In an example of a different kind of success, close runner-up Ben Galley has since continued to advance a professional and prolific self-publishing career that began over seven years ago. Galley not only provides ‘Shelf Help’ sessions for aspiring indies, but also spends an inexhaustible amount of time writing fiction, promoting his work and building momentum for the release of his eighth novel,  The Heart of Stone.

The Heart of Stone by Ben GalleyBloodrush by Ben GalleyThe Written by Ben Galley

SPFBO 2: 2016

Confession time: I had very little personal interest in the SPFBO when it began. I admired the concept and the mind behind it, of course, but initially dismissed the contest itself as a publicity ploy. Here, I thought, was a token gesture of indulgence, the same sort that spurs celebrities to adopt baby gorillas.

You know what? I’m ashamed of my former cynicism snobbery (let’s call it what it is, folks); and I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In March this year the process began again. This time around, my own involvement as part of Fantasy-Faction’s judging team has changed my perspective even more. The positivity, enthusiasm and professionalism of the entrants in our group swiftly banished any lingering reservations I may have had, as did the overall quality of the entries submitted.

In fact, several bloggers were so impressed by their batch of books that Lawrence hosted a cover contest during the early stages of the competition.

SPFBO Cover Contest 2016

Looks aren’t everything; but they do speak volumes about the amount of pride an indie author has in his or her own work. Though we know it’s shallow, most of us do judge a book by its cover. When our first glance shows us an attractive design and professional layout it makes the world of difference.

The Dragon's Blade by Michael R Miller

Sure, it’s what’s inside that really counts . . . but let’s face it, nobody would voluntarily show up for a job interview without first combing their hair and stepping into something smart. First impressions are crucial.

But even if you do everything right, what happens when somebody else shows up? Somebody who’s also done everything right?

On Ascension

Back in July, Jared at Pornokitsch was torn between two books for his finalist. He spoke so highly of both that Mark Lawrence himself was inspired to read the eventual runner-up, and was so impressed by the book that he now goes out of his way to make sure others recognise the author’s talent.Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

The author in question is Josiah Bancroft. The book is Senlin Ascends. Chances are that many of you have already heard of it; earlier this year, The Wertzone described Senlin Ascends as “SFF’s first genuinely evocative work of self-published literature” and suggested that it “may mark a serious turning-point in the field.” Lawrence’s baby gorilla has grown swiftly indeed, and now ascends the tower a la King Kong in New York. Bring on the bi-planes!

Though none have become quite as well-known as Mr. Bancroft (yet!) there are a host of other SPFBO entrants now fighting for pre-eminence on many a reading list. Authors such as Ruth Nestvold, Benedict Patrick, Daniel Potter, L. Penelope, Michael R. Miller, David Benem, Moses Siregar III, Blair MacGregor, Rob J. Hayes, T.A. Miles, Timandra Whitecastle, Tyler Sehn, Amy Rose Davis . . . talented folks one and all, who might not have reached the final but have earned a place on the SFF community’s radar nonetheless.

If these guys are so good (you might be wondering) then why are they self-published at all?

‘Can’t get published’

Just last month, a thread about this topic sparked a host of detailed and thoughtful responses from readers on r/Fantasy. The main issue of debate was around the barriers faced by indie authors, with most commenters agreeing that quality and discoverability are two major ones. Some suggested that the ‘good’ self-published books stand out by virtue of the author having invested in professional cover design, formatting and editing. But others argued that there are too many poor-quality products for sale on the internet to even bother looking. Why, they asked, should readers waste their time sifting for talent amongst those who ‘couldn’t even get published’?

Put it this way: if an author is struggling to find a publisher, does that mean their work is crap?

A lot of people will say ‘yes!’ (and in many cases, they’re probably right). Realistically, though, traditional publishing houses turn down manuscripts for all sorts of reasons. We’ve all heard how books like Carrie, Harry Potter, Dune, Dubliners, and even The Diary of Anne Frank received multiple rejections before finally finding success. Examples like these – along with Blood Song et al. – are proof that what G.R. Matthews refers to as the ‘snob factor’ is, in many cases, unjustified.

