BSF Report: Going Forward

For our part, we will continue to administer the survey on a biannual basis in hopes that we will see and be able to measure improvement of the state of published black speculative fiction. In light of the responses that we’ve received from confirming black writers’ feelings and observations about their place within the speculative fiction short form publishing machine, we offer the following suggestions that the speculative fiction cultural space can use to begin work toward adjusting on this issue. These suggestions apply to markets, readers, publishers, and professional organizations. Adapting these suggestions will mark an enormous institutional shift for the speculative fiction publishing and cultural space, but we believe that implementation of them will contribute to a stronger, more inclusive culture overall.

Provide More Substantive Feedback on Promising Submissions

By and large the most frequently occurring piece of information we received from authors in their narratives was that they were extremely dissatisfied with editorial responses to their work. To read this and think that these authors expect some sort of additional consideration or prioritization of their work is false. Authors often question the reasons why their work has been rejected, especially when their work otherwise receives a positive response. Without this deeper feedback, black authors are forced to question whether an editor did not understand cultural aspects of their work, or whether there was some other racialized reason for their submission’s rejection.

Markets must remember marginalized writers come to them with diverse lived experiences influenced by all sorts of real-world oppression and trauma. Writers whose oppression and trauma have roots in a system of racialized inequity view every interaction through that lens. Any lack of clarity in these interactions will set off a complex self-query to determine whether a response was influenced by their race. This is doubly so for black writers, as even other people of color benefit from perpetuating anti-black bias in these systems and spaces.

Hire Black Editors

We received a few responses where writers identified that a black editor would have been useful in providing detailed feedback for their submission. There is also at least one instance where the sale of a story was directly impacted by an editor of color. It stands to reason that a diverse group of editors will be more thoughtful about how they respond to the work of black writers. Special emphasis here is placed on the presence and labor of black editors.

Markets must beware the idea that having a couple of black people as first readers counts as editorial diversity. Black editors need to occupy positions where they are able to influence the direction and taste of the magazine. These editors also have the potential to be more familiar with lesser known but equally talented black writers and can help in identifying authors to solicit for submissions. Magazines must trust these editors and their dedication to craft and the work: if a black editor exists at a magazine but they have to constantly fight other editors to advocate for the work of black writers, their effect is greatly diminished. To truly affect a magazine, Black editors need to be integral to its operation.

Solicit Stories from Black Authors

Opponents of diversity in publishing like to point out that publication rates of black writers are low because black writers do not submit their work to publications in any great number. However, we see that black writers are submitting to publications in great number despite a deep distrust of these publications and the market systems that undergird them (much of this is reflected in how many Black authors choose to self-publish their work). This distrust is an important thing to consider alongside the larger point of submission volume by black authors, as publication rates of black authors are still generally very small even though they are submitting work. It would seem that they have a reason to distrust these markets.

As we stated in the “Hire Black Editors” section above, magazines with a more diverse editorial crew may appear to be more trustworthy to black writers, especially if that magazine has a black editor on staff. Magazines should also make an attempt to reach out to black writers and invite them to submit work to their publication. They should beware the “rising tide floats all boats” approach, and be very specific in reaching out to individual black writers or approaching collectives of black writers for work and participation. Whether or not this work is a part of the Black editor’s job description is up to the magazine, though we strongly suggest that all editors pull equal weight in soliciting work from black authors.

Also, we suggest that magazines avoid the trap of only soliciting submissions from widely recognized black authors. See this storify of a Twitter thread from N.K. Jemisin following the release of the #BlackSpecFic report for more on how a “there can only be one/there can only be a few” solicitation strategy is not a proper solution to boosting publication rates. As our results show, many individual and unique black SFF writers exist, and many more of them have work that is worthy of publication. To focus on rotating the same few black writers though major, professionally qualifying magazines impacts publication rates but is a disingenuous solution that does nothing for the larger speculative fiction environment or culture.

