On SFF markets and the problem of diversity.
This is one of those long ones. Grab a snack.
Art by Joe Orlando. From the story Judgment Day! in the March-April 1953 issue of Weird Fantasy.
Hi. I’m a small time SFF writer. I’m black. I also submit short stories to paying SFF markets. Most times I’m not successful in selling my stories. A few wonderful times, I am. Do I see lots of stories published in top SFF markets with faces like mine? No. And believe me, I search for them. It’s not the most scientific process: Are the characters black? Do I detect an inference to anything black-ish? Hmm… that author’s name sounds black, lemee google em up right quick. Again, not exactly a science. But it’s what I got. Are the gatekeepers at these SFF markets black? Rarely. At least rare enough that when one or two are, they show up in black SFF spaces to announce with hopeful desperation: “I’m working at so-and-so. Please, please, please submit your stories because the slush is whiter than a Gods of Egypt, Noah, Exodus triple-feature!”
So on July 26 when Fireside Fiction dropped #BlackSpecFic: A Fireside Fiction Company Special Report, showing the dearth of black authors published in some of the more well-known paying markets, it was as unsurprising as a lackluster DC flick. Still, it’s something to see in numbers:
Yeah. Let that settle in. What do those numbers mean to a black writer SFF writer like me? That in these markets the institutionalized nature of bias places me at a disadvantage. That along with all of the other things any writer submitting stories has to consider, issues of race remain part of it. That even markets with good intentions who state openly that they welcome diversity, fall short of the mark.
Why is this important? Because if you’re a SFF writer, the short story market is important. You might be a novel writer at heart, but the short story market is where you cut your teeth. Entering the grueling “Thunderdome of Querying?” Having stories published from paying markets sure helps. Even if you’re going the indie route, if you want to gain that name recognition that brings in a faithful reading base–published short stories are the way. As Cecily Kane at Fireside Fiction writes in her intro to the report:
That’s a simple truth. And it cascades. Because if black SFF writers are being underrepresented in short story markets, then SFF as a whole is going to be less representative. Think I’m exagerrating? Okay. Here’s a neat trick: name five black SFF writers off the top of your head that you’ve read or even heard about–whose last names aren’t Butler, Delany, Okorafor or Jemisin. If you struggling, best keep reading.
Of course, as with any study, there were questions. Some wondered if the study was fair. Some pondered on if it was reliable. And the usual cadre of man-children acted out in the comment sections and throughout the interwebs (of course), adding this to their temper tantrums against SJWs and the travesty of Lady Thors & Ghostbusters. For them, not much to do but offer a pacifier and a nap. But for grownups, who may look at the report and still feel “some-kinda-way” about it, I offer the following to some common questions and thoughts I’ve come across in the past few weeks.
(1) Is the data in this report sound? I would venture to say as sound as its going to be. A study like this is going to have some inherent drawbacks, which Fireside acknowledges. Many of these SFF markets have blind submissions. Tracking the racial or ethnic background of those who submit isn’t even a thing. When Fireside set about doing this study, they thus had to be as unorthodox as I probably am in fleshing out black authors. It could mean that a few slipped through the cracks. But take a look at the stats again. Here’s the list of SFF markets that were studied. Of the 63 markets, a majority of them have a total of zero (0) stories published by black writers in 2015. A few have 1. Even fewer have 2. Only three markets show higher numbers, ranging from 3 to 5. It would take cracks the size of gorillas and whatnot to budge the data in a way that should make anyone feel comfortable. As Nisi Shawl wrote of the report, black authors being published in their “Ones and twos and, rarely, threes,” is a poor statement on the progress of diversity in SFF short story venues. Harping on what would amount to statistical error seems to miss the forest for the trees.
(2) But how many black writers are submitting to SFF markets? Ah. Here is perhaps the most common issue taken with the study. And it’s not an unreasonable question. Could these numbers be skewed because, overall, the sample of black writers submitting is so small? Given that many of these markets have such high volumes of submissions and high rejection rates anyway, is there really bias at work or just a numbers game?
My answer to this is twofold. First, Fireside seems to have thought as much. And in their calculations, they tried different numbers for black submission rates. Yet even if black writers accounted for less than 2% of submissions, the odds were still unfavorable given the lack of published stories. As these markets don’t track submissions by race, there’s actually no way to determine this beyond probabilities. These limitations in data shouldn’t mean the study can’t extrapolate meaning from its findings. If we applied this rigor of perfect and complete data samples to every other social statistic, the world would be a blurred fog of incoherence and know-nothingness.
