SFWA Statement Regarding the Fireside Fiction Company Special Report

by Cat Rambo

SFWAcolorPeople have been asking that SFWA give an official response to the Fireside Report on the scarcity of black authors in science fiction and fantasy as well as say what it is that we’re doing in response.

We’re aware of the report; SFWA board member Justina Ireland was one of the contributors. Here’s her essay. Other SFWA members contributed, including Tobias Buckell and N.K. Jemisin. We have been discussing the report at the board level since the week it appeared and trying to figure out tangible ways SFWA can assist, rather than simply issuing a statement decrying racism.

What we’re doing as a result is to keep offering a lot of the things that we already are while making sure they are reaching black authors, along with stressing some new things.:

  • I’ve been looking at past efforts to make sure that they’ve included black authors. The SFWA Star Project recently supported Blacktastic: A Podcast of Black Scifi and Fantasy Stories and is making an effort to support a wide range of projects. Black writers are appearing on our recommended reading list, award ballots, and grandmaster picks. I’m also reviewing projects like the New Release Newsletter and NetGalley to see if there’re things we can do there.
  • Recent Nebula programming included panels like a celebration of Octavia Butler and panelists across all topics were for the most part diverse, with the slip-ups being noted for future Nebulas. We’re making sure that the folks organizing next year’s Nebula programming keep the needs of black writers in mind. If you have ideas for panels or sessions, please send them to events@sfwa.org.
  • I have been reaching out to some organizations of black writers to make them aware of the SFWA Grants Program and will continue to do so as I run across them.
  • I am working on a piece on how to recruit and train slush readers that will include suggestions about making the slush reader pool diverse as well as aware of non-mainstream voices.
  • The events team is looking to expand SFWA’s presence at events like the State of Black Science Fiction Conference. If you know of events that we should have a presence at, please let us know. We are especially interested in places that members will already be at, so we can use them to represent SFWA.
  • The SFWA booth at Baltimore Book Festival has our handouts, put together last year by the Diversity Outreach Committee, with lists of writers of color. They’ll be available at other SFWA book festival presences. I’d like to do more projects like this; if you’re interested in helping, drop me a line. Director Sarah Pinsker has been working hard to make sure that the SFWA presence in Baltimore has some black writers there as well as other writers of color, QUILTBAG authors, etc.
  • Terra LeMay suggested a partnership with Carl Brandon or Con or Bust to provide Nebula conference memberships to some black writers. This seems like a great idea to me and we are pushing forward on it.
Some stuff I’d like to see SFWA do within the next year:
  • Better analysis of the breakdown of the SFWA Recommended reading list and award ballots that allows us to figure out how to make sure representation is more accurate than elsewhere in the field.
  • The SFWA Chat Hour, our video cast, featuring black science fiction writers talking about the state of science fiction. There it’s something that depends either on someone else taking the coordination over or waiting for me to have the bandwidth for it.
  • Outreach to publishing houses specializing in black writers in order to make sure SFWA members have a chance to read their offerings when nominating for the reading list and the awards.

We welcome other suggestions of tangible, helpful things that SFWA can accomplish. Since the 2016-2017 budget has already been approved, we are limited in our ability to financially support projects at the moment, but we will be factoring this into the 2017-18 budget. I will point out as well that SFWA has limited resources and depends of volunteers; if you want to see SFWA undertake a project, your best bet may well be to join the organization and start pushing it yourself.

–Cat Rambo, SFWA President

28 Responses

  1. Rose Fox

    I’m glad to see SFWA paying attention, but you may want to reread the report. Black authors are being shut out from publication in SFWA-qualifying venues. That means they can’t join SFWA and volunteer, and they’re not going to be on your lists of black authors. The people your efforts are helping are those who have already beaten the odds. That does nothing to make the odds better.

    Training slush readers is useful but not enough. Publishers need to hire black editors. Editors need to buy stories from black authors. SFWA needs to acknowledge that the organization and its members are suffering because a great many talented authors are being excluded by the SFWA-qualifying venues that act as gatekeepers of SFWA membership, and needs to lean pretty strongly on those venues until they stop shutting out people who could and should be embraced by the SF/F writing and publishing communities.

    1. M.C.A. Hogarth

      I think it is important to note that SFWA-qualifying venues are no longer the only gatekeepers of SFWA membership, and this is one of the many reasons we’ve been working to expand the options available to authors who want to join.

      1. Rose Fox

        That’s an excellent point, and I’m really glad those options are there! But I think it’s important that black authors have just as many opportunities to qualify for membership as non-black authors, which currently isn’t the case.

        1. M.C.A. Hogarth

          What SFWA can do in order to address those remaining opportunities, understanding that we are not a union, and have no direct power over the actions of people outside our organization?

    2. Oz Drummond

      Rose, SFWA’s lists at BBF and other venues such as ALA aren’t restricted to SFWA members. As a 501(c)(3), SFWA now works to promote all genre writers, whether or not they are members. The lists Cat refers to are meant to raise awareness across the spectrum of genre writers, not just writers who have ‘beaten the odds’ in order to qualify for membership.

