A bit of an #SPFBO Storm

I got a pretty nasty private message from an SPFBO contestant today about how I’m basically ruining the SPFBO due to my slow turnaround on reviews, and I guess it’s making me want to discuss the roots of the contest, as well as its evolution.

Feel free to ignore.

A few years ago, Mark Lawrence messaged me. He asked me how I’d feel about a contest of sorts, where self-published books were entered. He’d get a few reviewers together, and we’d act as “agents.” The best book in the batch we were given would be “represented” by us, and sent on to the final round of the contest. Now, this evolved over several days of messaging back and forth.

The original intent was to have each of the books we’re “representing” be treated like agented submissions. Each book would get the attention an agent typically gives a book, meaning a few pages would be read, or maybe a chapter, and then “representation” would be decided. Maybe we’d give feedback, a few tips, some insight into a handful of them. I know, for my part, that first year I only planned on fully reading the best book in my batch, and reviewing that one.

Things evolve. Contests change. The nature of the beast has unfolded a bit more. The SPFBO has gained a ton of popularity. We’ve had authors land big-5 contracts. People are paying attention. I’ve even had agents email me asking for my opinions about the books in my batch. Along with these changes, we’ve had new judges join, and a few years go by. We judges have fallen back on our reviewer habits, and now instead of really acting like “agents” as was first intended, we’re acting as book reviewers, true to our roots.

That’s fine, and it’s wonderful, in fact, that so many books that are undiscovered gems are getting the attention they deserve due to Mark Lawrence and his hairbrained idea he dreamed up one Sunday roughly (mumble mumble) years ago.

However, there’s been a bit of a storm in a teacup today due to the contest, and I felt the need to reiterate the SPFBO’s true roots. Full disclosure, I totally and completely sympathize with both sides of the debate that was going on today. However, based on the conversations I had with Mark all those years ago when this was just a pipedream and we were lobbing it at each other over Facebook Messenger across the span of a few weeks, the SPFBO has gone so far beyond where its roots were planted. That’s wonderful, but it means there have been some changes that have been hard for some of us to adjust to.

Four years ago, I was not a freelance editor. I did not own my own business, and my child who is medically complicated was not known to be medically complicated yet. Four years ago was before I had NINE surgeries, and before I added EIGHT specialists to my list due to my own chronic disease. It was before I beat my third round of cancer. Four years ago, I was not an author with a book about to be published. Four years ago was a lifetime ago.

And I guarantee it was for all the other judges as well.

So, the contest changes, but so does life. The evolution of the contest has meant that all of us judges have to spend more time fully reading more books, writing full reviews on more books, which requires more effort, energy, and more brainpower than was originally intended. Now, the plus side of that is all that publicity for all these amazing authors. The downside is that those of us who run our websites alone, without a team behind us, have to shoulder all of this on our own, and it can be hard. When everyone else is doing something one way, it’s sort of implied that all the other websites and judges will as well. If I ran this contest in the way that it was first intended, it would appear, today, like I’m judging a different SPFBO than everyone else.

There is a learning curve involved in things that are constantly changing. An open dialogue is important. If judges aren’t doing something satisfactorily, then we need to know so we can decide how to proceed. The good thing about the SPFBO is that it allows for room for things to change. It allows for constantly moving parts, both on the part of the authors, and on the parts of the judges. The open format, the fairly loose rules allows for a lot of adjusting on both sides of the relationship.

It’s fantastic when a contest where one book from each group was expected to have something said about it has spawned so many websites are able to give all thirty books full reviews. That’s so great for the authors, and so great that websites are able to do that. It is so far beyond the original intentions of this contest, and that’s FANTASTIC.

That being said, I ask for people to understand the roots of the SPFBO, and its original intentions. Consider the fact that we are people outside of our websites, with lives and jobs, and that the way the contest is currently running is above and beyond its original intent. While that’s WONDERFUL (seriously, I love its current format), it has positives and negatives. On the author’s side, the positives are often seen in increased publicity and stage time on big websites that have loud voices, without any of the behind-the-scenes juggling, time, effort, and energy, though there is often frustration involved in waiting.

For some authors, it’s their first experience getting reviewed, and that can be hard, but it’s part of the game.

If us judges didn’t want to do this, then we wouldn’t. I love books. I am passionate about reading, so much so that I’m making a life out of it, as well as a career. I love being part of this contest, and I love spreading the word about fantastic books that are too often underappreciated, or overlooked in our wham-bam instant marketplace where the shiniest thing often gets the most attention. I believe in the SPFBO, and I have believed in it from day one.

The SPFBO is quite amazing, but it has evolved and it has changed. I hope judges and contestants can have an open dialogue. I also hope that going forward, we can keep the roots of this contest in our minds, while things evolve in new and exciting ways. Perhaps by understanding the roots of the SPFBO, judges and contestants can give each other a bit more leeway, and flexibility. And I hope that seeing each other as people, rather than computer screens, can help us keep a two-way dialogue going so we can constantly keep improving this important contest.