Second, there is likely some truth to black writers not submitting to paying SFF markets in greater numbers. I know some of this firsthand from other black writers. Their reasoning is that they don’t feel these markets are welcoming to their work; they find themselves often outside the networks that make submitting and publishing in these markets viable; and they don’t see stories published in these markets by people like them. So we seem to have wound ourselves up into an Ouroboros of a conundrum. SFF markets rarely publish black writers, hence less black writers submit to them, leading to less black SFF stories published by these markets. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Writer Troy Wiggins summed it up in his essay for Fireside Fiction:
The question then becomes, even if one accepts the scenario that more black writers need to submit, where the responsibility for diversity is being placed. Is it the burden of black writers to hurl their stories at SFF markets where they feel unwelcome? Where they don’t see many faces that look like them–in the published stories or staff? Or, if SFF markets claim to value diversity, is it their burden to reach out to more black writers? To seek out their stories? To make their spaces more inviting? Where you come down on that will likely say a lot about how you think problems like this can, or should, be solved.
(3) Are there black SFF short story paying markets publishing black authors? Yes. Two come to mind. One is the ezine BlackGirlMagicLit dedicated to publishing SFF stories featuring black women and girls. Another is Omenana which publishes speculative fiction writers from across Africa and the African Diaspora. Some caveats. Both are very recent publications, created within the last two years. Both also, while offering valued space to black short story writers, are not exclusive to black writers and also publish non-black authors. Omenana, in fact, is dedicated more precisely to publishing African writers (it’s headquartered in Nigeria) and highlight African SFF Stories. (Omenana accepts stories from across the African Diaspora, however they have to either be set in Africa or deal with African-specific issues, be it in the African past, present or future.) Neither appeared in Fireside’s study. Black Girl Magic Lit did not exist in 2015. Omenana was excluded, according to the authors of the study because it was, in their own words, “distant enough from the center of the system we are critiquing that we felt inclusion of any measurements to be unnecessary and perhaps distorting.” What does that mean? See below, where we get realer than Real-Deal Holyfield for a minute.
(4) Why is publishing in the more central paying SFF markets important? The SFF publishing market has a center–those places that, as Fireside points out, help open up all those handy doors and opportunities. There’s a whole list of markets that are the short story route into influential spaces like SFWA or Codex. There are markets that simply get your story greater exposure because they reach wider audiences–which I can tell you every writer relishes!
There are markets where your story will be rubbing up against stories by well-known authors and that rub is sometimes *magical.* There are markets where stories are more likely to get nominated for a Nebula or some other coveted award. Stories published in certain markets even tend to get you solicitations to write more stories in other markets. It’s a system: an interesting, network-driven, self-rewarding “success breeds success” type organism. Is that unfair? As unfair as life. But it’s also reality. Don’t blame the messenger, Trinity.
And lastly, there’s money. Not all markets pay the same–there’s token, semi-pro, pro-rates and things in between. I have published stories in varying paying markets. And I have seen token payments of two figures and pro-rate payments at four figures–for stories of similar length. I’m grateful for every payment and every chance to get published. Word is bond. But don’t think I ain’t notice the difference between a $20 check, a $200 check and a $2000 check. I noticed it. My bank account noticed it.
When black writers are excluded from these markets not only do we lose out on connections and networking, but simple cold hard cash. That’s money that might fund a trip to a con, or to attend a writer’s workshop, or a better laptop/software, or the space and time to write, or rent, or a basic incentive to publish–cuz altruism is noble, but it don’t pay none. Given the long history of wealth exclusion for black people in America, there’s a discomfiting knowledge that under representation in some of these paying SFF markets creates a type of financial inequity that is essentially shuttering black creativity.
(5) Have you ever thought of creating your own SFF market that might publish more black authors? Yes. Still might. Why haven’t I yet? For some of the same reasons I haven’t opened up my own barbershop, coffee-house, Bier Gaarden or a Trader
Joe’s Djeli’s. I utilize and like all of those things. But I have none of the funding, time or skills necessary to carry out such an operation. Opening and sustaining a SFF market isn’t easy. There are defunct and permanently closed SFF markets littering the speculative abyss like the wreckage of Federation ships at Wolf 359. Were I to even get such an endeavor off the ground, how much could I afford to pay authors? Would it be at rates comparable to some of the top pro-markets? Certainly I couldn’t sustain any larger number of black writers.
I’ve submitted and published in black indie SFF anthology markets who have taken up this mantle. Black indie SFF projects like Griots or Steamfunk have been vital to my getting published in SFF, as they’ve been for many black authors. But they can’t possibly shoulder the burden of publishing black SFF writers almost alone. And they shouldn’t have to. I remain grateful for these opportunities. But black writers also deserve to be published in paying markets that will provide them greater access to the larger mainstream SFF world. The existence of black run SFF short story markets shouldn’t negate that reality. In fact, given that these exist precisely because of marginalization in the mainstream publishing world, it’s pretty gross to use them as a deflection.