The Stone Road by G.R. Matthews Black Cross by J.P. Ashman Lady of the Helm by T.O. Munro

Clearly, not all books that ‘can’t get published’ are objectively inferior. But here’s what some folks are still struggling to understand: ‘going indie’ is more and more frequently becoming a first choice rather than a last resort.

‘Going indie’

Believe it or not, plenty of writers balk at the thought of handing over their intellectual property to someone else.

Michael McClung (winner of the inaugural SPFBO) spoke recently about the drawbacks of switching from indie to traditional, and observed that the benefit of reaching a wider audience can come at the cost of frustrating and unforeseen delays. Traditional publishing, he says, can be incredibly stressful for an author who is not prepared to cede control over the entire process to somebody else.Ragnarok Covers: The Amra Thetys series by Michael McClung

Perhaps this is why so many authors cite a determination to retain control over one’s own work (and agenda) as a motivation for choosing self-publishing. For some this is a purely artistic choice; for others, it comes down to practicality or expedience. Regardless of merit, every author’s reasons are unique, be it J.P. Ashman’s commitment to producing a full-length epic or T.O. Munro’s freedom to set his own deadlines in keeping with a busy day job.

Then there are the ‘hybrids’. Some authors travel both paths at various times to suit their changing needs. An example of this might be an author whose novels are trad-pubbed, but whose short stories require a different platform or be lost to obscurity. Or perhaps someone whose books have been trad-pubbed in some countries but not in others.

The Mirror's Truth by Michael R. FletcherAnd this approach supports authors who, for whatever reason, have been let down by traditional publishing. Michael R. Fletcher’s first Manifest Delusions novel, Beyond Redemption, was bought and published by Harper Voyager in 2015. The book was a critical success, but a commercial disappointment. When HV declined to publish the sequel, The Mirror’s Truth, Fletcher decided to switch to indie. Likewise, author Joel Minty is going to great lengths to prepare himself for self-publishing after falling victim to the collapse of Realmwalker Publishing Group – just days before his debut, Purge of Ashes, was set to be released.

Like so many others, these authors turned to self-publishing out of necessity; a necessity born of the determination to deliver to their readers what they promised.

The ‘Great Divide’

But readers shouldn’t presume that every self-published author has already tried – or even desired – to be traditionally published. Just like everything else in life, the pros and cons of each approach are entirely subjective depending on the author’s individual goals and definitions of ‘success’.

Moreover, the reflexive dichotomy of traditional ‘versus’ self is both divisive and demeaning. To borrow the words of author Blair MacGregor:

“Dichotomy is easy.  But conversation isn’t all that challenging, either.  The longer we permit “versus” to dominate, the greater the disservice we do to talented writers.”

MacGregor goes on to suggest that people seem less interested in talking about self-publishing than they are in debating its worth.

MacGregor’s contemporaries have also drawn attention to this issue: Timandra Whitecastle – whose grimdark debut Touch of Iron aims to redefine ‘strong’ female characters – recently expressed similar views about the frustrations caused by those who insist upon such a divide. When making the decision about which approach to take, says Whitecastle, she found little value in objectively comparing the two, and focused instead on which methods would best facilitate her creative desire to “break the mold.”

The Blood-Tainted Winter by T.L. GreylockSword and Chant by Blair MacGregorA Touch of Iron by Timandra Whitecastle

Dismiss the dichotomy;

break the mold

This is where the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off comes in. The SPFBO breaks down these barriers by encouraging readers to treat self-published books just like they would any other kind.

Book looks interesting? Check it out.

Like the sample? Buy the book.

Enjoy the book? Tell your mates; leave a review. After all, the SPFBO aims to recognise and reward talented, hardworking authors with honest feedback and well-deserved exposure. As I mentioned earlier, the greatest prize on offer here is increased discoverability . . . a prize which thousands of less-known writers covet dearly.

