FIYAH Magazine Black SFF Writer Survey: Statistics and Experiences

The FIYAH 2016 Black SFF Writer Survey Report, published today, compiles the responses of 55 black writers to questions about their efforts to get published in the sf and fantasy field. No mere counting exercise, the report includes the testimony of writers who are frustrated with the market’s resistance to their work, and analysis of such touchy questions as the real performance of magazines with encouraging diversity statements.

…With this survey, we are attempting to add what is probably the most neglected–and most important–perspective to the conversation: that of black writers themselves.

Our survey responses give us a clearer picture of who these writers are: global, writing in multiple genres, at various stages in their writing careers. In this report, we seek to collect and spotlight information and opinions of these black speculative fiction writers. We feel that this kind of insight is invaluable for a true assessment of black writers’ attitudes regarding their treatment by markets that publish short form speculative fiction and by publishing in general.

It is important to note that all of the writer-side data is self-reported. We invited writers to submit information about their practices and insights on submission to SFF short fiction markets with a focus on the period between October 2015 and November 2016.

There are two excellent infographics based on the Market-side and Writer-side data. This excerpt is from the Market-side summary:

The raw numbers are available for review in a trio of spreadsheets.

The BonFiyah: Anecdote Summary gives voice to stories behind these numbers. These quotes come from the section on Frustrations —

Experiences on the roadblocks encountered in the marketplace.

“I understand that breaking into these highly competitive markets is a struggle for any writer, and have always considered the rejections to be based on normal craft concerns. Until I saw the Fireside Report. I don’t think any of my work is perfect, but I can’t help but question the evaluation of the extremely exclusive sci if fantasy magazine community. I look forward to receiving a rejection and knowing for sure it’s the story that’s the problem, not my unabashedly black voice.”

“Once got a rejection because the editor said the scenario was unrealistic and unlikely to ever happen (the scenario was, in fact, based on true events in Nigeria.)”

“The market is full of white people who get multiple chances to write uninspiring, clueless, by the numbers speculative fiction, and these white people are often published gleefully in SFWA-qualifying markets that pay professional rates. However, when it comes to black authors, everything that we have to do has to be better than everything else. Black writers cannot be average. We have to be superstars.”

“To be honest, the lack of taste representation in magazines–the lack of stories that I want to read and enjoy in most of the major short story markets–is more discouraging than any other factor. I dislike how few authors of color are published but I also dislike how rote and trope many of the stories that do get published are, which makes me hold back from submitting because I feel as though my writing is often too weird for major markets. There’s a lot of “safe” choices that aren’t particularly compelling getting published and I just don’t know if stylistically I’d be accepted in some cases.” …

Finally, in Going Forward the authors make a broad range of suggestions for change which are discussed in a nuanced way. But having heard many times before the arguments from people who don’t want to make progress on these issues, they say explicitly —

This report is not for those people.

This report is for writers, readers, editors, magazines, and fans interested in actively working against the anti-black bias inherent in this system for the sake of the writers and work that said bias excludes.

It’s a very helpful document for pros and fans seeking a way ahead.

12 thoughts on “FIYAH Magazine Black SFF Writer Survey: Statistics and Experiences

  1. I think that this is extremely well-done, too, especially the Infographics.

    What I think makes it most effective is their stance that they’re not intending it to be used as evidence to convince people who don’t believe that there’s any racism in the submissions/acceptance process; it’s intended to help those who already believe that there’s a problem and want to try to improve things.

  2. Hmmm. So out of the 11 magazines I follow, black writers in the survey submitted 199 stories of which 17 got into print for an average of 8.5%. If we delete Lightspeed, on the grounds they had a “People of Co(u)lor” issue, that drops to 6.9%.

    But these magazines have acceptance rates from 1% to 4 or 5%, so the overall stats don’t look pretty good. The people responding were self-selected, and it’s likely that successful writers were overrepresented, but even so it looks good.

    Looking at the 95%-confidence interval, this could represent a real underlying rate of 3.7% to 11.6%, (8.5% to 13.0% with Lightspeed) so the overall stats don’t show a problem. Not that I can see.

    Looking at the numbers per magazine, the trouble is that the numbers are too small to draw conclusions. Even for Tor.com, where there were zero published of 15 submitted, the 95%-confidence interval includes rates as high as 15%.

    Unless I’m missing something, these numbers do not show that there is a problem. Not overall, and not for any specific publication either.

    That’s not the same as proving that there is no problem, of course.

