Aug 10, 2018 | #Blackspecfic

More Than Numbers

By

Edited by Tanya DePass

Genre fiction’s lack of diversity has never been a secret to those of us with eyes to see and those of us who cared to see a change. By showing us the actual numbers, the 2016 #BlackSpecFic report did something remarkable for genre fiction. First, it proved that the numbers were worse than we ever imagined. Second, it challenged us to make actionable changes to improve those numbers. PodCastle and the entire Escape Artists organization (PodCastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders) has taken that call to action seriously. Escape Artists has created the Lowering the Barriers Group dedicated specifically to doing just that.

As for the efforts of PodCastle, let’s begin by looking at the numbers, shall we? In 2017, PodCastle printed and podcasted about sixty-one stories. Over 8%, or five of those stories, were by black authors. Three of those five stories were reprints and at least two were by newer authors.

Take note that I found one of the stories, not in the PodCastle slush pile, but as a crit offering in a writing group that I belong to. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I begged the author for that story and that it took more than a couple of months to convince the author to allow me to print it.

It is part of my personal stated mission and that of PodCastle, to create opportunities for new and marginalized writers. This is particularly important to me because as someone who is both marginalized and still fairly new to publishing, I know just how difficult it can be to make those initial sales. Certain factors must align. Among them are, of course, an interesting story or premise along with solid writing, an editor willing to take the chance on publishing a new name and voice, but also a willingness to work with that new author to perfect their story into one ready for publication.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but if it were as simple as it sounded, we might not be having this discussion.

Last year the editing team at PodCastle implemented strategies for encouraging more black people and underrepresented writers in general, to submit to PodCastle. These strategies included diversifying the organization and using clear and welcoming language on social media to let folks know that we want to see their submissions. We also changed how we handle submissions once they reach our inbox.

In total we received about 40 fewer total submission in 2017 than in 2016 but, it seemed as if we had far more submissions by black people from the world over. Seemed. There is no real way to determine which of our 1,687 submissions was from a black person or otherwise, and therefore no way to determine how or if our attempts at outreach translate into submissions, and further, how those submissions translate into actual published stories.

We’ve briefly discussed collecting demographic data; if it could be handled in a way that is private and ethical for the sake of the authors, and so that the information is simple for us to collate. We haven’t yet arrived at any conclusions about how to do this, or even if this is something we think is worthwhile. Speaking solely for myself, having never been much of a details person, and being positively crap with numbers, I prefer to continue to work toward our goal by tweaking the system in place until we achieve maximum results.

Maximum results = a stream of great stories by a diverse group of authors so steady and comfortable we don’t have to count the numbers.

We are making progress. By August, PodCastle will have published as many or more stories by black authors as it has in all of 2017. I believe that PodCastle’s efforts on social media and the diverse faces on our website’s Staff page are sending a clear and positive message.

In this short time, PodCastle has come to look forward to Fireside’s #BlackSpecFic report. It is an excellent report card, a gauge to show us how well we are doing, and also how much work we’ve yet to do. We acknowledge that there is.

More than numbers, I would like to discuss the matter of editing. Before becoming co-editor at PodCastle I spent at least two years as an associate editor, first at Escape Pod and then at PodCastle. I know what it’s like to see a slush pile inundated with stories by mostly straight white men. Aside from the talking penis and the rape revenge fantasies (there are more than you would dare to believe), most of the stories that landed in slush were moderately good and status quo. The status quo is like dry toast. It’s only good if you’re nauseous. A handful of the stories were better than good. Less than that were truly memorable. The memorable stories, for what it’s worth, weren’t perfect. Few stories are. But they were usually something special, something brave and daring.

They weren’t status quo. Not dry toast.

A few weeks ago, in a discussion with Troy Wiggins, co-editor of Fiyah Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, he used a phrase, that until that moment, I had never heard or used. It is something that I have always done as an editor who is hungry for stories that are more than the status quo.

Intentional editing.

For our purposes, it means searching for stories in unconventional places, such as crit groups, or by simply asking talented folks to write them. It means finding a story in the slush pile that is memorable, brave or daring, but may otherwise need a little help becoming publication ready. It means being willing, as an editor, to take the time to work with that author to bring an otherwise excellent story to light. It means being just as creative as we expect our writers to be.

This isn’t some novel method of editing. This is what editors do all the time. But when we’re dealing with a different demographic, whose style of storytelling and flair with language may sound and feel different or be intimidating, it’s easier to simply reject and move on to the more conventionally familiar styles and cadences. And familiar authors.

That would also be boring, wouldn’t it?

Worse than boring, it would be frightening, because if art truly is a reflection of the society we live in, and all we can manage to do is recycle the same names and rehash the same tired plots, then perhaps we writer folk and artists aren’t as enlightened as we like to think we are.

What’s next for PodCastle? Using cogent and unequivocal language, we will continue to use social media and our website to encourage submissions from marginalized authors. Diverse first readers are better able to curate diversity in our slush pile. To that end, we will continue to bring aboard associate editors who reflect the society in which we live. And we’ll look forward to seeing how we rate on the next #BlackSpecFic report.

PodCastle will challenge the status quo by continuing to intentionally edit, because we find dry toast boring.

About the author

Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali’s publications include Strange Horizons, Fiyah Magazine, Diabolical Plots and others. Her fiction has been featured in “The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 12” edited by Jonathan Strahan and “The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Three” edited by Neil Clarke. You can hear her narrations at any of the four Escape Artists podcasts, Far Fetched Fables, and Strange Horizons. As co-editor of PodCastle audio magazine, Khaalidah is committed to encouraging more women and POC to submit fantasy stories. Khaalidah is also a proud World Fantasy Award nominee for her work at PodCastle. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to immortality. She can be found online at khaalidah.com.

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