Picking Their Brains: SPFBO Advice from Judges and Authors

This month kicks off the 4th Annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off, a book contest organized by Mark Lawrence designed to highlight the very best in self-published fantasy. In honor of the many authors who bravely chose to enter, I've asked several SPFBO participants (past and present, judges and authors) for their thoughts and advice on how to not only survive the contest, but to thrive in it. Here's what they had to say.

Advice from Judges:

"If a blogger eliminates your book and provides criticism as to why the decision was made, please don’t challenge them. Listen to them. Plenty of authors would kill for this kind of feedback, and it’s meant to help you – not to bully, belittle, or embarrass you. Every judge will always try their damnedest to point out things they liked. Remember this: the greatest prize on offer here is not just increased discoverability – a prize which thousands of less-known writers covet dearly – but also *community*. Bloggers, authors, fellow contestants – as cliched as it might sound, the friends and allies you'll make along the way are worth immeasurably more than any star rating or even a ranking on the finalists' board." —Laura Hughes, Fantasy-Faction  

"I’ve some good news and not-so-good news on that front. First SPFBO is geared to be brutal in its culling. The first cutoff is 97% of all the titles and then of the remaining 10 finalists, only 1 remains to achieve the selfie stick. Your success rate is 0.33%. That’s the not-so-good news. The great news, you’ll make a lot of connections and hopefully some friends. The camaraderie is wonderful and I’ve made many friends among authors and other bloggers since its inception. I hope you all can experience it similarly. You have taken a huge step by entering. Congratulations and enjoy the journey. Take a deep breath and remember that this is a contest designed for fun & bragging rights (who am I kidding, that should be the other way around). Everyone involved is doing this in their free time. I realize that as an author you want the blogger judge to quickly review and reveal the finalist. Most (if not all) judges strive to review or mini-review almost every title in their group. The speeds differ based on their composition, reading & writing styles and most importantly the time they can devote amidst their work and personal lives. I think that most authors tend to develop a thick skin. In SPFBO, it’s nothing different. I would like everyone to look at and emulate Jonathan Pembroke whose debut book won its group, reached the finals and received some really stinging reviews. Yet he was always polite, always looking to learn from every harsh review and is a thorough gentleman. I would implore every author to have him as an ideal and do their best to emulate his professionalism. Other authors who impressed me with their demeanor and online engagement were Dyrk Ashton, G.R. Matthews, M.D. Presley, Quenby Olson, Rob J. Hayes, and many more. We hope to find gems and often will do our best to highlight the strengths of every book that we review. We love SPFBO and hope that you enjoy your time as well. Lastly a huge thank you to Mark Lawrence for organizing and running it so smoothly. He’s been one awesome fella and a decent writer from what I hear. ;)" —Mihir Wanchoo, Fantasy Book Critic

"I think the best advice that I can give to the participants is to be visible. Have a presence. Make the most of the competition by joining in on Twitter, and Facebook and making friends with the other authors and sharing advice. It's been said many times that there is only going to be one winner – but, by making a network of friends and joining in during the competition I really do believe that everyone benefits." —Lynn Williams, Lynn's Books 

"I found last year that we were all reasonably well behaved. Don’t slag off other entrants in the competition as it may blow up in your face." —Paul Lavender, The Qwillery team member and author of Tales from Ashen Falls

"There are going to be bad reviews, low scoring reviews, and reviews that could potentially make you feel horrible about your book and your work as a writer. Don't let them get to you, and always remain professional. The most popular authors like Sanderson, Lawrence and Pratchett have people who just don't like their books. There are also other books that are considered 'trash' if you ask reddit (Eragon springs to mind) but there are still devoted fans to that series. I am of the attitude that every book has an audience, you just need to find it. Over on the blogger's discord channel, most of us would pick up a book by Pembroke if he wrote a new novel – this is based heavily on how well he handled the negative reviews. He was kind and receptive through the whole process and it was impressive to me and other folks. Go into this having no expectations other than to network and meet other authors and bloggers – this is a great chance to make worthwhile connections." —Esme, The Weatherwax Report
"I have no SPFBO-related advice to share. Once you send your book in, there's nothing you can do but sit down, bite your nails, and wait. The only advice I can give you will be helpful when you publish your next book, and it’s a simple one: Be willing, as long as you can afford it, to spend some money. You may have typed ‘THE END’ to your manuscript, but your book isn’t ready yet to go out there. Hire a professional editor. Commission a talented illustrator. Send some physical ARCs to prominent authors and bloggers of your community. Learn how the Amazon ADs work, and use them to promote your book to a larger audience. If you do it right, and if your book is good, or even passable, it will pay back. In time. But be willing to invest in it first." —Petros, Booknest.eu

