As of yesterday (15th January), I have finished my initial reading for the inaugural Self Published Science Fiction Competition. If you’ve been following the contest here At Boundary’s Edge, you’ll probably have seen the posts in which our team cut the thirty books allocated to us down to a respectable eleven. Reviews of those eleven are on their way (as soon as we’ve had time to compare our individual ratings and discuss them as a team), and we’ll be announcing our three books to proceed to the next round shortly. This post won’t contain any hard details about that, but is more a collection of thoughts and musings I’ve had since signing up to be a judge way back in the summer of 2021. Honestly, it feels like longer. Before I go ahead, I’m going to throw in the usual caveat that these are my thoughts, and don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of my fellow judges.
Thought #1: Team Reading
At Boundary’s Edge has always been a solo project. When I signed up, I fully expected to be a solo blogger, but soon learned the plan was to have teams to spread out the workload. A smart plan, let’s be honest. Sixty books is a huge commitment for any reviewer. Because I want a certain degree of control over this blog (and because there were spaces available), I threw my hat in the ring and offered to be a team leader. Pretty soon I had a team of four (myself included). We were the smallest team of judges in the contest, and I will forever style us as the scrappy underdogs of the SPSFC. Life soon meant one of the team had to drop out, but the rest of us set to work. Reading as part of a team is something I’ve not done before, so it was quite a learning experience. The difference in reading speeds didn’t cause as much of an issue as I had been concerned about, and we had a good chat about a lot of the books. One thing that did become quite clear early on was that the team had a variety of preferences. For example, I’m a big fan of military SF, whereas others are lukewarm. Similarly, I’m not so fond of science fantasy, but other judges are. Presenting our results across two different blogs definitely helped get the word out there, and one of my fellow judges offering to write some of our summaries definitely lessened the workload on my part.
Thought #2: The 20% Rule
Generally speaking, I don’t DNF books. Even if I’m not enjoying a book, I push through to the end in the hopes of salvaging something from my investment. With the SPSFC, we had to read the opening 20% and decide if we should continue. This was a very different experience for me, and I’m still not sure if it was helpful. On the one hand, you can get a pretty good idea of what a book will be like from that sample. But on the other, you’re essentially reading an introduction with none of the payoff. There were some books that I knew within the first couple of pages that I wasn’t going to enjoy, almost always for stylistic or formatting reasons. Others proved to be strong enough in the opening chapters that they progressed further, only to lose my interest further on. I can’t help but wonder if those books I voted not to continue became something wonderful later on. And there was a book that made it through with a very strong start that completely lost me with its final chapters. This was also the stage of the competition where a book needed a majority vote to progress further. With only three judges, only two Yes votes were required, meaning we ended up with eleven books meeting the criteria. I don’t think letting an extra book slip through the cuts phase did any real harm to our allocation, but it did mean a little extra work in the next phase. Of the eleven that made it through, I had voted to continue with seven of them, and had voted for two more that ultimately failed to make the cut.
Thought #3: The E-Book Issue
The SPSFC marked the first time I have ever read e-books. Quite frankly, I hate it. Early on I did debate buying physical copies of all the entries, but that was financially unviable. The simple truth is that I do not engage with digital reading the same way I do with physical books. It’s too easy to be distracted for one thing, and I found myself setting the e-reader (my phone) down halfway through chapters, and even pages to do something else. I find it very difficult to focus on a screen at the best of times, and this definitely had an impact on my reading. Even the best books in our allocation never fully gripped me they way they would have if I’d been holding real paper in my hands. There’s no question in my mind that I derived less enjoyment from these books as a result of the format, with the small mercy that all books suffered equally.
Thought #4: The YA Dilemma
One of the biggest reasons we ended up cutting a book was that we were not the target audience. There were several Young Adult books in our selection, but none of us are young adult readers. Now, YA books are absolutely valid entrants in the competition, but my overall impression is that they haven’t fared very well. We had books like Sand Runner or Tracker220 that were very good examples of YA literature, but that simply weren’t what I as a judge was looking for. There’s no fault of the book here, it’s just a mismatch between book and reader, which makes it awkward to cut them when they’re not necessarily bad books. It’s certainly odd to want to recommend a book that you personally removed from the competition! What I take away from this is that pure bad luck resulted in these books being cut, and that another year of the competition could well see YA books receive more attention.
Thought #5: A Question of Genre
This was the biggest split among the judges. I feel safe in saying most genres had a judge in their favour, but speaking for myself, the books we were allocated are by no means in genres I enjoy. I’m fairly traditional in my genre reading, being a fan of military SF and space opera. There wasn’t a whole lot going around, unfortunately. The allocation included genres I can’t stand like LitRPG and romance, while genres like cyberpunk, comedy, dystopias, and post-apocalypses were always going to be a hard sell. I like my science fiction big and expansive, whereas this year’s crop of authors tended towards near-future, character driven stories. I’m one of a tiny minority that dislikes a focus on character, whereas prevailing wisdom puts that at the forefront of literature. There’s no telling what sort of books you’re going to get in a competition like this, though an effort was made to ensure an even spread between the teams. Once again, it’s matter of a disconnect between book and judge rather than any fault on the part of the writer.
Thought #6: Objectivity and Subjectivity
My individual scores are fairly low. The lowest-rated book received a 2 out of a possible 10, while the highest was a 7. Taking all eleven into account, the average score was a 4.91. That sounds very low – and it is – but it reflects a truth of the way I review. I can only review based on my personal enjoyment of a book. Be it because of e-reading, genre, target audience, or the story itself, I didn’t enjoy these books as much as I’d hoped. Taking this into account, I tried to be generous, acknowledging that a book was well-written even if it wasn’t a genre I was interested in. There are a lot of 5s in my scoresheet, essentially. Yes, this book is good, but it’s not for me. And my enjoyment is the only criteria I have to go on. I describe myself as easy to please, hard to impress. So far, I’m still waiting to be impressed. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really good books in this contest, and with the right readers they’ll go a lot further than they did with a grumpy old man like me. Self-Published science fiction has something for everyone, and is certainly not the sea of cheap literature some will paint it out to be. But as for myself, I’m still waiting to be wowed.
I judge this competition for the same reason I run this blog: Because I love books and I love talking about them. I don’t want to go down as the mean judge of the SPSFC. It doesn’t need one, because it’s about spreading the good in the world. I might be a little underwhelmed at present, but this was always going to be the roughest part of the competition. And just because I don’t like a book, doesn’t make it a bad book. In the end, we all have to make our own judgements.