Report on the dismal state of black sf/f writers in the short fiction markets

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So, whatcha gonna do about it?

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The same thing we always do - make a hashtag.

How do you even find out what the ethnic background of a writer is? For example, my favorite books from last year were probably Hugh Howey’s Wool series, Andy Weir’s The Martian, Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, and Cory Doctorow’s Homeland. I’m 85% sure Doctorow is white, but the others I have no idea.

Is race or ethnicity something readers commonly use as a criteria when choosing the next thing to read? How do publisher’s find out what an author’s background is?


If he isn’t he sure does have a good makeup artist for all the photo ops…


Without having access to submission rate data by ethnicity/publication, isn’t the study pretty flawed and sensationalistic? The one little number that could swing the whole thing so far either way (were only 38 stories submitted by black authors, or 38,000?) seems like a pretty vital thing to leave out…


People write what they read. I think that the analysis might be looking at the wrong side of the coin to at least some extent. What does the readership look like? I recall reading somewhere that the majority of sci-fi readers make over 80,000 a year. I don’t personally fit that trend, but it’s food for thought. I think solving it from the readership end might be an effective (read: easier) method.

That being said, the article makes clear that submissions from non-white authors are getting short shrift. The way that fiction is submitted, mainly through faceless correspondence, doesn’t leave a lot of room for first-impression prejudice based on the author’s identity. It’s not like job interviews where seeing a person’s face can instantly pre-dispose you to prejudice. So that means we’re talking about rejection because the characters are diverse, or the subject matter and themes “aren’t a good fit.” People not only write what they read, but what they know. I find it difficult to imagine someone with a minority background not injecting some of their experiences into a novel or short story. I can absolutely see someone at Analog or Tor (pulling names out of a hat here) looking at a story and passing because it might seem too “far-fetched” or “preachy.”


I don’t know what all of these editors are doing (63 magazines, really? Man, when I was more active in SF publishing, I think there were maybe six or seven that anyone paid any attention to), but at least for paying markets, most editors have some idea who most of their contributors are. They’ve read other work by them, met them at conventions, workshops, and so on. Not random unknowns coming over the transom. Some are, and then you’re just relying on whatever information they’ve volunteered, most of which you aren’t going to think about too much before you read the submission, because it is almost always useless information. Now it is true that SF publishing in those days was not very ethnically diverse. I think it is better now, but I don’t pay close attention any more.


And I’m sure you must have some evidence for that proposition… and further evidence linking this distinctive difference to the apparently otherwise ungathered data about the racial makeup of the published (and unpublished) SF writer population.

Otherwise you wouldn’t be making such outlandish claims. Nicht wahr?

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That’s putting a bit of a fine point on it. It’s a fairly ordinary claim requiring only ordinary evidence. I don’t run a market research firm, and I never claimed it was more than blue-sky back-of-napkin type thinking. I’m happy to see numbers if they’re out there, though TFA outlines that they’re not. I certainly wasn’t going to find them on my phone at while eating a subway sandwich.

How about this? Tell us what you’re thinking. Crazy idea, I know.

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Is the SF/F short fiction market very big? If not, then the statistics might be unreliable.

I haven’t bought any anthologies or magazines, but I have bought some short stories and novellas on Kindle (they are often a buck or two). I wonder if the self-published market shows similar dismal statistics?

This data is utterly meaningless without being matched against the number of black people who want to be science fiction/fantasy writers. If there are 39 black people who have published such work and there are only 42 black people in the country who want to publish such stories, then they have a helluva success rate.


There was a period of time in the hardcore and new wave scene where if I didn’t see that Steven Barnes had written a book that year then there just wasn’t going to be a black author writing long form sci-fi that year getting major publication.

assuming that submission rates of black authors are equal to the proportion of the black population in the United States

Well there is your problem right there. If you know how many black authors were published, why not work out the percentage by the black authors ACTUALLY SUBMITTED?