(6) Do you think the lack of black writers in SFF markets is intentional? No idea. Honest, I don’t know what’s in people’s heads. I’d like to think that everyone in SFF is so enlightened and forward thinking we could all start wearing those onesies I’m always seeing in the post-everything future. But Puppies with the Sads and the brain-melting fever swamps of comment sections in SFF spaces disabuse me of such idealism. In the end though, intention really doesn’t really matter if the outcome is still the same. Besides, neglect and exclusion don’t require folk to have membership in the Klan or a Trump2016 bumper sticker. Really nice, well-meaning people do it too–all the time. If your editorial staff has no black people on it neglect can happen. If you don’t actively seek out black slush readers, neglect can happen. If you have an all white staff who are like the 3/4’s of white Americans that have no black friends, neglect gonna happen. Intent may not even play into it.
(7) Maybe “race” isn’t the only reason your story is rejected. I actually saw someone write this. With words. Thanks for splainin’ how submitting and rejection works Sherlock. No one is saying that race is the sole reason black writers are not being published in mainstream SFF. This seems, in fact, to be a sly way of making the “quality” argument: the universal lament of concern trolls to just about every appeal for diversity, in everything. When I get rejected, and it happens lots, I understand all sorts of factors go into that. Maybe the story doesn’t fit their needs. Maybe it’s not that good. Maybe they’re pretty stocked up on steampunk pirate stories. Issues of race and diversity are just one added factor. I don’t just automatically say “Bet I was rejected because I’m black!” That’s just what you see in wack 1980s and 1990s sitcoms and movies. In real life, black folks go through entire mental quantum field models of self-doubt before even raising the “R” word–if only because we expect to be finger-wagged by a society that almost never ever believes us. When you hear a black person “cry” racism, trust that we done already quadruple-checked our math. But I also understand that “quality” is as arbitrary as anything else. Justina Ireland’s essay says it better than I can:
(8) I read this report and as a black SFF writer I’m even more discouraged. Yeah. This is an unintended consequence I’ve seen in more than a few circles. Back in 2014, author Rose Lemberg wrote a series of tweets imploring marginalized writers in SFF markets not to “self-reject”–in which those writers become discouraged by what appear to be daunting odds. Putting numbers to those odds probably isn’t very inspiring. The struggle is real. And some may just decide to they’ll stay within the niches black SFF writers have self-created–which is understandable. But for those who want to push into that mainstream SFF world, all I can say is keep at it. Hopefully the work being done by those on the inside will one day help open doors.
(9) Is there a mainstream SFF magazine out there that seems to be getting it right? Don’t know how to answer this one. In the report, the mag Terraform stood out for having five stories published by black authors. That was only 8.5% of its total 59 published stories in 2015. But given that half of the reported mags had zero, it’s worth remarking. When asked how they managed to do so, Terraform said they weren’t looking specifically for black authors–but they did tend to “gravitate” to global stories of futurist SFF set in non-western societies. They give as an example a story of how “Botswana’s virtual world may suffocate citizens in times of climate change.” This is commendable. It still leaves questions. If they’re looking for global stories, it may be easier to gravitate towards a story from Botswana or Lagos or Nairobi–bringing in more black writers. But it may not as easily pick up Darnisha’s story from Chicago or Tyrone’s story in New Orleans. It did pick up Russell’s story from Houston tho. So, that’s encouraging.
One market I didn’t see on Fireside’s list was the semi-pro Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. If it was included, I would have been listed as at least one black author published there in 2015. I don’t know that there were other black authors published that year. Hard to suss out. The magazine publishes about 3 stories every four months, equaling 12 stories per year. If I was the only one, then that’s about 8.3%–closer to Terraform’s percentage. And better than at least half on the list. I don’t know how the editors at HFQ hunt stories but they manage to pick up tales in diverse settings. I’ve been rejected there twice. But both times I’ve been published the stories have been African-based fantasy, one of the rarest forms of SFF you’ll find in mainstream markets.
(10) How can we get more black SFF writers published at paying markets? See, I knew eventually you’d roll up your sleeves and get to the solutions part. For what it’s worth, my few drachmas:
[a] Take the problem seriously. You can spend time denying the data, frowning at the data or waxing on in criticism at length about the data. But Brian White cuts to the chase in his editorial: “Fiction, we have a problem. Racism. Structural, institutional, personal, universal.” In the end, you either think there’s a problem or you don’t. If you’re in the don’t category, here’s a Trumppence to see you on your way kind sir or madame. The rest of us gonna do this work.