Craft Truthful Diversity Statements

Respondents submitted more frequently to markets with a statement on commitment to diversity and inclusivity than they did to markets without one. Black writers generally distrust most markets because of their unstated but obvious commitment to prioritizing a certain type of work. Markets with Diversity Statements show that they have at least begun the work of considering the state of the industry with regard to the bias against the work of black writers.

Markets must remember that they have to honor their diversity statements. If they say on the face that they are committed to diversity but rarely publish work from black writers–or publish work from the same core group of hypervisible black writers–the distrust will continue, and this distrust has a direct impact on the submission rates of black writers.

Collect Data on Baseline Diversity in Submissions By Allowing Authors to Provide Demographic Information

Blind submissions systems are based on the premise that the quality of an author’s work should matter more than any individual notoriety or acclaim, but somehow blind submissions allow many markets to persist in biased publication practices.

Instead of completely blind submissions, we suggest that markets allow all submitters to provide basic demographic information not limited to race, and including at the very least the ability for authors to provide data on their gender identification, geographic location, and publication history. Collecting this data will allow markets to collect, analyze, and publicize baseline data on diversity in their submissions. With more robust submission data, we can begin to examine submission trends and implement strategies to make submissions from certain groups–for our purposes: races, genders, and global locations–more robust. By not collecting names of authors during the submission and review process and keeping the author’s identifying information separate from their demographic data, their privacy can be preserved. And, of course, authors can opt out of providing this data; but keep in mind that over 70% of black authors indicated that they would (and do) provide self-identification data.

Hire More Black Critics and Reviewers to Provide More Critical Analysis of Black Writing

Until recently, there seems to have been a dearth of critical analysis of work from black authors with the exception of the standard publicity that accompanies a novel release. Critical analysis is essential to a thriving literary environment and the exclusion of analysis of work by black authors plays a crucial part in invisibilizing their stories (the lack of reviews for Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine and Omenana are current examples).

However, with the rise of independent reviewers and more inclusive reviewing from magazines, this particular problem is being addressed. There is still, however, more room for magazines to create space for black critics and analysts to provide their unique points of view and approach to black writing and black stories. A focus on granting voice to black critics does not mean that other critics should refuse to engage critically with a black story. A thoughtful review or critical analysis of a black writer’s work from a nonblack reviewer still provides visibility to a work and allows readers to form their own critical reactions.

SFWA Engagement

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America published a statement in the days following the release of Fireside Fiction’s #BlackSpecFic report that outlined planned actions for improving the publication rates of black SFF writers. Community responses to this statement and the action items that it produced indicated a desire for a more concrete, actionable set of responses from the organization, but respondents indicated that they could not agree on what that sort of response might look like due to the SFWA’s lack of ability to enforce any sweeping suggestions.

We do agree that SFWA should not and cannot serve as a diversity oversight committee for markets, not even its qualifying markets. However, we do think that there are ways SFWA can use its influence to more strongly ally themselves with black SFF writers and positively impact the low publication rates of black writers.

One of the ways that SFWA can prove this allyship is to show that they are taking the ongoing conversation very seriously. They can do this by hosting inclusive dialogues on the topic on their website or in other spaces, and by offering grants to organizations/councils that may be interested in tracking baseline diversity of submission data throughout the larger short fiction publishing atmosphere.

Though SFWA does not hold direct influence over markets, they do hold a measure of prestige. The organization could use this prestige to their advantage by sponsoring an award for markets that makes strides in their racial inclusivity, or by adding criteria to eligibility requirements for SFWA market qualification that sets parameters for inclusion.

It is important that SFWA does not approach these issues in a manner that trivializes them or the writers that suffer from them. There are hundreds of qualified, hard-working black SFF writers who are producing great work and would love to be members of the organization. However, without any way to meet the publication criteria, these writers face being shut out of the SFWA and a career in speculative fiction in general.

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