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Science fiction publishing has a major race problem, new report shows

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More than half of all science fiction magazines failed to publish fiction from black authors in 2015

Galen Dara

Speculative fiction magazine Fireside Fiction has commissioned and released a report detailing an unwelcome revelation: speculative fiction magazines and online fiction sites are failing to publish stories by black writers.

Of the 2,039 short stories published in 2015, only 38 were published by black authors

Released last week, the report is damning: of the 2,039 short stories published last year across 63 magazines, only 38 were published by black authors. Cecily Kane, who authored the report along with Weston Allen, compiled the statistics that they worked from. While they admit that their methodology has some flaws — they largely worked from self-reported information from the magazines — they believe that the data is largely correct after consulting with an actuary. Sixty percent of the magazines listed had not published a single story by a black science fiction author in 2015, while the highest publication percentage is only 25 percent. The report compared these numbers against the US census, and found that there's a wide gap between the population and those being published. Fireside Fiction notes that the possibility for this to be random chance is smaller than that of winning the New Jersey Pick Six Lottery.

While science fiction can be found across novels, television, and film, the short fiction market is a particularly important marketplace to consider. It publishes a relatively high level of content, and allows newer authors to break into the field with their own fiction. Successful authors such as Ken Liu, N.K. Jemisin, Charlie Jane Anders, and Paolo Bacigalupi each got their start writing shorter stories for a variety of magazines, which helped them as they began writing novels. Short fiction also allows authors to experiment with form, style, and narratives which can have great impact on the field as a whole. Barriers for specific groups of people hurts the field as a whole by blocking new voices and styles from reaching a wider audience.

Fireside’s study focused specifically on black science authors, rather than the wider spectrum of authors of color. Kane noted, "We noticed several patterns — not limited to the short fiction field — in which "diversity" initiatives excluded black people and hid antiblackness."

"Write what the market wants" is code for white characters and stories

In his editorial, Fireside Fiction Company owner and editor Brian White points to a systematic structure of racial discrimination that has been built into the science fiction publishing community. Authors leave the field due to the lack of opportunities, while "subtle biases" contribute on a wide scale. "The advice to write "what the market wants" is code for white characters and white stories. The opportunities to network, like six-week writing workshops or weeklong conventions, are really only open to those with the means to miss work."

The report also included an interview with author N.K. Jemisin, author of The Fifth Season and forthcoming Obelisk Gate, who noted that some authors that might have otherwise published through traditional markets have found other outlets for their work. "There’s a gigantic market of self-published and small press published black fiction that kind of eschews the whole traditional published market simply because back in the nineties when all of this really kind of kicked off ... the traditional publishing industry basically treated black writers as if they were anomalies."

Furthermore, the authors of the essays point to specific problems that authors routinely face while trying to publish their stories, such as being published only in specific volumes devoted to race, contending with the biases of editors, and so forth.

White noted that the report wasn't intended to point to magazines and expose an issue. He wanted to point to the larger issue of the entire industry as a whole. For his part, he noted that his own magazine was part of the problem: in 2015 only 9.4 percent of their authors were black, and thus far in 2016, they hadn’t published a single black author.

Fundamentally, genre publishing world has a demonstrable track record of under-publishing black science fiction authors

Fundamentally, the genre publishing world — even amongst publications that have set out to be inclusive — has a demonstrable track record of under-publishing black science fiction authors, who have gone out to establish their own outlets and means to get their stories out. Justina Ireland noted that the solution is simple: "Acquire short fiction by black authors, especially fiction that challenges your comfort." Taking active steps to ensure that black authors are included would be a positive first step toward making sure that the magazine market gets to a point where their portfolio of authors matches that of the country’s demographics.

White noted that he wasn’t sure if Fireside would be able to publish a follow-up report. "It's definitely an issue we want to continue to talk about. I am not sure if we will do a full follow-up by reviewing all of 2016 but we will be pursuing the issue as much as we can."