The SPFBO5 Review
The Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off is now a commercial juggernaut. It's Mark Lawrence's Frankenstein's monster that has developed a life of its own. It's significant that entrants filled its 300 places in under 24 hours. If you are a fantasy writer, this competition cannot be ignored. It provides the opportunity to exist within a bubble that gains attention from everyone in the fantasy writing genre: other authors, readers, publishers, agents and bloggers. Those who have featured as finalists in the past now have established careers, book deals and agents. Many have moved from the badlands of self-publishing, to the civilised green pastures of traditional publishing.
The class of 2019/2020 have seen, arguably, the highest quality of entrants. I don't think it's coincidental that the winner, ML Wang's 'Sword of Kaigan', achieved the joint highest score across all competitions. That said, the scores across the 10 finalists, showed how impressive they all were. What is especially pleasing though is that this book was Miracle's first novel and her first competition. SPFBO did something wonderful, it highlighted a hidden gem.
I'm focusing on that statement to make my first observation on this competition. While I laud its simplicity in its competition criteria, I think there is something to be said for there to be a limit in who can enter. Let's make SPFBO all about identifying those masterpieces that might not otherwise be discovered. There are writers who enter each year with a well-establishedcatalogue on Amazon - partly because of their success in this competition in the past. They don't need this support. Let's focus on lesser known writers. Let's give them a chance to make a name for themselves. Let's mine those hidden gems.
Judging writing is an intensely subjective task. The scores this year emphasize that fact. Of course we must allocate scores to each book in the end - and that is subjective too. (What does 6/10 mean?) But we judge with different perspectives, different rules and different expectations. You've only got to look at the winner to see the reality of this situation: a 10/10 from one judge and a 7/10 from another, with all scores in between. Of course, the only fair way to arrive at a winner is to average the scores out, which is what Mark does, but it serves to emphasize that different people hold wildly different opinions.
That leads me to my next observation. Subjectivity is reduced when the assessment process is shared. I've spoken to a lot of writers who've entered SPFBO in the past and who feel rather unfairly treated because their entry was reviewed by one judge. If that person didn't like your work, that was it, wave goodbye. This problem is less of an issue when the workload is shared, where discussion leads to a collaborative decision. It triangulates the conflicting factors, weighs them against the positives and arrives at a more rounded conclusion. In my opinion, the 'solo' judges tended to arrive at very similar conclusions, whereas teams with a more rounded consideration. because more (and different) opinions. reflected a wider range of scores in the overall analysis. My observation is that there should only be judging TEAMS to reduce this anachonysm.
It has been a valuable and informative exercise to judge this year, after entering the competition the year before. I learned so much! I confess to feeling intimidated by the quality as well. You get to read stories that are so divergant in their quality as well as in their sub-genre, themes and style. Once again, it emphasizes the width and depth of the fantasy genre. Also its commercial viability when you consider which books have marketable potential. It's a hugely demanding feat too. You jump onto a treadmill that doesn't ease up for 10 months! You read little else. Judging is a massive commitment and everyone should recognise the time and effort that goes into the competition.
For this reason, knowing how some people have struggled to maintain this commitment, my third observation is to increase the number of judging teams. There have always been 10 teams. It makes for an easy means to divide the 300 entrants. However, I think it would make it easier to have 12 teams, with 25 books to divide between them. It would reduce workload just enough.
Finally, the work of the judges needs to include opportunities to promote writers who have been allocated to them. This happened in previous years but was less apparent this year. Once again, with a team of judges, the workload is shared here. There can be reviews (of course) but also interviews, guest posts and the like. Ways for the writers to get their names known more widely. This isn't always easy for individual judges - if you're allocated to one, you can be disadvantaged. For me, a major reason for setting up the British & Irish Writing Community was to combat 'writer isolation'. Being an author is a lonely business. Judging in teams is a collaborative process but being a team of bloggers sharing the load in promoting authors is the same. It enhances collaboration in many exciting ways. Let's maximise this!
I don't want anyone to think I'm criticising Mark or SPFBO in anyway. I'm definitely not! I'm trying to offer ways in which, something so well established and highly respected now, can be improved. SPFBO is the best thing that has ever happened to the self-publishing industry for fantasy authors. Let's make it even better!