Advice from Authors:

"You're not the only one in the competition. You want your book to win (of course), but don't let that stop you from reading the work of others in the running. You might just find a new favourite author." —Rob J. Hayes, author of Where Loyalties Lie, SPFBO3 winner 

"I know it's easy to say that the best thing about SPFBO is the relationships you build, and that is 100% true (for most of us, at least) but that's the exact thing that I feel like has brought whatever success I've had in Indie publishing. There is so much power in being able to collaborate on things, whether it's marketing or writing or just supporting each other." —J.A. Andrews, author of A Keeper's Tale

"Getting to know everyone involved is a wonderful thing and what it should be about. You don't get anywhere from being a dick, while being friendly helps everyone. We're all the same." —Michael R. Baker, author of The Thousand Scars

"Get in and get to know the other entrants! They are not your enemies, they are your peers. The relationships you can build are half the value of the competition. You don't need to win or even get mentioned to do yourself a world of good just making new contacts." —Matt Gilbert, author of The Dead God's Due

"Remember the exposure and networking are the real rewards here. When the reviews come in, no matter what brims in your heartbe it triumphal joy or bitter resentmentuse your head and be gracious and professional. That should be easy to do in the online environment, as it's easier to hold one's fingers than one's tongue. The mouth doesn't come with a delete key!" —A.M. Justice, author of A Wizard's Forge

"Don't obsess about the contest. Networking and affiliating is fun and rewarding, but at the end of the day it's down to one judge whether you pass phase one or not. If you worry too much and it gives you chronic diarrhoea, just flush it out and get on with your WIP." —Scott Kaelen, author of The Blighted City

"My best advice is that you should get to know other writers. Don't treat them as competition. Help them when you can, and they'll help you in return." —Ryan Mueller, author of Empire of Chains 

"SPFBO may be a competition but I prefer to think of it as a growing community of like-minded writers who can support one another." —Phil Parker, author of The Bastard from Fairyland

"Considering all the very talented authors involved in SPFBO, it can be quite intimidating. I jumped in, anyway. I write in a variety of sub-genres in Fantasy and Science Fiction. The first time I participated in SPFBO, I entered a children’s Middle Grade Fantasy Adventure novel. The second time, I entered a YA Urban Fantasy novel. I didn’t win either time. However, I was lucky enough that the reviewers who judged my book invited authors to contact them for information if they’d like feedback. I was nervous about doing that, but I’m glad that I did. For my children’s Middle Grade Fantasy Adventure novel, I received some great compliments. For my YA Urban Fantasy novel, I discovered that one out of two judges had selected it as one of their favorites. However, to move on to Finalist on that particular blog, books had to be on both judges’ favorites list. My advice is: Don’t be scared. If you think you have a decent book, go ahead and enter it into the SPFBO. The feedback can be invaluable. An extra bonus is networking with lots of enthusiastic authors and bloggers." —Marilyn Peake, author of Blood and Ashes and Whiskey and Dragon Fire

"If you get a bad review, understand that opinions are as diverse as the people supplying them. Accept the feedback gracefully. Do not batter the judge for stating their opinion." —M.L. Spencer, author of Darkmage

"Learn to fake apathy. Learn to enter and forget it. Learn to not care how long you have to wait, whether you get a full review, or whether you get cut. The waiting, the nerves, the constant checking the page. Learn to not care until it is time." —Jesse Teller, author of Song
"I would just advocate patience. It took about three months for my entry to be eliminated in SPFBO 2017. Like writing itself, the competition is more of a marathon than a sprint, and these things take time. You wouldn't want them to rush to judgment, would you ...?!" —Richard Writhen, author of The Hiss of the Blade

Well, there you have it! Thank you to all the authors and judges for sharing their thoughts. Take what you can from these insights, and best wishes for a great experience to all SPFBO4 participants!

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