The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off and the Evolution of Publishing

November 23, 2017
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Chances are you’ve heard of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (or SPFBO) at some point in the last two years, a contest where 300 self-published authors submit their novels to ten blogging sites who review them and cull the lists down to their very favourites, until a winner is announced.

Back in 2015, Mark Lawrence proposed the competition on his blog, which outlines how the contest works. People flocked to it and, at the time of this writing, the contest is in its third year, with the latter rounds approaching. A list of the blogs taking part and a brief yearly breakdown of the contest can be found at Fantasy Faction.

There is also a more in-depth article at Fantasy Faction if you’d like more information about the contest and self-publishing in general. I interviewed a few authors, including Mark Lawrence, asking for their insights, and their responses were overwhelmingly helpful. It seems that the SPFBO has done a lot of good for a lot of people and has proven that there are a whole lot of gems just waiting to be read out there. So far, almost a thousand books have gone through the contests.

The first and most obvious question is this: why would a lofty, successful, traditionally published author like Mark Lawrence step down from Olympus to help out self-published authors? His answer is a good one, and the success of the SPFBO has proven all of his suspicions right.

I think it arose through a combination of survivor’s guilt and the fact that I enjoy competitions.

I always felt traditional publishing to be a lottery and, when I got a “big” book deal, I never believed it to be because I was somehow head and shoulders better than all the others striving to be in the same place.

I encountered a number of self-published authors after being published myself and, before being published I interacted with many unpublished writers on critique forums, so I knew that the reservoir of top class talent out there was huge.

I also saw how hard it is for a book, regardless of quality, to somehow show itself above the noise barrier when so many titles are competing for attention. A brilliant book can fail utterly, but that same book, with even a modest publicity push can take off.

The SPFBO was just a small way of offering an extra chance, a way to find great books irrespective of the author’s personal marketing skills and to bring them to a wider audience. It’s also a method to filter some excellence from the sea of self-published offerings so that readers could feel more confidence when committing to them – which then steps toward giving self-published titles in general a better reputation and helps all of them engage new readers.

The contest has indeed given self-published novels in general a better reputation and helped them gain new readers. Looking into the winners and runners-up from the first two years proves that. Michael McClung, 2015’s winner, landed a publishing deal in the wake of his success, and has even gone back to self-publishing after that, since it’s becoming clear that self-publishing can often be more desirable than traditional publishing, showing just how far self-publishing has come in recent years. The runner-up for that year, Ben Galley, has also found great success, and there’s an interview with him detailing that at Fantasy Faction.

Jonathan French won 2016’s SPFBO with The Grey Bastards which, as a result, is being traditionally published by Penguin/Random House in 2018. The runner-up was Phil Tucker. The review of Phil’s book, The Path of Flames, by Pornokitsch, the blogger that judged it for the SPFBO, caused waves online and brought lots of attention to Phil’s book, so much that he’s now working full-time as an author. It’s a great book, which I’ve reviewed on the GdM blog, and interviewed Phil about. Phil says that the 2016 SPFBO was “the first time that [he] felt like part of a community, as writing until that time had been a very solitary business”. The internet is a big, tangled place, and the SPFBO has acted as a beacon for a lot of like-minded people to come together and discover just how beautifully conceived others’ works are. Phil also says that as a result of his involvement he “organized a large giveaway, created a wonderful Slack community with [his] new friends, joined a monthly Google Hangout D&D group with four other authors, became involved with the r/Fantasy community, and received a large number of wonderful reviews which were a pleasure to read”. He was even offered a traditional publishing deal, which he actually turned down. Here are his reasons:

During the final stages of SPFBO ’16 I was approached by a British publisher who wanted to pick up my Chronicles of the Black Gate. Given my prior experience with trad publishing I was ready for the whole thing to fall apart with the first phone call, but the editor with whom I spoke was enthusiastic, very engaged with the current state of self-publishing, and was willing to work with me to find a deal that made sense.

Unfortunately, my rapid-fire release schedule proved to be too much; I was releasing a book every three months, and that proved an insurmountable obstacle. I’m still open to traditional publishing, as I think hybrid publishing is the way to go, but the next time round I think it might be best to discuss a future project and not one that’s already underway.