There is no reason to assume that the submitted rate is the same as population.


Okay, I’ll take a swing.

I’m willing to accept --on a pretty thin showing, but what the hell, it seems otherwise plausible-- that very few of the recently published SF short story authors also happen to be African-American. As Menotyou points out, we have an utter vacuum of data, anecdotal or otherwise, about how many as yet unpublished African-American short story authors there are that are either writing or, crucially, submitting work for publication. So we don’t even know for sure that able and willing African-American SF short story authors are having a hard time getting into print. We also don’t know for sure that they aren’t.

Where I get off the train is when the switch is jumped on to the siding where not only are African-American SF short story authors’ submissions being rejected by editors disproportionately; the writing itself must contain dog-whistle content or style that is the real reason, the efficient cause, for editors turning it down. Ergo, editors must change their ways (admittedly an unstated conclusion but not a huge stretch, eh?) Altogether too many questions begged in a row for me.

What to do about it? Figure out what is actually going on before diving in to fix it. Hugo will wait, he’s got nowhere else to be.


[…]we ran the data assuming that submission rates of black authors are equal to the proportion of the black population in the United States, which was 13.2% in 2015 (according to Census projections).

This is a big red flag to anyone even vaguely familiar with the demographics of literary-SF fandom and the usual process by which pro writers of SF arise from the ranks of fandom.

Do a Google-Image search for “Worldcon audience” and see how many images you have to go through before you find even one black face — never mind anything resembling “13.2 % of the population.”

There may be no hard data on the percentage of submissions in that group, but a simplifying assumption of “same as US population” is ridiculous on its face, given that there’s plenty of suggestive evidence on which to base a more reasonable estimate — and virtually all of it points to a far, far lower rate.

I’d go so far as to suggest, based on years of attending (and occasionally helping run) literary-SF cons, that the publication rate may very well be about proportional to the submission rate.

That doesn’t seem at all unlikely to me, in fact.

The fact is that the primary source of new literary-SF writers is, and always has been, overwhelmingly white.

You may all argue at length, of course, about why that’s so — honestly, it’s a decades-old discussion topic within fandom itself, with no terribly clear conclusions, aside from “there aren’t any simple answers.”

It appears to be more about cultural differences than about present racism, though of course many cultural differences are shaped by racism both past and present.

(NB: I 'm talking about literary SF fandom here - not media fandom or comics fandom or manga fandom, etc. Yes, there’s tons of overlap, but I’m talking about the audience for literary SF - the people who buy and read the stories that this study focuses on.)


This is offered not as a refutation of the premise of the article, but for anyone who is interested in reading short SF/F stories written by and about racial minorities: I can highly recommend Crossed Genres Publications’ anthology Long Hidden (2014).


As you say, that’s all subtext - which is easy to misread. Sometimes it’s worth signalling that your group may be homogeneous, but that it isn’t like that, if you know what I mean.

I think that reading books by people of a different race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc, can help you to understand their POV a bit better - it’s good to get out of one’s comfort zone on such things, I think. It can open up a new way of understanding the world.

On top of that, POC and women have historically been marginalized in publishing generally speaking, often given genre designations that are meant to push them into a field that has less attention and prestige. That’s a continuing problem, as we’ve seen with major literary prizes, which still skew heavily white and male. I think making the profession of writing more open to people who have been historically excluded from that is a good thing.

As for finding out the back ground, the authors picture is often on their books, on their websites and a host of information is usually found on their wikipedia page. the publisher finds out the background of the author because they have a business relationship with them, have editors work with them, and often meet with them.


Other than the google search image for worldcon audience, I’m wondering where you get this idea? I’m not saying it’s not true or that it is true - but what makes you think this? Personal experience? Assumptions about the make up of the sci-fi audience for literary sci-fi? A study you’ve read?


If there are only 42 black people in the country who want to publish such stories then literary engagement in black US communities is dismally low and that’s arguably an even bigger problem.