What’s all the fuss over SPFBO and SPSFC?
You may be wondering why SPFBO has become the hottest Indie Fantasy contest around, and what is its younger cousin, SPSFC?
Mark Lawrence, prolific author of several trilogies, (e.g. grimdark “Broken Empire Trilogy”/”Prince of Thorns,” and other fantasy sub-genres including his latest release, “The Book that Wouldn’t Burn”) and published by Ace, suffered from “survivor’s guilt” of a sort, when he landed a book deal that he considered lucky circumstance while many of his peers who were also good writers did not get a deal. He wanted to provide a platform to showcase all the great Indie Fantasy authors, and started SPFBO (self-published fantasy blog-off) in 2014. The first winner was announced in 2015.
The contest organizers set a limit of 300 books, with a minimum of 250 to run the contest, and happily achieved that the first year after a few days. The current year’s contest, SPFBO9, took 41 minutes to fill up. It’s first come, first served, with restrictions of a standalone or first in a series, fantasy genre, self-published, over 40K words, and a few other criteria.
What’s really amazing about this contest and why I think it’s been such a success, is its community. Community is a built-in feature, because the judges are ten bloggers or blogger teams. Bloggers, by their nature, are publicists of a sort, and the books that get into the contest, and especially those that make it into the finals, get a lot of buzz simply by having so many awesome influencers reading, reviewing, and posting about them. The judges are volunteers and put in a lot of care and effort to read and rank so many books. It’s gotten to where many book clubs read the finalists and other entrants, traditional publishers keep an eye on the contest, and the authors support one another.
The SPFBO community is a self-powered phenomenon, with the members contributing to its success. In addition to Mark and the other organizers, there are moderators, the blogger judges, other reviewers, and the authors themselves who amplify the community in various ways. As a small example, I designed and created the award seals because I wanted one for myself and figured other people would want one too, so Mark gave me permission to share them. That design was recently made into finalist award coins with the contributions of other designers to make that happen. Mark Lawrence, other volunteers, Zack Argyle’s site, and I’m sure others I’m not aware of, track progress and other stats. Many reviewers, podcasters, booktubers, etc., host author interviews and post book reviews and other SPFBO-related content. Authors band together to share info, promote each other’s books, celebrate the winners, and commiserate with those who were cut.
Word of mouth can create critical mass and make a difference. I first learned about SPFBO at a random convention encounter with Dyrk Ashton (2016 Finalist for “Paternus”), who raved about how great the community was, and he was right. Because of the contest, I met KittyG, who told me about Dominish Book’s Indie Showcase. I joined Dom’s Discord, met other authors, reviewers, and booktubers, and ended up making a lot of friends over the years just by reaching out and participating in the conversation. That has been an unexpected joy and benefit beyond just writing and selling books. And for an introverted hermit like me, a personality trait shared by many other fantasy authors and readers, I suspect, it’s been like finding my tribe.
The SPFBO judging process roughly works as follows. Each blogger (or team) is allocated 30 books. They read some or all of each book, then put forward a finalist. Most also select a small group of semi-finalists, although I don’t think that is strictly required. All ten bloggers read all the finalists, score them, and the book with the highest score wins. There is no money involved, only good fun. The whole thing takes about a year.
There has also been a SPFBO cover contest that devolved into an AI kerfuffle and rules violation this year, resulting in the winning cover being disqualified for using AI. As a result of the drama and the vagaries of AI, future cover contests have been canceled as of now.
So what’s the contest like for the authors? I can speak briefly of my experience. I entered my debut release, science-fantasy “Moon Deeds,” into SPFBO5 (2019), and was a semi-finalist. My book was in KittyG’s batch of 30 along with “The Sword of Kaigen,” so I basically had no chance, lol. I also entered it into SPSFC this year, (it did not make it into the semi-finals). My latest standalone epic fantasy, “Heliotrope,” is in SPFBO9.
Now the waiting game begins. The first round takes five months, and the culling of the herd as books are cut can be a grisly affair. I am trying not to obsess about it, but because a book can be cut at any time during the several-month period, it can be a little nerve-wracking as you wait for the proverbial axe to fall. Many very worthy books get cut in the first round, so it’s worth checking out the blurbs and reviews to see if some of them might be for you.
The contest attracts fantasy authors of all skill levels and sub-genres, and some of the best are represented. It used to be considered a grimdark contest, but in SPFBO8 many other sub-genres made it into the finals. A few SPFBO authors have been offered traditional publishing deals. However, the indie community is giving trad publishing a run for its money. Indie authors have the freedom to experiment with genre and style, pushing boundaries and violating norms. Tropes are upended, word count limits are brashly ignored, and edgy content is fair game. Many self-published SFF books these days are professionally edited, have amazing covers, and story quality often rivals traditionally published books in the genre. Special editions and audiobooks are being produced as well.
So, what is SPSFC? It stands for self-published science fiction competition. It is modeled after SPFBO, and was started by the indie groundbreaker and author of “Wool” (“Silo Series”), Hugh Howey, and Duncan Swan, author of “Monstre.” The judges are bloggers/blogger teams, just like SPFBO. The entry rules are similar, and the filtering process to get to 7 Finalists (instead of 10) are slightly different, but with fundamentally the same blogger judging drill. See the websites below for specifics.
SPSFC is a relatively new contest, approaching the end of its second year. Finalists for SPSFC2 will be announced in a couple of weeks. The winner of the first SPSFC was “Iron Truth,” by S.A. Tholin. Here is the Goodreads link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/52107549-iron-truth.
Past SPFBO Winners
2015, “The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids” by Michael McClung
2016, “The Grey Bastards” by Jonathan French
2017, “Where Loyalties Lie” by Rob J. Hayes
2018, “Orconomics” by J. Zachary Pike
2019, “The Sword of Kaigen” by M.L. Wang
2020, “The Lost War” by Justin Lee Anderson
2021, “Reign & Ruin” by J.D. Evans
2022, “Small Miracles” by Olivia Atwater
Links to explore for more info about the contests
SPFBO basic informational website:
Official SPFBO9 status site:
Zack Argyle hosts a great SPFBO website as of recent years, here:
SPFBO Facebook group:
Official SPSFC website:
SPSFC Facebook group:
Palmer has been writing fiction since she was eight. She received her BA in American Studies from Wesleyan University, with concentrations in Religion and Race Relations.
She currently works in Silicon Valley in the gaming industry and high tech. In addition, Palmer holds a certificate in Chinese Acupressure, is a certified solar panel installer, and studied Tibetan Buddhism with the 14th Dalai Lama.
She lives and writes in the magical redwood forest of the Santa Cruz Mountains, California.