This response is an indicator of how the industry works today. There’s no animosity between self-publishing and traditional publishing; instead, the professionals who work in each area work with each other and ultimately decide the best way for a story to reach its readers. It seems as if there was once a strong impression that self-publishing and traditional publishing were at odds, in different worlds, jostling with one another, but clearly that’s now not the case. Clearly, the SPFBO is drawing the attention of not only hundreds more readers for each author, but big-name publishers and agents too who have embraced it wholeheartedly and brought many of the noteworthy contenders on board. Phil’s comments on the differences between traditional and self-publishing are very interesting, coming from someone who has experienced both.

I worked at Penguin USA for a year and that experience cemented my view of traditional publishing, which is that it’s filled with passionate advocates of top quality writing who work in the industry due to love and not an expectation of making big bucks. Due to the very nature of its organization and structure, however, it’s slow, cautious, and very hard to break into, all of which is diametrically opposite where self-publishing is today. Success – what little I’ve found – has only reinforced that view, as I attribute a large part of my being able to go full-time to publishing frequently and having full control of every aspect of my books.

Despite the level of control self-published authors have over their work, self-publishing requires a lot more work. Mark Lawrence has this to say on the matter:

The main difference is that a traditionally published author can succeed without putting any work into marketing themselves. It’s harder that way, but with a publisher making noise for them, sending out many advance copies, and getting strong distribution into high street shops, it can be done. Publishers increasingly expect their authors to have a strong internet presence though.

A self-published author on the other hand does not have that choice. They have to find a way to get the word out or they will not sell books. Sometimes, I guess they can luck out and ride the wave of a fortuitous Amazon promotion, but generally they have to work much harder at overcoming that noise barrier and engaging with a critical mass of readers before the book can take off on its own merit.

Josiah Bancroft, author of Senlin Ascends, had his book lose out to Phil Tucker’s when being reviewed by Pornokitsch, who bemoaned the decision they were forced to make because of the high quality of Josiah’s work. Ultimately, the choices the SPFBO judges must make are partly subjective. Interested and aware of this fact, Mark Lawrence read Senlin Ascends. He was so taken with it that he called it “one of [his] favorite books of all time”, subsequently recommending Josiah to his agent. Now, the book is being traditionally published in January 2018 by Orbit. Here are Josiah’s thoughts on moving from self-publishing to traditional publishing:

It’s like getting a fashion makeover for a party – a fancy outfit, a radically different haircut, and obnoxiously large sunglasses – and then discovering you still can’t dance.

I mean to say, it’s mostly a surface change. The publishing deal hasn’t assuaged any of my old insecurities. It hasn’t made me a better human or a more capable writer.

But it has given me access to new readers, which is exciting, and it has given me a larger supporting cast. When you self-publish, you wear all the hats: writer, editor, graphic designer, tech support, social media expert, makeup and lighting, and food stylist. Now that I’m with Orbit Books, I have a lot of help, and that’s been an enormous relief.

This is all after Josiah entered the SPFBO as a “last gasp” after three years of trying and failing to sell a modest five-hundred copies of Senlin Ascends. He described his experience in self-publishing as “like being chased by a swarm of bees through a maze full of bears” before admitting that it is “a little dramatic”. But his point is clear: self-publishing isn’t easy.

For me, the most challenging thing about self-publishing is that there are endless options and no script. There are a million self-publishing guides, gurus, support communities, and professional service options. You can spend anywhere between zero dollars and infinite money on marketing and distributing. Since you don’t have a boss or a time clock, it’s possible to work all hours of every day forever until you’re dead.

Some writers thrive in these conditions: they develop a brand quickly; they pick their modes of communication and reader-engagement and stick to them; they forge a trail with all the force and confidence of Godzilla leaving the bar at midnight.

Rather than come up with an effective, sustainable strategy for promoting and distributing my book, I decided to try to do everything: a website, comic-cons, all the social media, online ads, contests, bloggers, press releases, bookstores, and a chicken suit. None of it worked particularly well, probably because I spread myself too thin, but I certainly did try.