  3. Greg Hullender: Unless I’m missing something, these numbers do not show that there is a problem. Not overall, and not for any specific publication either.

    Hence their explanation that because of the limits on what data could be obtained, they did not expect this report to provide substantive evidence that bias exists.

    I’m sure that they appreciated you mansplaining that for them, though. 🙄

  4. Greg Hullender: That’s not the same as proving that there is no problem, of course.

    I think there is an array of different issues affected by relations between races and ethnic groups which cause people to feel emotional pain, and several past surveys about the rate at which women or people of color are being published have not done as good a job as the FIYAH report of avoiding the implication that if the numbers fell out okay nobody’s pain would be worth considering (because freelancing is a hard life and people are expected to tough it out.)

    I don’t have to be convinced about racism in the sff field — I’ve heard the talk myself. What I don’t know, without documents like this, is the expectations and experience people of color bring to their work as writers. What does the problem look like to them?

  5. What comes across is that it is really daunting to break into this field as a minority. Even if it is not easy for writers who happen to be white, it sure doesn’t look easier for writers who happen to be people of color.

    It’s not about quality of writing. Otherwise there are certain presses that would be accepting their submissions like hotcakes. There’s one in Finland that has gotten a lot of Hugo nominations somehow.

  6. Actually, the numbers show that it isn’t any harder for minorities than it is for anyone else. That makes sense when you consider the fact that an editor cannot usually tell is a writer is black simply from the name on the submission.

    For the individual magazines (of the 11 I follow), the numbers are too small to rule out discrimination except for four: Apex, F&SF, Interzone, and Lightspeed. For those 4, the likelihood that the discriminate is outside the 95%-confidence interval. For the rest, it’s inconclusive. But the overall results are not inconclusive. They show there isn’t discrimination, with 95% confidence.

    Now the fact that the sample wasn’t really random may have loaded it up with already-published writers, skewing the numbers. But taking the numbers at face value, the simple statistics show 1) there’s no significant discrimination across the top 11 magazines as a group 2) there’s no significant discrimination for the four specific magazines I named above and 3) there is no significant evidence for or against discrimination for the other 7.

    That is what the numbers say.

    I’m prepared to believe that there’s real prejudice and bias in the industry, but writers of short stories should largely be insulated from it owing to the lack of face-to-face communication. These results bear that out.

    Someone else should check my math, of course. I’m computing confidence intervals using the quantile function for the beta distribution with Jeffrys prior. In Excel, that’s BETA.INV(0.025,number_accepted+0.5,number_rejected+0.5) for the lower bound. Replace 0.025 with 0.975 to get the upper.) For Apex, that should give a 5.7% lower bound and a 28.5% upper bound. That means that even though the average for Apex was 14.3%, it could be that the real number was as low as 5.7% (but we just got lucky) or as high as 28.5% (and we were just unlucky) but there’s less than a 5% chance the real number was outside that range. To prove discrimination, we’d want to see the upper bound under 2% (or whatever the average acceptance rate is). To prove non-discrimination we’d want to see the lower bound at or above 2%.

    Since the overall lower bound (17 accepted of 199 submitted) is 5.3%, that actually says that this sample did much better than the average writer. I’d attribute that to the nature of the sample, not to any “reverse discrimination.”

  7. @Greg

    Given the stated issues with the sampling, I think it’s too early to be making definitive statements like that.

  8. “Now the fact that the sample wasn’t really random may have loaded it up with already-published writers, skewing the numbers. But taking the numbers at face value…”

    So we should acknowledge that the numbers are skewed, but still take them at their face value…?

  9. Thanks for the link to this.

    Also, echoing what others say, it’s pointless to run a strict statistical analysis on these numbers, because the survey responders were self-selected. Anyone doing math or statistics should know that; it’s basic. Making any kind of purely math analysis on that kind of survey data will get you a meaningless answer.

    But that does not mean the numbers from these 55 black authors don’t mean anything. I think Our Host has the right of it: Listening carefully to the expectations and experiences of black writers is extremely important. And noting how overwhelmingly white the publishing industry is is also very important.

    Combining this with Ann Leckie’s blog post, linked above, about the struggle writers feel when trying to break out of the expected commercial tropes, and the other post about cover whitewashing, makes for some extremely thought-provoking reading.

    Thanks for all this, Mike.

  10. I had commented on twitter that based on the submissions correlated with diversity statements graphic, the rates of publication (pubs/submission) were almost identical regardless of the existence of diversity statements. I hadn’t even considered the skew that Lightspeed’s PoC issue would have when I did that. Huh.

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