[b] The burden of change here is on SFF markets not on black writers. I repeat, the burden of change is on SFF markets not black writers. Don’t tell black people to open up their own SFF markets. Don’t say, “well you guys gotta submit more.” If SFF markets want diverse stories, they’re going to have to do more than simply state it and then wait patiently for it to happen. Words and intentions are nice. But without concerted action there’s not going to be much change. SFF markets are going to have to take part in engaged activism to bring in black writers, to increase the submissions of black writers and to publish more black writers. It ain’t gonna happen by osmosis.
[c] Clap this one out with me. Get. Some. Black. Folk. Up. In. Yo. Staff. Not. Now. But. Right. Now. In his editorial, Troy Wiggins puts it succinctly: “A magazine that wants to publish black authors will have a masthead that includes black editors with varying levels of experience in the field and the power to influence the overall tone of the magazine.”
You may say, but do we actually need someone black in the editorial and reading staff to assure diversity? Can’t well-meaning staff of ANY background do this? My answer: Well, judging by the numbers in this report, ain’t been working out so well . Listen, I literally (LI-TRULL-LY) know of instances where stories written by black SFF authors were lifted out of the doldrums of the slush only by the keen eyes of black readers who had to painstakingly explain cultural and social identifiers that non-black readers and editors just didn’t get. I have recently sold stories featuring characters of color where the editors were also persons of color. And I’ve pondered if those editors were someone else (even very nice, smiley, well-meaning someone elses) if those stories would even be given a chance? The line on being published or not can be just that fickle–about who’s sitting at the table. Mikki Kendall in her essay points to as much: “many Black writers are telling stories that are unfamiliar to white editors. The context clues of Black culture may slip right past an editor who has no connection to the community the writer hails from, or to the cultures that the writer chooses to include.”
Case in point, back in 2014 Troy Wiggins’s story “A Score of Roses” puzzled a reviewer at Strange Horizons, for its use of black Southern dialect. For the reviewer this essential part of the story proved to be nothing more than an annoying “literary trick which works perhaps one time out of a hundred.” This was lamented as “a shame, because the story underneath all the “chil’ren”s and “yo’self”s is charming.” I saw an amazing story that ingeniously translocated and transliterated Elven folklore into a black Southern setting–both geographic and culturally. That reviewer only saw a “literary trick.” And that’s why diversity behind the scenes is important.
If I say “Anfernee” or “scrawberries” in my story, I need a slush reader who gets it. If I say somebody look “obzokee” and call somebody “schupidee,” need them to get that too. If I submit a story about a non-binary identifying character named Wisdom Allah whose secret powers emerge from reciting alchemical Supreme Mathematics, imma need a slush reader who got the slightest idea what I’m talmbout–and why that character itself is friggin profound. Might some of that still baffle a black slush reader? Maybe. I just ran down about three different Black Atlantic cultures. But they might just have enough insight to dig a bit deeper to give the story a chance–and see it for more than a “literary trick.”
[d] Go and find the black people. The SFF world is segregated. Like church on a Sunday segregated. Yes, even on the interwebs. When I first stumbled onto SFF writing online it was into nearly all-black SFF spaces. It was amazing to see all these black creatives into speculative fiction. Later, I stepped into the online mainstream SFF writing world, the one that tends to go on about SFWA and Nebula awards and short story markets. What I soon learned was, those two worlds barely interact. It’s not that the mainstream SFF world doesn’t have a black presence. I just quickly realized they’re all *the same black people.* They’re the same black people I might see published in a paying market. They’re also the ones I might bump into at a con. I found myself in this strange position as some kind of double agent, secreting precious info from the mainstream SFF world into these underground rebel black spaces. And know what? That’s not my job. Walk over from your side of the cafeteria to where all the black kids are sitting. If you act right, they’ll let you sit with them. And maybe, once you get to know them better, you can invite them over.
[e] Develop an actual plan. Fireside has created its own:
- Developing an optional, anonymous form for people to self-report their demographic information when they submit to Fireside.
- Targeted submissions windows toward a specific marginalized group.
- Expanding and diversifying their staff.
- Soliciting the black writing and publishing community for (gasp!) our actual thoughts.
That’s a good start. Despite the dismal nature of this report, I do think change can happen. But it’s going to take actual effort. As Justina Ireland writes, “Members of the SFF community need to work to make their spaces—literary and conference and review—welcoming and inclusive of black fans and authors. We’re here, and we’re waiting.”