As Mark Lawrence said, “Self-published authors get to keep a lot more of the cover price for themselves and having lower overheads means that they can successfully cater to more niche markets and still make a living”. This is proven by the case of Michael R. Fletcher, whose book, Beyond Redemption, was published by Harper Voyager and released in 2015 to “rave reviews”. As Fletcher himself said, “By the end of the year, it appeared on over a dozen best-of-the-year lists, neck and neck with real books written by real authors.” Here at Grimdark Magazine, we loved it. However, despite all of this acclaim, it wasn’t selling well. Because of this, Harper Voyager passed on the sequel. While his agent was able to sell a stand-alone novel set in his world to Skyhorse Publishing – and that book, Swarm and Steel, is great (review available in GdM #12) – no publisher is interested in the sequel to a book published by another publisher. To get that sequel, The Mirror’s Truth, to his fans, Michael turned to self-publishing. He describes that journey, and moving from a traditionally published author to a hybrid author:

I had two choices, I could either shelf The Mirror’s Truth in the hopes that someday sales of Beyond Redemption would induce someone to buy the sequel, or I could self-publish it.

Being impatient, I went the latter route.

My expectations were low. I knew nothing of self-publishing and I’m lousy at self-promotion. I love writing, but have no interest in being a publicist or working in marketing. It seemed like a doomed combination. Between art and editing, I spent about $1,200 and released The Mirror’s Truth through Amazon (digital) and CreateSpace (print). My hope was that someday, maybe by the end of the year, the book might break even. It did that in the first month.

Excited by that success, I asked the awesome folks at Five Rivers Publishing who held the rights to 88, my first novel, to have those rights reverted. They agreed and I set about editing and rewriting the book making use of what I’d learned in the last few years. I self-published it as Ghosts of Tomorrow. Once again, I spent around $1,200 on the book and this time it took two months to break even.

Am I a successful self-published author?

Yes, and no.

Most self-pubbed books sell maybe 200 copies (and usually a lot less) and I’m long past that. However, truly successful self-pub authors actually work at promoting their books. They learn the ins-and-outs of the Amazon system. They learn how to successfully promote and publicize, hopefully without coming off like assholes.

I’ve done virtually none of that.

The reason for my small success was that I was adopted by a small group of hardcore, grimdark fantasy fans due to their love of Beyond Redemption. Had I not been trad-pubbed first, I doubt anyone would have heard of me, and my self-pubbed books would have sold diddly-squat.

Michael’s success at becoming a hybrid author proves that the SPFBO isn’t an isolated phenomenon. The key to self-publishing becoming a viable way for readers to connect to the authors right for them, and for those authors to find success, is community building. The existence of the internet means that geographical boundaries which, in previous decades, dictated the boundaries of communities, are far less relevant. If there are only five-hundred people in the world who like neo-cyberpunk-comedy-romance-crime-lit RPG’s set in the 17th century, then they can now find each other and the three dudes writing in that niche. The Facebook group “Grimdark Fiction Readers and Writers” is one such community for our sub-genre and is 5000-strong. It’s the most active, welcoming, well-moderated group I’ve encountered online, for anything. On reddit, r/fantasy is another good group, but is much more general.

Involvement in these communities online seems to be one of the keys to the ongoing evolution of publishing, and the SPFBO is perhaps the most important one for fantasy at the moment. It’s not just the winners, or even runners-up that benefit from the SPFBO. Just being read and reviewed by one of the generous bloggers who take part can be enough to give authors that bump they need to actually connect with the readership that is definitely there but out of reach for someone on their own in the wide world of self-publishing. In a world where the gatekeepers don’t matter as much anymore and there are thousands of voices screaming “buy my book” on Amazon, it’s hard to know whom to pay attention to. The SPFBO has already made a huge impact in addressing that problem so that world-class authors like Josiah Bancroft don’t have to spend their time wearing a chicken suit and shouting “But my book!” outside Barnes & Noble. Now, thanks to the SPFBO, they can spend their time writing books that we love, and this is just the beginning.

Publishing is changing, and as Mark Lawrence says, “Where it’s all heading I have no idea, but it will be fun to find out.” He suggests to browse the finalists from the first two SPFBOs for anyone looking to dive into the world of great self-published SFF books, and to keep your eyes on this year’s SPFBO blogger reviews. I’m excited to see what new names emerge from the frenzy of this year’s contest and those to come.