SPFBO, MMA, and Thresholds
Well, it finally happened. The ax fell and it was my head on the chopping block in the vaunted 2017 Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO). As both myself and my blarguing companion pointed out not that long ago, neither of us held any illusions of taking the top spot. But I’m not going to lie and say it didn’t sting a bit.
But the sting ain’t too severe. I’ve been at screenwriting for 15 years and have received rejections that would make you envy the dead, so this experience was nothing short of stellar. Yet I find myself in a fairly unique position in that, while I personally know the author’s pang of having your deeply-personal masterpiece not make it on to the next stage due to the personal judgments of someone you’ve never met, in my dayjob I assess screenplays for a living. Which is to say I’m that faceless nobody who constantly tells artists their deeply-personal masterwork isn’t going to make it to the next stage.
I’m a judge, so I know the judges’ pain as well.
I can’t remember where I heard the argument, but I remember it being said that a sport is an athletic endeavor with a clear-cut winner, while a competition is an athletic endeavor where judges pick the winner. To whit, by this argument a footrace is a sport because you can objectively measure who passed the finish line first, while figure skating is a competition because you bring the subjectiveness of judges into play in selecting the victor.
Now I don’t completely cleave to this notion based upon my favorite sport of Mixed Martial Arts, where a knockout or submission gives you that objective/ clear-cut winner, but also employs judges for when there isn’t a fight-ending move. Which is to say I don’t believe judges’ inherent subjectiveness invalidates a decision; only that said subjectiveness injects the potential for disagreement from the audience.
Which is why it’s a common credo in the MMA world to “never leave it in the hands of the judges.”
Because we as humans don’t really like ambiguity, which you’re going to get anytime you employ judges for anything since decisions are based upon personal tastes. We demand that judges be impartial and infallible, yet hold them to our own very partial and fallible personal opinions in the process. When we/ our friend/ team/ school/ county/ etc. don’t get picked for that top spot that we KNOW deep down in our bones they deserve, we scream foul (or perhaps scream about the fouls).
So yeah, back to me. It is my blog after all. If you haven’t been following it, I was one of Fantasy Book Critic’s crop and did exceedingly well for a debut novel by receiving a glowing review and semifinalist status. Seriously, that article was chock full of super awesome quotes, some of which now populate my Amazon page, including this personal favorite of mine, which I will probably etch on my tombstone:
Think Mark Lawrence's edgy characters mixed in with Brandon Sanderson's excellent world-building skills and you will have an exact answer to what awaits within this amazing debut.
It really seemed I would sail ahead to victory and finalist status, but alas, the little ship The Woven Ring crashed against the rocks known as The Crimson Queen (though, I personally predicted it would be the exceptional (and exceptionally ironic, considering this belabored metaphor) Where The Waters Turn Black). I knew the reputations of both books even before I went into SPFBO, which is no small feat for a self-published book, so to even be considered competition to them was a great honor. And it seems the decision to pick The Crimson Queen over The Woven Ring really went until the 11th hour and was decided by a sliver.
So how does it feel to be so close that I could smell that finalist spot? I’m not going to lie; it ain’t great. But I’m honestly glad it was The Crimson Queen that bested me because I’ve read it and know how good it is. And even if my hand wasn’t raised at the end of the fight, I still got a great conciliatory prize in that aforementioned quote by FBC.
I’m currently finishing up my second whiskey as I type this, so if you’ve made it this far into the post, I hope you’ll indulge me in a little delusion of grandeur/ tour down MMA memory lane when I say I feel like Rich Franklin. To those not in the know of 10-year-old MMA history, Rich Franklin was probably the greatest middleweight fighter in the UFC… if you didn’t count Anderson Silva. Were Anderson Silva not around, Rich Franklin would have ruled the division for years because he was head and shoulders above the rest of the fighters in his weight class.
Too bad Anderson Silva was head and shoulders above him, relegating Rich Franklin to the position of knowing he would have been number one due to his once-in-a-generation talent were he not in the era of a once-in-an-epoch talent.
Seriously, don't watch unless you love some of the ultraviolence.
But unlike Rich Franklin’s ignominious end in the first frame, The Woven Ring went five full rounds with The Crimson Queen and ensured it was left in the judges’ hands with what feels like a split decision loss. It’s not a win by any stretch, but I consider this a fight of the year and am happy to say I believe I was beaten by the best. Or who will at least go on to take the SPFBO crown.
SPFBO can jumpstart a self-published author’s career, but I also don’t believe it’s my defining moment as an author. Nor should it be for any of the other authors who aren’t one of the 10 out of 300 finalists. As I pointed out before, judging is entirely subjective, and one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.
Except I don’t really believe that’s the case. I couldn’t make my living assessing screenplays all day if I didn’t believe in judges’ worth after all.
In his seminal book Outliers, Gladwell pointed out that SAT scores were predictive of college success… up to a point. Someone scoring 1,200 did better than someone scoring 900 (forgive me, I’m old and use the old scoring system).
Bet you didn't expect to see that book mentioned here, eh? Yeah, I'm a well-read fight fan, yo!
But once the scores passed a certain threshold, all bets were off; someone scoring a 1,500 was no better than a 1,300. After reaching that threshold, all students were equal in quality/ intelligence and succeed or not in their academic endeavor based upon their other abilities. My work in assessing screenplays backs this up, and we find once a score passes a certain number it’s good enough to go to the theaters, where audiences decide if it’s going to be a hit or not.
And I would argue that’s what SPFBO really shows us. Those that make this semifinalist status pass that qualitative threshold and can be considered on par with traditionally published books in that they’re error free, engaging, well written, etc. And once they’ve made it past this threshold, it then becomes a matter of personal opinion from the judges as to which one is better than the other. Some love the grimdark, while others find it jejune and score those misery-merchants lower for their subgenre. Some love a good romance thread, while others run screaming and mark the novel down accordingly.
Which is to say, while judges in competitions like these can’t usually agree on what’s “the best,” they can all agree on what passes the threshold and can be considered “good.” Which is what I believe they’re doing when they give semifinalist status: These books are qualitatively good enough that you as an audience should give them a shot and personally decide if they’re your cup of tea.
And yeah, of course I’d think that. Making lemonade out of that lemon-flavored semifinalist status of mine. Oh, it really is a prize, I promise.
Seriously though, that’s SPFBO’s greatest gift: The air of legitimacy. And believe me, this is an important laurel for any self-published author to wear. Because we also bear the red-letter stigma of self-publishing, which is to say “crap.” Because traditionally, the vast majority of self-published books were in fact qualitatively crap.
But times, they are a-changin’, and SPFBO opens up the opportunity for a lot of self-published books to be reviewed by blogs which before would never have deigned to read one of our works. Don’t believe me? Go to your favorite book blogger and check their submission guidelines. Chances are they’ll say something to the effect of “I don’t accept self-published works unless I already know the author’s work.” Which is to encapsulate the catch-22 situation of “I won’t give them a chance unless I’ve already given them a chance.”
And that’s what SPFBO really does: Give us self-publishers a chance to sail past that qualitative threshold so that audiences will give us a shot to see if we match up with their personal tastes. Sometimes we’re the next number one that other readers will scratch their heads over and wonder why the judges didn’t pick that other, clearly superior book. In effect, everyone will argue about the specifics of the book rather than be arguing if they should be discussing the book in the first place.
And, honestly, that’s all self-publishers want in the first place: An opportunity to be argued over.