      1. Rose Fox

        But they have beaten the odds in the sense of already being published, whereas the report emphasizes the extent to which authors are being blocked from breaking in at all. Promoting writers who are already published is great, but to me it feels distinct from what the report is talking about, and since this post is in response to the report I would like to see that aspect addressed.

        1. Cat Rambo

          Do you feel that those lists also encourage the new writers, by showing that there are works by black writers, featuring black protagonists? That’s part of their purpose, to my mind.

    3. Steve McGrew

      How would an editor know what race an author is? I’m sure there’s a deficit of black SF authors because there’s a severe shortage of black SF fans, I was at this year’s Worldcon, and it was as white as a Trump rally. Out of the thousands of people there I saw no more than a half a dozen blacks.

      The question should be, how do we attract black folks to our genre?

      1. John Johnston

        I’m a geologist, and there is a dearth of black geologists. This is in spite of equal opportunity, available scholarships, no discernible racism in the field, and individual encouragement, and the only conclusion we have been able to draw as a profession is that a career in geology is a choice that blacks are not making. This was personally reinforced for me when I taught petroleum engineering at LSU and had a very proportional number of black PetE students. Upon being asked why they hadn’t majored in geology, the most common response of my black PetE students was “Why would I do that?”

        I have also noted the, well, non-blackness of SF conventions. No SF convention I have ever attended in Baton Rouge or New Orleans, both of them cities with very significant black populations, have ever had more than a handful of black attendees. Again, this is likely to be a choice, as the cons were open to all and wanted as many attendees as possible. In addition, they were all promoted by the public libraries, so any young reader should have been aware of them.

        So what we’re seeing here may not involve any racism at all, but just the consequences of choices. Given that every publisher I have ever dealt with would snap up any story or novel that would make them money, even if it had been written by extraterrestrials, and that the Internet makes racism far more difficult – if not impossible – today, several choice-related scenarios come to mind:

        1. The shortage of black fans at cons is very likely a reflection of conscious choice.

        2. Given that many young authors develop from fans, blacks may not have a sufficiently-sized fan “farm team” to develop “major league” authors from.

        3. I have yet to see any efforts at encouraging black SF&F writers, per se, yield significant results.

        As a result, I have a counter-proposal: let’s work bottom-up instead of top-down. I think we should focus more on getting far more young blacks interested in SF&F and into fandom, and let time and nature take its course.

  2. Cat Rambo

    Almost every item on my list — the SFWA Star Project, the Recommended Reading List, Nebula programming, the SFWA Grants program, the handouts at book fairs and festivals, — is aimed at black F&SF writers at large, not just the ones that are SFWA members.

    When you say we should be working on SFWA markets to comply, do you have a structure for that in mind? I don’t have a clue what that would look like, nor does it seem like an easy effort to put together with volunteers. To me it sounds like a major effort that we don’t have the financial or volunteer resources for, which is why I have stressed the things that we can actually do or are already doing and can make more effective.

    1. Rose Fox

      I was thinking of some sort of open letter from SFWA’s board, to start with. “Dear SFWA qualifying venues: we want to bring this report to your attention and urge you to change how you do things. Here’s why this is important to us as an organization and a community.” It’s free, other than the effort of getting the board to all agree on something, and that sort of visible leadership can be very powerful both because it encourages the publications to ship and because it tells authors that you want them to feel welcome.

      The obvious next step would be polling black authors about their experiences. Conveniently, Fiyah is already doing this, so it costs SFWA nothing (though if there’s a penny to spare, you could donate toward their data processing costs); once their results are out, you could give them a promotional boost and strongly encourage publishers to pay attention to the best practices that emerge from that survey.

      What efforts are you thinking of that would be so expensive? It would be nice to get the pie-in-the-sky concepts out for discussion; maybe someone will have a suggestion about how to make them more feasible.

      1. K. Tempest Bradford

        I’m having real trouble grokking the efficacy of the steps you outline.

        SFWA could send a letter to all the markets indicating that the problem of Black authors being shut out of SFF publishing is a problem, but I do not see how that would lead to said markets hiring Black editors. SFWA has no power to force such a change. And simply stating “This is why it would be good” is all fine, but I don’t see it as being more effective than this post, for instance, or the slush reader training piece Cat mentioned. The latter two things make the same point: this is a problem and it needs fixing.

        It seems that what you want is for SFWA to influence SFWA qualifying markets. Does SFWA have the power to have that kind of influence on qualifying markets? I know that SFWA’s decisions can have some impact — such as with pay rates. That seems very different from influencing hiring practices.

        I admit, I don’t know about all the ways SFWA works and what it, as an organization, can do.

  3. Cat Rambo

    And I do agree that magazines should be hiring black editors and other editors of color, including the review magazines. What’s the breakdown like at Publishers Weekly?

    1. K. Tempest Bradford

      I’d love to know the answer to this as well. Because, as has been pointed out, the problem is not just in one quarter.

