Monday, July 31, 2017

A #BlackSpecFic 2016 Report Response

The numbers are in. In case you haven't checked them out, definitely go and read the report by Cecily Kane over at Fireside Fiction. The response pieces are also amazing and really help to flesh out the issues. In my opinion, it's all required reading if you care at all about speculative short fiction. For what follows here, it's more my own (quite white) opinions and observations on the report and the state of speculative short fiction. Needless to say, the numbers themselves continue to be rather awful, if slightly up from last year. But there's something of a story being told underneath just the numbers, and if anything it makes the report even more worrisome.

The report takes a snapshot of the last two years of original short story publications from 24 different (mostly) pro-paying markets. Abyss and Apex is something of an outlier in that respect in that it pays pro for flash fiction and less for anything longer. Technically The Book Smugglers also falls into this category, though it pays pro to a higher word count. Of perhaps more interest is to look at the age of the publications. Most of these publications, as pro-level markets, have been around a while. But there are some that are on the young side, having launched since the beginning of 2015/late 2014. These include: The Book Smugglers, Mothership Zeta, Shattered Prism, Terraform, and Uncanny. Fireside itself isn't too much older, and Diabolical Plots is another fairly new fiction venue. But let's look first at those first five. Of them, The Book Smugglers has the second least amount of stories out of any publication on the list, and no stories by black writers. Shattered Prism has the least amount of stories, and a fairly good percentage, but really only one story by a black writer. Mothership Zeta has more stories out, and one of the better percentages on the list. Similarly, both Terraform and Uncanny put out a fair amount of stories and maintain a percentage well above the average. So at first blush, the young blood's doing pretty good, yeah?

Okay, so the bad news. Shattered Prism hasn't had an update since last year and looks pretty done (though hey, it could be resurrected). Mothership Zeta is on permanent hiatus. And Terraform hasn't put out new fiction content since March. Taking those three publications out of the mix might not seem like much, but they actually represent ~20% of the stories by black writers over the last two years. Not included on the list was Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, which I imagine would have stacked up pretty well, actually (at least in the context of the looks like they published at least 2 stories by black writers between 2015-2016). They, too, have closed. Given that pretty much all of these publications were pulling the averages up, their loss to the field is more troubling than just losing some quality publications. I don't think this is a fluke, either. The younger publications seem to have more invested in reaching toward justice, perhaps at the expense of solvency, but whatever the reason, there was more reason to trust those publications based on their track record. What remains is...well, even bleaker than what we had a year ago.

But really, probably that's just me doomsinging, right? Well, I want to touch on something else briefly. Of the newer publications, only one averaged publishing over fifty stories a year (Terraform). There are eight other publications that put out at least that much: Analog, Asimov's, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and Nature (Futures). Of those, all but Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Lightspeed have published more than one story by a black writer in the last two years. Only Lightspeed has published more than five. Let that sink in. These are the largest venues by sheer quantity of stories published. And they are among the worst statistically and just numerically. This points to a problem at the heart of speculative short fiction. At the top. So...what?

Well, it's not like the field is doing absolutely nothing about this. But what is it doing? To me, it looks like venues are going a number of routes, but they seem to fall into certain categories. For publications like Fantastic Stories and Apex, there has been a push to include more issues with guest editors. Fireside has also done this. This has certainly helped publications like Lightspeed, and I'm sure that it will help with Apex's numbers come 2017. I often hear that this is Not Good, that special issues are just gimmicks that don't actually help get at the root of the problem. My reaction to that is to say there is likely no better way for entrenched publications to help their numbers than to have a special issue replace a regular issue. Like Apex and Lightspeed, their guest-edited issues were also regular issues. If more publications did likewise, and managed to replace one month (or one issue) of "regular" content with the same amount of guest-edited content, then from a strictly numbers standpoint, there would a huge improvement. Of course, the numbers are very important. "But it doesn't do enough" I hear when this comes up. No, but you know what, it does get people paid. It does give writers publication credits. It does get their stories in front of eyes. It's valid. As someone who has been in a special issue in this sense, it helps.

But what else can publications do? Well, if guest-editors aren't a good option, then bringing on permanent editors who have a better track record of publishing widely would be even better. I'm not going to say it's the only reason for it, but The Dark seems to be publishing a bit more widely since restructuring at the top. There have been editorial shifts at a number of publications, and I'm curious to see what Strange Horizons' numbers will be next year, and Fireside has recently made a shift as well. How those moves will pan out is anyone's guess right now, but changing things at the top seems to have much more an impact than, say, adding first readers. Not that having a representative group of first readers is a bad thing.

The other thing that will be interesting to watch is what new publications crop up to take the place of those that have shuttered. I know that people will point at Fiyah and Anathema (and perhaps Arsenika and Mithila Review) to say that the field is taking steps to change. But...none of those publications will qualify for the report. Having solid semi-pro and token markets is vital, don't get me wrong. Omenana is still going strong, but it doesn't excuse the core, SFWA-qualifying markets and their failure to make progress in this area. Even if the report looks at newer pro-level markets like Gamut, Liminal Stories, Persistent Visions, and Orthogonal (if all of those publications are even around in a year), there's simply no way for a handful of publications putting out 20-40 stories to have enough of an impact on the field to really drive change. Not that even that isn't necessary. But looking to new publications that likely won't last more than a few years to patch the holes in a field where the largest and most secure publications are doing nothing to help is only continuing the marginalization that led to the problem in the first place.

But what can we do? As readers. As fans.

I hesitate to say we need to drop our support of those publications that are awful with their stats. Not, mind you, because I think those publications are doing a good job. But because I know that there are enough people that Do. Not. Care. that if people who cared started dropping their subscriptions, the publications hurt most would likely be those already trying to do better. We'd lose the 4%-6% publications (because they are more vulnerable) while the >2% publications would continue on. The answer to problems is not only to break away and form our own, separate thing. It's part of the answer, certainly. But the other part is to be loud. You know how people are calling and writing in to their politicians? Well, letters to the editor are a long tradition in publishing. Maybe send off a (polite, non-harassing) email asking if the editors have seen the #BlackSpecFic report. Most publications have contact info. Maybe ask if they have strategies for doing better. Maybe ask for them to make a statement. The change, I believe, has to come from within. Which means that those at the top now have to feel the pressure to change. To do better. They have to be told that their readers want more stories by black writers. Because otherwise they can pretend they just didn't know. So take away that willful ignorance. Ask questions. Check to see how the publications allow feedback. Contact them.

Otherwise, do try to support good actors. Do try to reward publications for taking risks and striving to do better. I know that money is not unlimited. It's not the case that we can just grow a better, bigger field out of all that extra cast we just have lying about. We do have to change what's here already, what's entrenched. But we can help publications that are trying to continue their work. So keep informed, and do what you can. Subscribe, or donate to fund raisers, or write reviews, or share links. Try to widen cracks in the walls keeping marginalized writers out of SFF. And listen. The #BlackSpecFic content that Fireside is releasing is a great place to start. But seek out more. Educate yourself. And hopefully we won't be back every year with the same numbers and the same issues.


POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.