Learning From Fireside Fiction’s #BlackSpecFic Reports

SFWA President Cat Rambo, in “Talking About Fireside Fiction’s #BlackSpecFic Reports, Part 1 of 2”, is joined by Steven Barnes, Maurice Broaddus, Tananarive Due, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Tonya Liburd, and Nisi Shawl for a roundtable discussion of Fireside Fiction’s reports on blacks in speculative fiction and what the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America might take away from it as action items. Listen to the recording at Soundcloud.

The reports driving their discussion are Antiblack Racism in Speculative Fiction: #BlackSpecFic: A Fireside Fiction Company special report (2015), the follow-up 2016 #BlackSpecFic Report, and the accompanying essays by black writers.

Cat Rambo notes in her introduction:

Here is the central fact they present. Black writers are underrepresented in fantasy and science fiction short fiction magazines. The 2015 figures: 2039 stories in 63 magazines, of which 38 stories were by black authors, in 2015….

For the sake of very broad comparison, American demographics as of July 2016 (according to Wikipedia) were 13.3% African American, 17.8% Latino/Hispanic, and 61.3% white. Like the magazines when it comes to publishing black writers, SFWA’s population skews much whiter than figures might lead one to assume.

Rambo plans to follow the up the two-part discussion with a post about her own takeaway, and how SFWA can respond.

This was a terrific conversation. I was scribbling notes down throughout most of it. In a day or two I’ll post those notes and action items, along with an account of what’s happened so far, but today the focus should be that discussion.

12 thoughts on “Learning From Fireside Fiction’s #BlackSpecFic Reports

  1. It still would be interesting to know the input side of this. How many pieces being submitted are by black authors?

  2. No one seems to know that number. It would require magazines to track down the race of a representative sample of slush-pile submissions, and that’s probably asking too much. Also, are they really going to resort to calling people on the phone and asking, “Hi! Are you black?” 🙂

    We do know a couple of things, though. First, the US Census reports that between 3% and 5% of all authors are black. (All genres). Realistically speaking, one cannot expect that 13.3% of submissions will come from black authors.

    However, even then, Fireside’s numbers suggest that between 1/3 and 2/3 of the expected number of black authors actually get published in SFF magazines. (I limited my analysis to the 11 SFF magazines that Rocket Stack Rank reviews.)

    There could be several reasons for this:
    1) Short fiction pays poorly, and black authors are less likely to be able to afford that.
    2) Black authors are turned off by SFF for some reason. (E.g. they’ve been told the future is all-white.)
    3) Jemisin suggested that many (or even most) black SFF authors only submit to publications that specifically target a black audience.
    4) There’s a secret conspiracy by editors of short fiction to identify the race of authors and then not publish stories by black writers.
    5) New authors experience extremely high rejection rates, and if you’re a minority, it’s easy to imagine that this is discrimination, at which point you give up or switch to option 3.
    6) Something else.

    I only mention #4 because that seemed to be Fireside‘s original argument, and they rudely rejected any suggestion that this wasn’t the fault of the editors. They appear to have gotten a bit more humble when in the following year they themselves failed to publish a single story written by a black author. (But I give them big points for admitting it.)

    My best guess is that the most effective thing would be a PR campaign targeted at black writers, but, at this point, I don’t think there’s anything white people can do to fix this because we don’t understand what’s happening. Any effort has to be led by black authors (and maybe editors), and we need to ask them how we can help them.

    ETA: The difference between the 2014 and 2015 census numbers is stunning. The Black Authors number jumps from 4% to 11.8%. That’s astonishing, and would point to a really huge problem if the number is accurate.

  3. Never mind. The 4% number was right. I got confused about the two bars. They’re not 2014 and 2015; they’re writers vs. the total number of people in the workplace (all professions). Either way, using 13.3% is definitely a mistake, of course.

  4. It still would be interesting to know the input side of this. How many pieces being submitted are by black authors?

    One of the points made several times in this discussion is that black writers are self-selecting out, which means they’re not appearing in the slush pile to begin with, which matches my experience when editing Fantasy Magazine. To me one question that grows out of that is how do we encourage them not to do so?