      Yes, there need to be more Black editors. There also need to be more Black people reviewing for the major review outlets that have huge impact on sales and on the industry. Those same review outlets also need to ensure that they’re getting in and putting SFF written by Black folks on the list of reviews, perhaps in a more conscious way.

      Outlets that do spotlights, profiles, interviews, and other non-review but review-related content need to have editors that ensure Black authors as well as other authors of color get on the roster for these and that there is an editor who will be able to edit such content conscientiously.

      There are many spokes to this wheel.

  4. K. Tempest Bradford

    One other thing I would suggest regarding financial assistance: a fund for SFWA membership dues. This would be particularly useful at the Associate and Affiliate levels as it would give Black writers access to some of the networking that often leads to professional sales. It does still mean having one sale or a professional affiliation, and thus will still be a barrier for some. It does widen the door more, which makes it worth doing.

    1. Cat Rambo

      We do have such a fund for people who can’t cover their dues. We’ve also tried to figure out a way for people to exchange writing a couple of blog posts for the SFWA blog for membership, because we’ve found many people are very reluctant to take advantage of the first but happy to do the second.

    2. Richard Thomas

      Great idea about the scholarships. We are setting up TWO for Gamut for next year (one MFA and one non-MFA) and there’s no reason we couldn’t set aside some additional money specifically for black writers and SFWA/HWA memberships. I’d be happy to do that. I just found FIYAH, am following them on Twitter/FB, and am already T/RT them, setting up a dialogue. I’ve encouraged them (and other groups, speculative POC and VIDA, etc.) to submit to us, and we’re trying to expand our awareness, as well as let everyone know we’re looking for diversity in our fiction. We re-open to submissions Oct 1, as we hit our 300 max mark for Sept 1, 14 hours after opening. Lots of good ideas on this page—Cat, KTB, Rose, et al. Also, I hope FIYAH will share what they find out with their survey so we can all improve.

      1. FIYAH

        We’ll be releasing a report on the BSF Writer Survey first quarter 2017. In the interim, any market taking steps to increase their accessibility to Black authors following the Fireside report is invited to let us know how they’re doing it. This is information we would like to include in our report. You can email bsfreport [at] fiyahlitmag.com.

  5. steve davidson

    One potential fast track way to “bring black editors into the field” would be to work with an existing black-oriented SF magazine.

    The BSFA pubishes Genesis http://www.genesissciencefictionmagazine.com/about/4587691532 (which may be in temporary hiatus based on cover dates) – but – it has the benefit of an existing staff that apparently knows the black science fiction field very well.

    Someone from SFWA might do some outreach to determine what, if anything, might be done to elevate that (or other existing efforts) to a qualifying market status.

    As stated by others earlier, it would be difficult for SFWA to get an existing publication to hire representative authors – most are, I suspect, not financially robust enough to add additional paid staff, and probably reluctant for a variety of reasons to replace existing staff.

    That leaves existing unqualifying markets or newly minted efforts (more expensive) as the fastest path to creating black/POC representation at the editorship level.

  6. Jennifer Marie Brissett

    I’ve been struggling to figure out what to say to this. The assumption that financial assistance to black writers will bring black writers into markets that actively discriminate seems to me misses the whole point. There are talented writers who do not want or need assistance, but only the same opportunities as everyone else. (and frankly I find it a bit insulting to assume otherwise.) Why is it so hard to place a statement that to be a SFWA approved market one must not activity discriminate based on race?

  7. Eileen Gunn

    Cat, I think it would be useful if SFWA could see this, not as a fairness issue or a social issue, but as an issue vital to SFWA’s survival in the future. If SFWA is unresponsive to the needs of black/POC writers and the existence black/POC publishers, it will become increasingly irrelevant to the direction of SF and fantasy publishing and to the changing demographic of the US. I’m traveling right now, and it’s difficult for me to write here at any length, but I do want to make this part of the discussion: it is in SFWA’s own interest to be part of this. Thanks for your involvement & interest in this.

    1. Cat Rambo

      Eileen, I do believe this is an issue vital to SFWA’s survival in the future. Is there a part of my post that implies otherwise?

      People interested in shaping this effort can help SFWA do it in two ways. One, you can volunteer by mailing volunteer@sfwa.org. We -do- have plenty of opportunities.

      Or you can donate to the organization financially so we can expand our programs. If you want to earmark your donation for a specific purpose, that’s fine. Your donation is tax-deductible and you will receive both a receipt and our thanks.

      Either way, I hope SFWA members will access the discussion forums in order to contribute to and stay abreast of the conversation.

  8. Eileen Gunn

    To the moderator or sysop: I believe Jenn Brisette posted a message to this topic before me, but I don’t see it here. Would you please check to see it it is caught in a filter somewhere? Thanks!

    1. Editor Post author

      Hi Eileen. Most comments are held for moderation unless there is a track record of approval. Sometimes it might take a day. Most times, it takes a few hours. -Todd Vandemark, Ed.

      1. Eileen Gunn

        Thanks, Todd. I see Jenn’s message is there now. I was unaware that it was her first time posting, but now I remember that hey-where-did-my-post-go feeling from the first time I posted.