SPFBO2 (Banner design by James Cormier)

design by James Cormier

A great many of this year’s entries fell at the very first hurdle, cast aside after just a few pages. But after six months of indecision, the participating blogs have selected their finalists, and round two has begun! And here’s the most exciting part: in a contest largely hinging on judges’ personal tastes, it’s anyone’s game.

Standards continue to rise as more and more authors set their sights on the SPFBO. Indie authors are working harder and longer, pushing themselves to the absolute limits of capability, and it is they – along with those who follow, support and promote initiatives like the SPFBO – who help keep this genre fresh and dynamic. Everybody wins!

Finally, any indie authors still choosing to operate under a half-arsed mentality of, ‘eh, I’ll just publish it through Amazon’, will inevitably get pushed to the bottom of the pile as those who are serious about making things work will continue to hike to the top – egged on by readers, peers and other like-minded artists within this incredibly supportive community.

If you’re following the SPFBO final then let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join in on social media and weigh in with your own opinions using the hashtag #SPFBO.

Oh! And check out this year’s final ten:

SPFBO 2016: the Final Ten!

SPFBO 2016: the Final Ten!


Laura Hughes: Writer?


Shhh! I’ve snatched a moment at the keyboard while the cats aren’t looking. I’ll tell you a thing or three about myself as quickly as I can, before the mogs realise I’m attempting to do something productive and converge on me . . .

I’m a (former) book-blogger

I joined the online fantasy community in 2013 when I ventured into the world of book reviewing. My blog, The Half-Strung Harp, helped me meet some awesome new people – authors, agents, fellow bloggers, and just generally cool folks – through social media, as did participating in weekly features such as Tough Travels.

HSH Screenshot

Writing regular and detailed book reviews also honed my writing skills and developed my ideas about what makes a good book, since it encouraged me to look deeper into why I did or didn’t enjoy certain books.

(If you were wondering where the blog’s title came from, it’s lifted from a satiric poem by George Gordon Byron called ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers’ (1809). Byron uses the phrase ‘half-strung harps’ to refer to writers who publish sub-par novels and poems that are nonetheless praised by critics (whom he referred to as tasteless ‘tyrants’). I had no clue what I was doing when I first started blogging, and wanted the name of the blog to reflect that. To be fair, it’s still an appropriate image for what I’m doing, except that now I’m blundering through the process of writing fiction rather than reviews!)

Danse Macabre FINALI’m a (wannabe) writer

Technically I was nine when I wrote my first book. It was hand-written and illustrated, and featured a protagonist called Mitch who discovered a spectacular gem in an underwater cave (and who also happened to be an otter). Unfortunately this priceless work of fiction has been lost in the mists of time (or possibly the attic . . . OR my little sister ate it. She destroyed a lot of my books before she was old enough to actually read them).

Slightly more recently I’ve written and self-published a novelette, a horror-fantasy hybrid called ‘Danse Macabre’. In addition to my main work-in-progress (a fantasy trilogy that may or may not ever get finished) I’m currently playing about with various short stories, as well as a poem or two.

I write what I know and love, and so every word I type falls firmly within the fantasy genre. My main influences are Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie and Terry Pratchett: I really admire the way all three authors suffuse their writing with humour without sacrificing the integrity of their plots or characters. I have this insane dream of one day having my own books blurbed by Erikson . . . if only I can finish writing them.

That dream is also dependent on my ability to avoid being killed and eaten by the mogs . . .

I’m a (crazy) cat lady

A shamelessly crazy cat lady. Luckily I’m married to a crazy cat man, and we share a very small terraced house with four quirky felines. They’re called—wait, where are you going? Come back! STAND STILL WHILE I SHOW YOU PICTURES OF MY FURRY CHILDREN, GOD DAMN YOU.

4 cats

That wasn’t so bad, was it?

(Fun fact: I just found out from the doctor that I’ve developed an allergic reaction to cats. This explains the constant cold-like symptoms and wheeziness I’ve been experiencing over the last few weeks . . . but does not explain why the universe is so cruel.)

So there you have it. Me in a nutshell. Let’s just hope I’m not also allergic to nuts . . .