  5. @Cat
    An outreach effort is something someone like Jemisin could lead (or at least headline). However, it has to counteract things like this:

    Most respondents reported that reading reports like Fireside’s #BlackSpecFic report or the Lee and Low Diversity Baseline Survey either discouraged them from submitting work to short fiction markets or had no effect on their decision to submit work to short fiction markets. Reasons for discouragement are obvious, we think. However, many respondents indicated that the reports had no effect on their outlook because they are used to unfair treatment by these markets and the industry.

    2016 Black SFF Writer Survey Report,” (Fiyah, ~February 2017)

    This very much supports the idea that black authors believe that the magazines discriminate against them, and so they go independent instead. I don’t see why they’d believe a bunch of white writers telling them they ought to submit anyway. This has to be lead by a successful black author.

    I suspect there are a lot of would-be black authors out there who aren’t aware of how easy it is to submit to SFF publications these days. Type it up in Word, upload it to their web site, and get a yes/no decision in just a few days–maybe a week. (Except for Analog.) These magazines reject 99% of what they get, so keep sending. For each story, keep a chart of whom you’ve sent it to, and keep sending until each story has either been accepted or has been rejected everywhere. And keep writing. The more you write, the better you’ll get, and soon enough you’ll get things published, if you’re meant to be a writer anyway. But getting dozens, hundreds, even a thousand rejections first is normal.

    I dunno. Maybe they already know all this. Or maybe they wouldn’t believe it even from a Jemisin. Or maybe there’s some entirely different thing that would work. But it really needs a successful black author to lead it. I don’t think anyone else can.

  6. Here’s a different idea: create a prize for an African-American author’s first publication in one of the major magazines. E.g. (not that I’m promising to do this–think of it as a thought experiment) Rocket Stack Rank could offer $1,000 to an African-American author for his/her first publication in one of the 11 magazines we review, provided it got at least three stars. It would be interesting to see how long it was before that prize was claimed, but if we got the right people to promote it in the right places, maybe it could create some enthusiasm. If it only took a few days, maybe give it a time range (e.g. 3 months) and give it to the best that qualified. If there were no takers in three months, maybe double it to $2,000.

    Or SFWA could do something like that, but limited to SFWA-qualifying publications. If there are multiple candidates, make use of your eager affiliate members who are editors/reviewers to pick the best one. 🙂 Maybe use Patreon to fund the thing.

    I’m sure it would take more thought to do something robust, but this might actually work.

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  8. “This very much supports the idea that black authors believe that the magazines discriminate against them, and so they go independent instead. I don’t see why they’d believe a bunch of white writers telling them they ought to submit anyway. “

    AFAIK, studies point to reach out as a working solution. Because it means that people are actually working to make others feel welcome, showing them that they are interested. It has worked for academia. I can’t see why it shouldn’t have an effect in SF.

    Status Quo does not change by saying someone else should do the work.

  9. @Hampus I would say that the work at this point is to recruit someone to lead it. That’s something I think Cat is well-placed to do. 🙂 it’s important to recognize when you’re not the right person to do something.

  10. Hi there. This is Brian White, former editor, publisher, and owner of Fireside. We have been doing surveys of submitters (they get a link after subbing a story) and while we still need more data it seems about 7-8% of submissions to Fireside are from black writers. As another commenter said, many black writers don’t bother subbing because they see how white the published authors are in the mags. It’s one of the most pernicious effects of the combination of a preceived but false meritocracy (“the best stories will ge published regardless of race) and of institutional racism in an industry that has always been dominated by white men, especially at the gatekeeping level of editors and publishers. One way Fireside has and is working to make itself more inclusive is through direct solicitation of black and other marginalized writers. By making Fireside more inclusive, we hope that will snowball into being seen as a welcoming market for people of color and other marginalized communities, leading to submission rates more representative of the world we live in.

    tl;dr — black writers are out there, and if they don’t feel comfortable submitting to magazines, that is on us, not on them.

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